Monday, June 2, 2008

How do I speak to a co-worker about racial issues?

Dear Diversity Diva: I’m a white male who works in a predominantly white workplace. I’ve tried to talk to a black co-worker of mine about some of the racial events going on in the news, but she usually changes the subject. I really want to understand some things, but how can I learn if I can’t talk to people who have a different viewpoint than I do? — Seeking to Understand
Dear Seeking: First of all, it’s admirable that you genuinely are seeking to understand different vantage points.
Good intentions aside, however, you wade in choppy waters when you expect or even just want your co-workers to provide your learning curve on sensitive topics. When you’re at work, being the one to initiate an uncomfortable conversation about race makes you vulnerable to being on the receiving end of a complaint.
Although unfortunate that your good intentions could be misconstrued, you’ve got to understand that what may be in some ways just a political conversation to you can be a highly provocative conversation to a person with very different life experiences than you — despite the multitude of ways you’re alike.
Many blacks who have been schooled and have worked in predominantly white environments have exhausting experiences with being viewed as a racial spokesperson when it comes to explaining “what black folks think.” I’m sure that’s a common issue with many other people from various backgrounds.
In the case of the co-worker you’ve attempted to talk to about news events, do you have a genuine friendship with her that would leave room for those sensitive conversations to come up naturally?
Otherwise, think about it this way: If there was a sensitive and personal family issue going on with you, you probably would not feel comfortable discussing it with a co-worker who only appeared to have an innocent yet mildly academic interest in the subject.
The beauty of our society is that information is easy currency. Seeking out black interest magazines and Web sites is a good starting point, as is getting involved in community discussions and organizations that seek to foster racial harmony and understanding.
Like you, I agree that conversation is a great path to understanding, but we have to remember that not everyone wants to get on the bumpy road with us.

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