Tanya M. Odom: Election 2016 has taken a toll on America with its offensive rhetoric
More employers need to start having conversations about racism awareness, she writes
Editor’s Note: Tanya M. Odom, a global education consultant, works with corporations, schools, NGOs and local communities as a leadership coach on civil and human rights, global diversity and inclusion. The opinions expressed in this commentary are hers.
As we count down the hours until Election Day, many of us begin to wonder how we will put the pieces back together and move forward as one country with many voices, faces, and legacies.
Some may dismiss the figures of speech used by candidates in this presidential election as common “political tropes.” But others of us see incredibly tainted and damaging language in speeches and debates, filled with both coded and blatant references to race, stereotypes of communities of color, immigrant scapegoating and divisive suggestions of isolation, barriers, and “otherness.”
In describing the current election’s climate, people have used language like “corrosive,” “unhinged,” and “unearthed” as some of the ways in which we have seen civility and empathy disappear.
What many of us do agree on is that things have changed. The discourse has changed, our trust in others has changed, and many people are grappling with how to have difficult conversations about what Dr. Robin DiAngelo has called the most nuanced and complex topic of race and identity.
Eric Liu recently wrote in the Atlantic, “Whatever the outcome on Election Day, more than 40 percent of American voters will feel despondent, disgusted, and betrayed. Which is why all across the country there are citizen-led efforts underway to heal the divides created by the presidential election, to repair the social fabric, to restore trust and civility.”
We will need to be intentional in how we move forward after November 8, and how we address issues of race, power, and the impact of race/racism in our cities, schools and workplaces.
As professor Khalil Gibran Mohammed of the Harvard Kennedy School has said, “there is no expiration date on understanding our racial history. It will always be with us.”
Talking about race in the workplace
Talking about race in the U.S. has never been easy, and is often viewed as divisive. Our complicated, painful, and often undiscussed history around race has created barriers to authentic conversations.
Even more difficult for some is the idea of talking about race in the workplace.
The vitriol and bigotry that have become a part of the presidential election campaign has had a documented impact on schools. Why would we think that it has not impacted us as adults, or our workplaces?
In many ways, it appears that educational institutions have moved ahead of companies and organizations in how they are helping students unpack what they are hearing. Discussions help students address their potential biases and understand concepts of power, privilege, access, history, systemic racism and civil discourse.
Perhaps we can learn something from these classroom lessons.
Recent tragedies in our country, coupled with a presidential election where language of implicit bias, race, and racism are frequent, have raised the need for companies to move beyond a narrative of colorblindness, “post-racial” confusion, and silence.
“Tolerance is for cowards” was the phrase Randall Stephenson, AT&T’s CEO, recently used when talking about the need for real dialogue on race relations.
A video of Stephenson calling for a dialogue on race has been shared widely via social media. It is another recent and important example of how we can talk about race in the workplace – and the need to do more. (Editor’s note: CNN’s parent company, Time Warner, has reached an agreement to be acquired by AT&T.)
There is not an impenetrable wall that keeps race-related issues out of the workplace.
July 2016 was a time in our current history where the realities of race and racism have been a catalyst for dialogue in many workplaces around the country.
These events, followed by the tragic killing of two Dallas police officers, highlighted systemic tensions, challenges, biases, and need for action that many have not wanted to see.
A CBS/NYTimes poll taken right after the incidents in July showed America’s race relations to be at a low point.
A deeper conversation
Many workplaces struggled with crafting messages that would be “fair” and responsive to the many feelings and concerns that were present. Many chief diversity officers came together to share strategies for how they were working towards continued dialogue and action.
Many organizations realized that they lacked the awareness, language, and skills needed to have an honest conversation about race in the United States and in the workplace.
Many companies did find ways to respond constructively and dedicate time and space for honest conversations. Some held dialogues; some organized roundtables with their CEO; and some organizations provided counselors on site for employees.
There are countless stories that did not make the news of good leaders who set aside meeting agendas to allow space for people to talk about how they were feeling.
For organizations that had not discussed or acknowledged racial issues, or the impact of societal events on employees and the workplace, the events in July provided a catalyst that challenged assumptions of knowledge, comfort, and awareness.
True conversations about race in the workplace would mean that we would need to discuss systemic issues of access, sponsorship, and more. It would require more engaged and nuanced conversations that move beyond the popular (and yet important) “unconscious bias/implicit bias” awareness to conversations that that address intersectionality, history, and power, with a goal of action, movement, and change.
This is part of the deeper conversation that needs to take place. A recent Harvard Business Review article, “We Just Can’t Handle Diversity,” explored some of our challenges with diversity and stated that awareness of systems is part of our challenge with diversity: “If those in power think this world is basically fair and just, they won’t even recognize – much less worry about – systemic unfairness.”
Not talking about race has prevented many employees in organizations from connecting, understanding each other, and learning more about how we can in fact truthfully address the impact of race in our schools, communities, and workplaces.
My hope is that we are slowly moving towards healthier, bolder, and honest dialogue – one that cannot just happen after a tragedy or big news story.
We cannot undo what we have seen and heard in our history and in the last couple of months. But most importantly we can acknowledge that biased statements and continued tragedies will not go away, and that we do indeed bring our fears and biases into the workplace.
As we elect a new president and work to move forward, we cannot mute the conversation about race and identity.