Common Roadblocks To Talking About Race And Ethnicity, Explained

How to overcome the roadblocks when talking about race and ethnicity

Talking about race and ethnicity can be a sensitive topic for many people, but it is vital to learn how to deal with the roadblocks and to let others learn too.

You’ve got issues. Hypothetical, of course, for the purpose of this blog.

Issues at work arise all the time. Sometimes, these issues have to do with aspects of people’s identity, like race and ethnicity. Issues related to race and ethnicity vary across regions, but in increasingly global workplaces, you’re bound to encounter them.

So, let’s prepare.


Here are two ways of addressing these kinds of issues:

Option One: Talking about it! 

What’s the impact? Catalyst research shows that employees reported feeling included when they feel both valued for their uniqueness and a sense of belonging. Those same folks reported being more team-oriented and innovative.

Option Two: Not talking about it!

What’s the impact? Imagine having to hide or cover an aspect of your identity—by altering your appearance, not showing emotion about recent news events, or avoiding certain behaviors—out of fear of reinforcing a stereotype. Would you feel valued or accepted for your authentic self—and feel a sense of belonging?

The potential to create a culture of inclusion is diminished every time we shy away from genuine conversations about the very things that make us unique.

Don’t avoid the difficult issues. Come to the 3Plus event in Brussels to learn How to Deal with Sexism and harassment in the Workplace.

So, what’s holding us back?

Firstly option two is easier, plain and simple. Isn’t it always easier to not do something than it is to do something? Once we’ve settled on inaction, we tend to justify that choice, often in one of the following ways:

  • “We don’t see color—only people.”
  • “Race and ethnicity are not relevant in certain places.”
  • “Talking about our differences can only further divide us.”
  • “I might say something inappropriate—or worse, be viewed as racist or sexist.”

Sound familiar?

That’s because these statements, even when they’re made with the best of intentions, form the basis of three common roadblocks to talking about race and ethnicity in the workplace.

The roadblocks are:

“There isn’t a problem.”

It is not racist to see a person’s race or ethnicity—it’s a normal tendency! Ignoring differences—and similarities—across race and ethnicity can lead to confusion and misunderstanding.

For example, researchers found that white people who endorse colorblind beliefs engage in more biased behaviors, leading non-dominant ethnic groups to be less engaged with their work.

People’s different backgrounds should be honored, and celebrating differences should be encouraged.

“There’s no benefit to talking.”

What we see and hear in mainstream society often focuses on individual bias and “bad behavior,” rather than broader systemic problems.

These messages may reinforce a common misconception: that talking about these issues will fuel interpersonal conflict and create divisions among social groups in the workplace.

Organizations must develop preventive strategies to help employees learn how to communicate effectively across differences—how to handle emotions and be humble enough to learn from those with different perspectives.

“There will be negative consequences to my actions.”

A sure way to shut down a constructive conversation is to suggest someone is being “too sensitive” and make assumptions about the validity of their feelings.

Instead of sharing and learning from someone different from you, it is easy to inadvertently reinforce exclusionary behaviors.

Everyone needs to feel safe speaking up in the workplace, including members of dominant group members who no longer want to stand by as passive witnesses to exclusionary behaviors.

What is the most common roadblock you see? Take our poll!

Make sure that your company does everything it can to tackle issues in the workplace. Take part in a 3Plus workshop on Managing Unconscious Bias.


Originally posted in MARC

3Plus, 3Plus online e-Gazine for professional women, Communication, Culture, Skill building
Jarad Cline
Jarad Cline
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Jared Cline is the Community Manager of MARC (Men Advocating Real Change), a community for men committed to achieving gender equality in the workplace.

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