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The Value Gap: ‘Backlash is real’: Yes, your workplace is probably racist — but how do you even begin to tackle this problem?

The Value Gap is a MarketWatch Q&A series with business leaders, academics, authors, policymakers and activists on reducing racial and social inequalities.

Everyone — not just executives, managers and HR representatives — has some kind of power to start dismantling racism at work, says Y-Vonne Hutchinson. And the journey starts with identifying and leveraging that power, finding coworkers to back you up, and having an effective conversation with your boss, after lots of careful preparation.

While inequitable workplaces have existed for centuries, Hutchinson notes that her new book, “How to Talk to Your Boss About Race,” out Tuesday, comes during a time of glaring pandemic-exacerbated inequalities that disproportionately impact women and people of color. It comes in the midst of sustained attention to systemic racism and the corresponding backlash, as well as a tight labor market in which many low-wage workers have sought safer and better-paying jobs. 

“Now is the time to push for change,” writes Hutchinson, the CEO and founder of the diversity, equity and inclusion consulting firm ReadySet and a former international labor and human-rights lawyer.

Even a year and a half after outrage over George Floyd’s murder pushed many companies to make bold DEI commitments; pledge billions of dollars toward racial justice; and endorse the Black Lives Matter movement, plenty of indicators show they still have a lot of work to do in achieving racial equality in the workplace.

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Hutchinson mines lessons from the civil and labor rights movements, corporate cautionary tales, the social sciences and her own personal experience — often laced with humor — to give readers the necessary vocabulary, context and practical advice to confront race and racism at work. 

She says she learned how to have these conversations herself through “painfully awkward and, at times, traumatic trial and error,” including an attempt early in her career to report her colleagues’ racist behavior. (Her bosses defended the offenders, called her overly sensitive and later declined to renew her contract, she says.)

Hutchinson spoke with MarketWatch about how to tell if your workplace is racist (spoiler: it likely is), find where your influence lies, and recognize when a fight isn’t worth fighting. The interview has been edited and condensed for length:

MarketWatch: Your book is called “How to Talk to Your Boss About Race,” but it’s really about using that conversation as a springboard and equipping yourself to change the whole system at work. How do you make that more approachable and digestible for somebody who feels overwhelmed by it?

Hutchinson: It is completely understandable that somebody will see these systems of power, these systems of oppression and marginalization and the broader corporate context in which they sit, and also their position relative to that, and feel disempowered. But nobody changes everything all at once, right? Change happens incrementally, and it happens in community.

So I would say for somebody who feels like it’s a daunting task, first, you’re right. Second is, it’s not just for you to fix. And then the third thing is, when you’re going about it, you do it a little bit at a time. And you accept the fact and remind yourself continuously of the fact that this is a process — it took a long time to build these systems and it’s going to take a long time to dismantle them. They’re actually built quite effectively, so it’s really, really hard. It’s almost as if somebody was trying to protect all of their money and power.

MarketWatch: Now, your book poses the question, “Is your workplace racist?” up front, then answers it by saying the short answer — and also the slightly more nuanced answer — is nearly certainly yes. I think a lot of people, particularly those who think their workplaces are pretty progressive, might be surprised to hear that. Can you unpack that for us?

Hutchinson: Racism is written into our Declaration of Independence, into our Constitution. … The White House was built by slaves. It is so woven into the fabric of this country. It is embedded in almost every aspect of our lives, and that is by design. And it would be exceptional to work in a place that managed to avoid the influence of what is so pervasive everywhere else. For me, it seems like an obvious answer that yes, your workplace is racist like every workplace is. 

[But] one of the reasons racism is even more insidious and more effective now is that it kind of operates where there is doubt. … Externally, overt racism is happening more and more, but within the company there is still at least the desire to appear equitable. … At least now you’re not going to have a workplace that says “We don’t hire this kind of person” or “You can’t get promoted if you’re Black or brown” overtly.

We have to get out of our feelings about racism. What we inherited, it’s here — and if we want to dismantle it, we really have to accept that fact. 

MarketWatch: Maybe you can talk a little bit about other warning signs that you work at a place that’s racist.

Hutchinson: The first thing I look at is: Who holds power in an institution? And usually, that’s who’s in a leadership position, who is in the C-suite, who’s on the board, who’s managing people. You see a lot of organizations, especially recently, that place an emphasis on diversity. And they bring in people — but usually, those people aren’t brought in with a lot of power. They’re brought in at sort of the entry level. And even when they’re brought in as leaders, the formal and informal power that they hold is not necessarily as much as their white counterparts. 

I think the second is: Who gets listened to, who gets recognized, who gets amplified, what’s normalized? What is considered the default, and is that default associated with whiteness? … Are there racist power structures? Is [my organization] having a racist impact? Is it harming people from underrepresented racial groups?

“‘I don’t think that because you’re vulnerable, you’re powerless. I think those are two different things.’”

MarketWatch: To your point about using the word “racist” plainly to describe a power structure or a workplace, you reserve some pretty choice words for conversations about unconscious bias, which I think is where a lot of organizations right now are still kind of stuck. What do you think are the natural limitations of focusing on something like that?

