At 21, I landed a fellowship that I thought would change my life. It was a small group of us. I wasn’t the only Black person but I was the only Black woman, and throughout my experience, I began to feel isolated. There was the occasional unwelcome touch of my natural hair, a flippant comment about my braids, and even blatant denunciation of Black culture. It was an experience that is familiar to so many people: everyday microaggressions showing up at work.
The energy I would exert explaining why these things were harmful made it feel like I was trying to demonstrate the worth of Black life every day. It was exhausting. One of the worst parts was being met with skepticism and resistance when I would explain to coworkers how certain actions were not only professionally inappropriate but were also means of perpetuating racism. I remember regularly calling my friends after work and talking about our shared experiences across different sectors of the work world.
Toward the end of my fellowship, one of my coworkers made a remark about whipping my back. This person who repeatedly said he was not racist, who claimed that we lived in a post-racial society, who regularly engaged in microaggressions, was caught saying something that was blatantly racist. There was no room for interpretation. He made an awful joke about whipping me, and for some reason, I was surprised.
When he said it, the room fell quiet. Though I set him straight, I couldn’t help but feel the discomfort of my co-workers. Not only was I humiliated, I also had to carry the weight of what everyone else in the room was feeling. Even though he created the uncomfortable situation, it became mine to diffuse. I ended up leaving that job, and I am glad I did. But what is that employer losing out on by not proactively addressing this issue and losing people like me? How many other people have left jobs because they were made uncomfortable? Because their worth wasn’t valued? Because they didn’t feel safe, seen, or supported?
The manifestations of racism described above not only perpetuate white supremacy and cause irrevocable damage to employees who look like me—racism at work is bad for employers, too. These experiences prevent us from doing our jobs effectively. They make us feel unsafe at work. They affect our productivity. And, ultimately, they create a toxic company culture that can push so many talented people out, reduce employee retention, and cause employers to lose the benefits of having employees with diverse perspectives and experiences. It is time employers take meaningful action to ensure that racist behaviors are not tolerated.
First and foremost, employers should make anti-racism an explicit and uncompromising priority. Employers can signal the importance and value of Black employees and employees of color by embedding anti-racist and inclusive principles within internal documents and policies. From core values to mission statements to employee handbooks—there are plenty of opportunities to demonstrate a commitment to these values that should be non-negotiable.
If the first step is making anti-racism an explicit priority, the next step is taking action to ensure accountability. It is an important first step to officially acknowledge the values of diversity, equity, inclusion, and belonging, but it is just that—a first step. Below are some tangible actions employers can take to reflect these values:
- Make diversity, equity, and inclusion (DEI) or anti-racism training mandatory for every employee in every workplace. Many companies have expressed a commitment to DEI and/or anti-racism, but does everyone in the company understand what that really entails? It means more than hiring diverse bodies—it means instilling a company culture that is respectful of the identities and ideas of each and every person. To do that, every person must be informed and committed. It should not be possible to opt-out.
- Ensure DEI or anti-racism trainings involve examining the company or institution’s history and the ways in which the company has fallen short in the past or present—perhaps discussing incidents that have happened and ways in which the company can do more to promote safety in the workspace.
- Enforce a zero-tolerance policy with regards to racism. Those who do not uphold the standards set out in the training and/or the values articulated in employer materials should not be a part of the organization. You cannot be an equitable institution and tolerate racist or white supremacist behavior.
It is the job of employers to both communicate their commitment to anti-racism and to follow through on that commitment by creating a safe working environment for everyone. I implore each and every employer to examine where you can do better, not just in terms of anti-racism, but also in doing your part to dismantle ableism, transphobia, classism, homophobia, xenophobia, and other forms of oppression that show up in the workplace.
We all deserve to feel safe and respected in our workspace. And employers, it is your job to make that happen.