“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.

  • The first step is to realize you don’t need to represent anyone but yourself. If you’re an “only” in the workplace, you already know the burden of being seen as the representative for your group. It’s not fair, it’s not logical and it’s not doable. So any answer should be from a personal perspective.
  • Assess the motives of the question before answering. If the person asking is truly interested and engaged your answer may be completely different than one provided to someone who is trying to bait you into some type of debate. Similarly, consider the time and place for the discussion. If you’re presenting to a room of 50, not the time. If you’re in a small-group discussion, maybe so.
  • Try to suspend your emotions during the discussion. It’s natural for the topic of race to generate deep emotional responses. If you don’t think you’ll be able to contain your emotions or you’ll say/do something to damage your career, you need to think carefully before responding.
  • Know your limits. If this is not a conversation you can have without becoming emotional or if you think the working relationship will be damaged, stick to a brief general statement like “Our country still struggles with race and it affects all of us one way or another.” You do not have a responsibility to educate your coworkers on this topic.

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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