Are Race Discussions on the Job Considered NSFW?

Like politics or religion, race shares the capacity to inflame or divide, yet respectful discussions about race render it appropriate for the workplace

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(Image: iStock/XiXinXing)

Recently, I found myself confronting a tough question.  In today’s world, in which nearly every major company supports “diversity” (at least, rhetorically), should we still consider respectful discussion of race discrimination NSFW? (For those unaware, NSFW means not safe for work.)

Before I give my view on the matter, let’s back up.

In February, my company’s black affinity group hosted an educational event focused, in part, on the Black Lives Matter movement. The event began with an introductory discussion of what the Black Lives Matter movement is (and isn’t). It culminated in a panel of employees sharing stories.

As one of the panelists, I shared a story about a time a few years ago when I, a practicing attorney, stood in the back of an airport shuttle during a business trip. A fellow passenger, who happened to be white, assumed that I was the bus driver.

The panelists and I offered stories like this to illustrate how even small incidents can marginalize and devalue black lives. We also connected these stories to our larger point. Namely, that the same harmful stereotyping that led the man on the bus to assume that I was the bus driver, can also lead some to wrongfully assume that black men are violent, dangerous, and must be greeted with deadly force.

Despite the polarizing nature of the Black Lives Matter movement, the event proved tremendously successful. It featured a standing-room-only crowd at our company’s headquarters, drew rave reviews from employees (including senior leadership), and even inspired heartfelt audience participation.

And yet, even with the event’s success, for me, one aspect proved disheartening. Some of my black colleagues chose to avoid the event based on a fear that any tie to it would jeopardize their careers. For them, involvement with the event was deemed NSFW.

On the one hand, I considered their fears reasonable. Race, after all, is almost always a touchy subject, so proceeding with caution is a good rule of thumb. On the other hand, I wondered if, given the company’s support for the event they were being a bit too cautious in considering their participation as NSFW.

Speaking of which, this is probably a good time to explain what I mean by NSFW.

 

How do we define NSFW? 

 

It seems reasonable to define something as NSFW if it, at the bottom, has no redeeming quality sufficient to render it appropriate for a workplace. Think: sexually explicit photos, coarse language, or crude jokes. For obvious reasons, labeling these things as NSFW is a no-brainer.

 

OK, but what about discussing race?

 

I would argue that respectful discussion about race is an entirely different story. Certainly, discussing race can make people uncomfortable or even offended, in the same way that coarse language or crude jokes can. However, unlike the examples listed above, respectful discussion about race also has redeeming qualities sufficient to render it appropriate for a workplace.

For one thing, we’re better off as a society if well-intentioned people can discuss race openly in a professional environment. We can’t ignore or avoid race-based inequalities out of existence. Acknowledging them serves as the first step toward addressing them.  Also, remaining silent absolutely won’t improve things.

Second, as a colleague recently remarked, whereas older working generations sought homogeneity, many younger workers today celebrate difference and are committed to the idea of bringing their full “selves” to work—racial and ethnic differences included. This allows for a more open environment in which people unite not around contrived, inauthentic notions of sameness but rather a genuine, respectful appreciation of difference. In this environment, it’s expected that as part of bringing their “full selves” to work, employees feel empowered to respectfully discuss their unique experiences—including with discrimination—without fear of risking their careers.

Third, for employers, cultivating an environment that conditions employees to avoid or ignore race means dismissing a very real part of their existence. Any veneer of safety afforded in branding race as NSFW actually makes work less of a “safe space.” And this results in the employees developing less attachment to their colleagues and the employer itself.

Finally, some might say that race, like religion or politics, operates as a “third rail” topic in the workplace. I agree that, like those other topics, race shares the capacity to inflame or divide. But much of the comparison ends there. Unlike religion or political affiliation, companies can use race lawfully as a positive consideration in hiring. And, perhaps more importantly, race remains rooted in the national conscience in a way that religion and political affiliation simply are not. After all, an intrinsic part of the corporate rhetoric in favor of more diversity is a tacit recognition of a historical lack of diversity that stems, in part, from racial discrimination.

 

 


Stephen L. Ball is Government Affairs Counsel for CSAA Insurance Group. A proud Wolverine, Stephen has a B.A. in Political Science and a Master of Public Policy degree from the University of Michigan. He also has a J.D. from Harvard Law School. For more information about Stephen, see his LinkedIn page.