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Race is hard to talk about at work — here's how to make it easier

These approaches and resources will help you have more effective conversations that foster diversity, equity and inclusion in the office

Aug 4, 2018 @ 6:00 am

By Phuong Luong

I'm Asian-American and grew up in a racially diverse city, but this doesn't mean I've always understood what race was or how to talk about it.

During my first career as a public school teacher, the impact of racism, housing segregation and economic inequality on my students' academic achievement forced me to grapple with my racial identity and learn how the United States has been shaped by racial rhetoric and racism. I know now that if I don't actively work against racism as a financial planner and educator, I'm perpetuating it.

Race is hard to talk about. But working toward diversity, equity and inclusion at work requires honest and open conversations about race and racism. Here are some strategies I use to make conversations about race more informed, meaningful and authentic.

UNDERSTAND YOUR GOAL

You might want to retain people of color in your company, improve business performance or connect more deeply with others. For generations, government policies have segregated people geographically, educationally, personally, professionally and financially based on race. The concept of race is a tool of social division and the consequences of racism on people of color harm everyone, leading to negative environmental outcomes, lower wages and the highest rates of incarceration in the world. Ultimately, being able to talk about race is a necessary step to understanding how to achieve justice. I hope you also consider this an ongoing commitment.

EDUCATE YOURSELF

Before you can talk about race, you have to understand what it is. So, before jumping into conversations, give yourself space to learn. Two books that have been incredibly helpful to me are "Why Are All the Black Kids Sitting Together in the Cafeteria" by Beverly Daniel Tatum (1997, Hachette Book Group) and "So You Want to Talk About Race" by Ijeoma Oluo (2018, Hachette Book Group). Similarly, "Race: The Power of an Illusion" is an excellent documentary series. The best book I've read on how racism has shaped our financial system is "The Color of Money" by Mehrsa Baradaran. These resources provide a foundational understanding of race, racism and the experiences of people of color, but they're just a start.

IDENTIFY AND EXPLORE YOUR OWN IDENTITY(IES)

As Toni Morrison said, "In this country, American means white. Everybody else has to hyphenate." In order to talk about race in an informed and productive way, we need to explore our own racialized identities. Race is strongly tied to our sense of self, and learning about it may challenge deeply held beliefs about who we are. Feeling vulnerable, angry and defensive is normal. I recommend keeping a journal and jotting down questions to help you reflect. Some resources are the podcast "Understanding Racial-Ethnic Identity Development" with Sandra "Chap" Chapman, the paper "White Privilege: Unpacking the Invisible Knapsack" by Peggy Mcintosh and the speech "On White Privilege" by Tim Wise.

KNOW THE DIFFERENCE BETWEEN INTERPERSONAL AND INSTITUTIONAL RACISM

While interpersonal racism refers to interactions between individuals, institutional racism is ingrained in society. An example of interpersonal racism is when a colleague once called me a "kung fu master" in front of a potential hire. This was intended to be a compliment, but reduced my professional achievements to an Asian stereotype and distracted me from my work. An example of institutional racism is widespread hiring discrimination against black and Latin Americans. There is a time and a place for both conversations, so determine your intent to create meaningful change. 2050 TrailBlazers is a podcast that digs into these topics and more, with lessons applicable throughout financial services. If you're ready to tackle institutional racism in your company, you might also consider trainings by Race Forward.

UNDERSTAND INTERSECTIONALITY

Our identity is multifaceted and fluid, with varying levels of privilege and access based on overlapping identities. Discussing racism does not deny the existence or harms of classism, sexism, homophobia, transphobia, ableism and other forms of oppression. Financial planner Kathleen Boyd has written an excellent article on this topic titled "Using Critical Race Theory to Solve Our Profession's Critical Race Issues."

APPRECIATE WHEN NOT TO TALK ABOUT RACE

I recommend not asking your colleagues who identify as people of color to educate you about race, unless a colleague brings up the topic or is in an explicit "diversity" role at work. There can be professional consequences for discussing race at work; many people of color know this so avoid discussing race with coworkers, and if they are forced to, may not be able to engage honestly or fully. The emotional labor required for people of color to engage in these conversations cannot be overlooked and needs to be respected.

The road to true diversity, equity and inclusion will be long and difficult because the issues that have caused our disparities have existed for generations. The journey may seem daunting, but you are not alone. Continue to grow, know you will make missteps, apologize and move on, and listen to people of color.

Phuong Luong is a financial planner and founder of Just Wealth.

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