My Thoughts on Publicly Discussing Race

Posted on May 19, 2015

ELGL continues the #13Percent focus on racial diversity in the local government workforce. Race Doesn’t Exist in a Vacuum by Casie Yoder, City of Decatur, GA, penned our first entry. Today we hear from Brittany Bennett, Self Help. 

My Thoughts on Publicly Discussing Race

FLOTUS parks and rec

By Brittany Bennett

I’ve never been one to shy away from difficult, uncomfortable conversations. Dare say I even enjoy them because, when done right, they can lead to some important breakthroughs and stronger relationships. I’ve experienced this first-hand and fiercely promote it in my own life. But, because race is so difficult to discuss ELGL is giving the option to post anonymously in an effort to encourage those interested in contributing to not hold back in presenting their thoughts. However, it was only as I sat down to write today’s post that that I really understood the value of anonymity, as I had a sudden onslaught of worries about future hiring managers and readers’ comfort. So instead of sharing my original post (it’ll be here soon), I’m going to share some of these thoughts, which echo similar ones experienced when speaking up as a Person of Color, woman, or other minority in the workplace.
The context to most of my nervousness is found in two articles:

  • this one from The Root on the censorship of black scholars at Predominantly White Institutions (PWIs) and,
  • this one from The Huffington Post, entitled “Why It’s So Hard to Talk to White People about Racism.”

Both articles point to systemic and structural issues that make it difficult for black people and other People of Color to be critical of racial inequities without judgment or repercussion. They led me to have three main concerns:
1. How honest can I really be? Do ELGL blog readers really want to talk about race or do they want to pretend to talk about it?
facepalm-oliviaRace and diversity are trending topics right now, but when it comes down to it, few people want to talk about why these current issues really exist—that America’s racist past created policies and structures that continue to be manifest today in housing, education, and jobs. Nor do many want to acknowledge that that same racist history affects the way we view other racial groups, even subconsciously. But here’s the thing: it is what it is. It’s nothing to try to cover up because we can’t undo history (and to the states trying to change history curricula and rewrite text books, please just let it go). If we want to make progress, we have to get over our discomfort, be willing to say the wrong thing, be respectfully corrected, and listen to each other.
2. I don’t want anyone to walk away thinking my thoughts represent all black people.
In the second article I reference above, Dr. Robin DiAngelo discusses the concept of white fragility, which is created by racial segregation along with other factors. She makes this point, which resonated with me:
“Most whites live, grow, play, learn, love, work and die primarily in social and geographic racial segregation. Yet, our society does not teach us to see this as a loss. Pause for a moment and consider the magnitude of this message: We lose nothing of value by having no cross-racial relationships. In fact, the whiter our schools and neighborhoods are, the more likely they are to be seen as “good.” The implicit message is that there is no inherent value in the presence or perspectives of people of Color.”
This segregation means that one interaction can completely determine a person’s view of entire groups and that all future interactions will be judged based on the first. Just so we’re clear: I’m not a spokesperson for black people. These are my thoughts and mine alone, so please don’t assume that others share my point of view.
3. What happens if a future hiring manager doesn’t like what I have to say?
hillary hair flipIt’s understood nowadays that you need to be thoughtful about the things you write online. The recent controversy surrounding incoming Boston University professor, Saida Grundy (see the first article above), made me think about negative effects that could result from speaking in a way others deem offensive not only in academia, but in every workplace. Even though I don’t think anything I’m saying is offensive, others might think so. I’m in the beginning of my career so I definitely have to consider what a future hiring manager will find in a Google search. This future hiring manager may be deeply uncomfortable with the topic of race and not appreciate my candor on the subject. Should I hold back because ofthat? I say no because I stand by my thoughts and think the discussion is important.
In sum, I share these thoughts because they echo what goes through my mind at work when I feel the need to speak up about a racial issue or any other sensitive topic. I challenge us all to consider how we can make our organizations safe places for people to share their diverse opinions and perspectives. That is why diversity is important, after all. I hope you will engage in this conversation with ELGL and share how you think local governments and other public service organizations can better recruit and keep talented diverse people in order to better serve our communities.

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