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Sibby Anderson-Thompkins, PhD, special adviser to the chancellor and provost for equity and inclusion and interim chief diversity officer, and Dawn Osborne-Adams, Director of the UNC-Chapel Hll Omsbuds Office, offer advice on how to talk about race in the workplace.

The death of George Floyd and resulting Black Lives Matter demonstrations are intensifying conversations about institutional racism across the country, including at Carolina. Race is a topic that many have been reluctant to address, especially at work, so this recognition of the conversation’s importance is encouraging, experts say.

“I would challenge anyone who thinks this is someone else’s issue,” said Sibby Anderson-Thompkins, PhD, special adviser to the chancellor and provost for equity and inclusion and interim chief diversity officer. “This is an issue that is relevant to us all.”

While campus groups have already sponsored several town hall meetings on race, drawing hundreds of participants to wide-ranging online discussions, the most meaningful conversations will be much smaller, said University Ombuds Dawn Osborne-Adams. But ill-planned or ill-executed talks can do more harm than good.

“Good intentions are not enough,” Osborne-Adams said. “We’re trying to introduce an intensely personal conversation into a work environment. That’s the tightrope everyone is walking.”

Anderson-Thompkins, who recently established and chairs the University Diversity, Equity and Inclusion Council, and Osborne-Adams, who serves as an ex-officio council member, offered some tips for individuals who want to navigate conversations responsibly and sensitively.

Do a climate check

Spontaneity is not a virtue in hosting talks about race. Talks that are thoughtfully planned and prepared will be much more successful. Early on, the organizer should check in privately with colleagues of color to assess their comfort level with this type of talk. There are many reasons, from issue fatigue to trauma, for not wanting to participate.

If colleagues of color don’t want to participate, or if there are no persons of color in the department, that doesn’t mean the conversation shouldn’t happen. The issue of institutional racism is still an important topic to discuss, especially now.

Take an honest appraisal of the office climate. What’s the level of trust among co-workers? What’s the level of self-awareness? How willing are they to participate? Attendance should be encouraged but not required. A coerced conversation won’t work.

“It’s important to be honest,” Anderson-Thompkins said of assessing readiness for the talk. “You don’t have to be an expert on the issues, but you do have to recognize your own limitations and also recognize the need for you to educate yourself.”

Some campus organizations have taken specialized training together, such as through the Racial Equity Insitute, in preparation for these conversations, said Anderson-Thompkins, adding that the University Office for Diversity and Inclusion will ramp up its training offerings this fall.

Have the talk, even if it’s remotely

With so many employees working from home because of COVID-19, a conversation may need to be scheduled for a Zoom call. And that’s all right.

“Actually, they have gone very well,” said Osborne-Adams, who has already facilitated some online conversations. She advised keeping the group fairly small, so participants can see each other. While it may be harder to read the subtleties of facial expressions and body language remotely, a virtual conversation offers certain advantages, like the safety of being in a private space.

Have a purpose

Be clear and realistic about the purpose of the meeting from the start. Is it for education and awareness? Is it to share personal experiences and develop empathy? Is it to discuss diversity, implicit bias or the role of allies? These could all be good reasons to have a conversation. Solving America’s 400 years of institutional racism in one conversation is not realistic.

“This is not a technical problem to be solved. You’ve been successful, in part, if at the end you’ve left the door open to continue talking. That itself is a success,” Osborne-Adams said.

Encourage participants to prepare, either with some general research or by checking out a particular item (book, article, movie, podcast) that the group will discuss. The University Office for Diversity and Inclusion has a lengthy list of resources on its website, including:

  • “Staying with Conflict: A Strategic Approach to Ongoing Disputes,” by Bernard Mayer. Instead of focusing on resolving the problem, this book advises, focus on how to to engage with an issue over time.
  • “White Privilege: Unpacking the Invisible Knapsack,” by Peggy McIntosh. Written in 1989, this essay is still one of the most cited on the topic and is a particularly good choice for an all-white discussion group.
  • “13th” directed by Ava DuVernay. This 2016 documentary about the 13th Amendment and the plantation-to-prison pipeline is part of the Black Lives Matter collection now streaming on Netflix.
  • “The Spirit Catches You and You Fall Down” by Anne Fadiman. This story about cultural conflict — this one between a Hmong family and American doctors — “comes in sideways” to issues of institutional racism, Osborne-Adams said

Get outside help

The group’s supervisor should not lead its discussion.

“In taking on a facilitator role, leaders remove themselves from an important participant role. You can’t be both a participant in the dynamic and the facilitator at the same time,” Osborne-Adams said.

“It’s often helpful to get a third party,” Anderson-Thompkins said. “We have created a speakers’ bureau and a list of facilitators” to moderate these conversations.

Set some ground rules

Remember this kind of conversation is part of the workplace and subject to University rules and policies. This is particularly important if any participants have been designated Responsible Employees, who must report any harassment, discrimination or other misbehavior that has been disclosed to them to the Equal Opportunity and Compliance Office.

If employees are not prepared for that to happen, they should not disclose these incidents during the conversation, but instead seek out confidential resources such as the University Ombuds Office, the Employee Assistance Program or Gender Violence Services.

Prepare yourself for hearing opinions you don’t agree with and for strong emotions. While offensive language is never OK, loud and heated discussion is often part of the process. Establish what behavior is acceptable and what is not. Remind participants to be respectful of one another.

Listen actively and speak thoughtfully

Once the conversation starts, “turn on your listening ears and ask questions. You’re letting people know they’ve been heard, that you’re interested in hearing and understanding more,” Anderson-Thompkins said. Listen for the content of what others are saying and not just the emotions. Racism doesn’t just happen on an interpersonal level, but is systemic, which shapes institutional policies, practices and traditions. So it’s important to not take what’s being discussed personally or become defensive.

When responding to someone else’s pain, don’t draw comparisons to your own experiences or start a debate about who has been treated the worst by society. Empathetic, active listening puts the speaker at the center. Don’t tell others to calm down or be quiet. All these responses dismiss the experiences of others.

Discuss next steps

Allow time at the end of the meeting to review the discussion and to ask participants what they think the next steps should be. Afterward, follow up with an evaluation and adjust for next time. Because there should definitely be a next time.

“This is not one conversation. It should be a series of conversations,” Anderson-Thompkins said. “It really is about knowing more and doing better.”

Dos and Don’ts

  • Don’t treat people of color as spokespersons or expect their “mentorship” on this topic.
  • Do educate yourself on institutional racism and its impact on people of color.
  • Don’t have the conversation just to “check the diversity box.”
  • Do look at the talk as an opportunity to learn and grow.
  • Don’t tell others to calm down or be quiet.
  • Do be prepared for strong emotions.
  • Don’t stop with one conversation.
  • Do plan to continue coming back to the conversation and keep the lines of communication open