How-to: Talking about racism in the workplace

How do we have those famous “courageous conversations” everyone talks about when racism, sexism and all the other “isms” rear their ugly heads? AFT members got into the details at the April 22 Many Threads, One Fabric town hall with counseling professional Leven “Chuck” Wilson. Wilson, who recently joined the AFT’s health and safety staff, is the founder of the Renew Group, an organization that strengthens families and improves communities, and that is a partner with the AFT’s teacher diversity program.

Clockwise from upper left: Philippe Abraham, Chuck Wilson, Gerald Williams, Delisa Saunders.
Clockwise from upper left: Philippe Abraham, Chuck Wilson, Gerald Williams, Delisa Saunders.

This session, the fifth in the Many Threads, One Fabric series—and the first of four professional development sessions on courageous conversations with Wilson—took shape as a friendly exchange with Wilson, former New York Yankee and union member Gerald Williams, New York State United Teachers Secretary-Treasurer and AFT Vice President J. Philippe Abraham, and AFT Human Rights and Community Relations Deputy Director Delisa Saunders, who moderated the conversation. NYSUT President Andy Pallotta opened the session and joined as the group explored the landscape of racial reckoning and suggested real-life methods of moving through sensitive topics and differences we encounter not only at work but in our families and communities. 

Speak truth

One resounding theme was that truth, mercy and forgiveness must be the cornerstones of courageous conversations about challenging topics. “In order to have mercy, you have to acknowledge that something was done wrong,” said Wilson. “You have to tell the truth.”

That means telling yourself the truth as well as admitting the truth to others. Wilson described metaphorical mirrors and windows: To have a truthful conversation, one must see oneself clearly, faults and all, and then look through a window to interact with others outside your personal experience.

“Sometimes truth is not soft,” said Wilson. “Sometimes it stings, it punches, it wakes you up.” But, he continued, “Truth is the foundation of having a courageous conversation, and getting to forgiveness and compassion.”

Another key to successful communication is good listening. “Listening is an art,” said Wilson, involving not just words, but facial expressions and body language. “Language and listening are also cultural,” he added, remembering his early days in Hawaii, where he lived for 20 years. One of his professors spoke Pidgin, a local dialect, and Wilson realized early on that “to embrace what was going on, I couldn’t take where I came from and listen with North Carolina ears, I had to listen from a different perspective.”

“Being able to evaluate, acknowledge that you’re in a different place, to identify that people are from different cultures—if you’re not willing to do that, you’re missing what listening really is.”

Encountering anger

The group also discussed how to navigate a situation when someone is offended and angry during a meeting. The first thing is to have rules of engagement in place before the meeting. But if emotional exchanges start anyway, the key is to be calm, said Wilson.

If you are the person who is offended, try not to escalate the situation. “You’re saying somebody’s knee is on your neck, but by you wanting to sustain the fight, you’re rolling your other pant leg up and saying, ‘I’m gonna put my knee on your neck. That way we’re all gonna die,’” said Wilson. “We don’t want that. We want to live. We want to thrive in our workplace. … Take the brass knuckles off, take the handcuffs off, throw away the glass bottles. Sometimes we have to engage in certain ways, I understand that, but don’t lead with the fight. Lead with peace.”

Clarify what the offending person meant, Wilson suggested. “The person who has that figurative knee on your back may be clueless.” They may be using a communication style they’ve cultivated over time, a style that is no longer effective. They may be acting out workforce culture, or family and community tradition—and they may not realize that they are now working with different people from different traditions, and those approaches no longer work.

These were just a handful of the points Wilson made throughout the session; the question-and-answer period added of-the-moment queries around how people of different backgrounds can work together when anxiety around race, class, gender and other difference is so high.

Wilson will continue to explore these topics in small-group sessions scheduled on three dates in May as an extension of the Many Threads project. All sessions of Many Threads are available to view online. The series is sponsored by NYSUT and the AFT.  

[Virginia Myers]