When it comes to well-intentioned but awkward conversations about race and culture in the workplace, March of Dimes Chief People Officer Darlene Slaughter has “heard it all”.
Slaughter – a thought leader in the growing field of corporate inclusion and a former diversity officer at United Way Worldwide, the globe’s largest privately-funded nonprofit – now oversees diversity, equity and inclusion at one of the largest United States nonprofits focusing on the health of mothers and babies.
To illustrate the minefield of navigating workplace discussions about race, Slaughter raises one of the most common, well-intentioned comments she hears.
“There’s always a person that raises their hand at workshops and says, ‘I don’t see colour.’ Well, I don’t necessarily believe that. So now I have a trust issue with you,” Slaughter told Al Jazeera.
“If I ask you what am I wearing, you certainly can see the colour of my clothes. So, what I need for you to understand is that as a black woman, you can see my colour, and you can say that you see my colour, because it shapes the life experiences that I’ve had,” she said.
“If you don’t see that, then guess what? You don’t engage me in a conversation, because you think my life is just like yours. It’s not.”
The business case for racial and cultural sensibility
Regardless of whether people agree with the way Slaughter experiences and explains “not seeing colour”, employers and employees around the world are struggling with similar misunderstandings. And studies show it can negatively impact worker productivity and even corporate bottom lines.
In the United Kingdom, a 2018 survey by the Chartered Institute of Personnel and Development, an association for human resources professionals, found that black, Asian, and minority ethnic groups are significantly more likely than their white British counterparts to say that they need to change aspects of their behavior to fit in. This is especially true of those from Indian, Pakistani, or Bangladeshi backgrounds.
Across the pond, a 2017 study by the US-based Center for Talent Innovation determined that more than a third of black and Asian workers surveyed don’t feel their workplace is conducive to conversations about race. Less than a third of Latino and white workers felt the same way.