“So what do you think about George Floyd?” and other awkward workplace questions

By now, we’ve all seen the video or deliberately decided not to. For 8 minutes and 46 seconds a police officer had his knee pressed against George Floyd’s neck until he could no longer breathe. And George Floyd died. This senseless killing ignited a firestorm of protests across the country, and took the discussion of race right into the corporate boardroom as many companies released statements calling for change and denouncing racism.

This was the background as one of my coworkers awkwardly brought up the topic. I’d worked with this executive for years and we had a great relationship. As she broached the subject she was clearly uncomfortable, even a bit emotional. She asked for my take on “the whole George Floyd situation”. She was cautious, she was genuine and she was white. 

My first thought was to offer my response from one of two buckets: “How does this person not get it??” or “Let me educate her on 400 years of oppression.” I’m glad I gave it a second thought.

If you happen to be one of only a few people of color at your company, you may have been in this position before, following conversations surrounding the deaths of Trayvon Martin, Eric Garner, Ahmaud Arbery and many others. You’ve worked hard to achieve your current role and you understand that conversations about race are fueled with emotion that may have an impact in the workplace. Still, you want to represent your community and (more importantly) share your perspective about these injustices. 

This is the challenge currently faced by African American executives across the country. It’s not the first time we’ve had the opportunity to weigh in, but perhaps the current social and political climate makes it more critical to answer. So after years of “let’s not discuss this at work”, how do you answer this potentially loaded question and others like it?

Here are a few tips to consider.

This is a lot to think through and when the question was posed I didn’t have time to analyze or prepare the perfect response. What I did have was a 10-year peer relationship with the person asking the question and I believed her question to be authentic. Knowing her background, I realized I was probably one of the few African Americans she knew and she likely trusted that I wouldn’t view her question as inappropriate. So I leaned in and gave it my best shot.

“You know, I’m disturbed and pretty sad that my teenage children have seen this murder in real-time (and others) and it’s impacting their view of law enforcement and the value of Black lives. In the African American community, we discuss these killings and we teach our children how to be safe around the police–which is different from ‘go to the police for help’. And throughout it all, even as we console one another and try to find the sense in all this, we show up at work each day ready to excel. Game face on. Because we’ve learned that we have to.”

Then I waited for her response.

She was quiet for a while. I couldn’t tell if she was processing my answer or formulating her next question. Turns out it was neither.

When she finally responded her voice was thick with emotion. I could tell she was choking back tears. She said simply and quietly, “I can’t believe this is what it’s like to be black in America.”

From there we talked for nearly an hour, each of us alternating between raw emotional statements and “work appropriate” conversation. It wasn’t a perfect conversation, but it was a start.

To be clear, this type of transparent discussion is not always possible and sometimes it’s absolutely not a good idea. The tips above can provide a bit of guidance but ultimately each of us has to decide if our company is a safe space for these discussions and if there’s even a point to having them in our work environment.
So is it your responsibility to educate your coworkers about racism and bias? Absolutely not. But let’s all acknowledge that for many years this important conversation was relegated to rooms filled only with people of color. For now, for however long it lasts, there is a willingness and an interest to have the difficult discussions that may lead to change. You do not have to be the spokesperson–and in some cases perhaps you should not be the spokesperson, but the conversation is happening now. If you feel the opportunity is right, don’t miss the moment.

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One response to ““So what do you think about George Floyd?” and other awkward workplace questions”

  1. This is perfectly described. These conversations are like a tightrope and each situation really does depend on all the factors you’ve mentioned, which, if you’re faced with the question, you have to make a split-second decision to either lean in, decide not to answer, or do something in between. Even these discussions can be a bit of a burden for us.

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