Hutchinson: Well, it’s a fundamentally different concept with different historical roots than racism. The reason why people gravitate to the unconscious-bias conversation is that it is a comfortable conversation, right? It’s a conversation without taboo. It’s a conversation that doesn’t implicate the person having it, because we all have unconscious bias. It doesn’t name those things that are socially uncomfortable. And because it’s a relatively new term, it doesn’t have the historical impact, historical baggage, that conversations about racism have. 

In some ways, unconscious bias conversations can be useful. They open the door to conversations about bias. But you have to move beyond them really quickly, because anytime you get stuck in unconscious-bias framework, you’re not going to get anything done. … The solution to solving your unconscious bias — because it’s unconscious — is being aware of it. There’s no structural implications or structural approaches. There’s no acknowledgement of overt bias or harms.

For many people, [conversations about race] also implicate present power structures, and they’re harder to have. People get more defensive in conversations about race. People feel more triggered, more targeted, in conversations about race. Racism is responsible for some very real, horrific violence in this country. You can kind of keep unconscious bias and make it a workplace, corporate kind of thing. But when we’re talking about racism, we’re talking about redlining. We’re talking about lynching. We’re talking about slavery. We’re talking about genocide. We’re talking about the destruction of whole towns and communities. 

That’s the legacy that we bring into conversations about race, and the legacy that we have to reconcile if we’re going to solve the racism inherent in our organizations. And it’s a reality that’s hard for a lot of people to confront, but necessary if they actually want to make progress in doing the work that they say that they want to do.

MarketWatch: You write that in order to leverage your social position at work to push for change, you have to figure out what kind of power you personally have to influence people. If I’m an hourly worker making minimum wage and maybe worried about my job security, especially during COVID, or I’m a gig worker who’s classified as a contractor, I might respond by saying I don’t really have all that much power in my position. What would you say to someone like that?

Hutchinson: I think it’s important to acknowledge that you are more vulnerable. I don’t think it behooves anyone to dismiss the reality of precarious, low-wage work, particularly right now. That being said, I don’t think that because you’re vulnerable, you’re powerless. I think those are two different things. And I think your sources of power may look different. 

In the book, I talk about collective power and the power of organizing: You alone may not have that power, but you working with other people can have a lot of power — a lot of social power, influential power, visible power. I’m just thinking about movements like the “Fight for 15” and the collective organizing of low-wage workers there showing that when people get together, there are some ways in which we can correct the traditional power balance. 

“‘It’s easy to delegitimize one person, gaslight one person. It’s easy to discourage one person. I think it’s a lot harder to discredit a movement.’”

I would also say that there are other sources of power beyond those that are centered around hierarchy or economic power. I talk a lot about social power in my book, because I think there’s a lot of movement happening socially when it comes to this recognition of workers’ rights and the right to be free from discrimination and [racism], etc. And so you may not have power when you think about … legitimate power. That’s the power that your boss has over you; it’s the power that [can come from] traditional power structures, traditional hierarchy. You may not have access to that as much. 

But you probably do have some access to influential power, whether it’s power through social media, power through your relationships at work and the allies that you engage there. … I think that it’s not as simple as just, “I don’t have power.” I wrote that section to really get people to thinking not about if they have power but what types of power they have, and how they can access them. 

This work doesn’t happen in isolation. It’s not just about you as the individual. [It’s] so important to understand that. You, any individual, is disempowered when they go up against a system. It’s about, how do you think about engaging collectively, and leveraging that collective power to move the system to where you want to go? … Unionization, collective action, all of this stuff has been demonized. And not all unions are perfect, I’ll totally admit that. But I think we’ve been tricked into thinking it’s up to us as individuals to change our workplaces, and social change has never happened like that — never, ever, ever, not in any space has one person totally revolutionized the system.

Even when we think of prominent civil-rights activists — we think of Martin Luther King, Jr. and Rosa Parks, W. E. B. Du Bois, Malcolm X, Ida B. Wells — no matter who you’re thinking of in terms of civil rights, labor rights and these movements, they happen as part of a collective. They all had a machine behind them, and history erases that machine. 

MarketWatch: A common thread throughout your book is the argument to not go it alone when you’re trying to engage your boss on race, especially if you’re a person of color, and to always enlist backup in the form of allies. Why do you think that is so important? 

Hutchinson: Because backlash is real. … I think we internalize the myth that — and I’ve been talking about this more and more with other groups — that the Martin Luther King Jr. quote that everybody loves to use, “The [arc of the moral] universe is long, but it bends towards progress.” I think there’s a sort of self-serving idea, particularly on behalf of white people, people in power, that progress is the natural outcome of agitation, and retaliation, while present, is actually an aberration. And I think historically what we see is that no, with major movements, progress is often followed by periods of really intense backlash. 

I advise people to work as part of a group because when you work as a singular person, you become a target for that backlash. It’s really easy to isolate one person. It’s easy to all of a sudden give poor performance reviews to one person. It’s easy to delegitimize one person, gaslight one person. It’s easy to discourage one person. I think it’s a lot harder to discredit a movement, discredit a bunch of people who are working in unison. 

MarketWatch: In your book, you coach the reader in great detail on understanding their identity and what power they have, practicing arguments and retorts in advance, and finding some carefully considered words to use during this conversation with their boss. Is there a piece of advice in there that you’d really want to emphasize and drive home, something you think is absolutely imperative to having these conversations?

Hutchinson: The most important tip that I can give is to know what your objective is in this conversation and to make sure it is realistic and actionable. Everything in your conversation flows from this. What kind of specific changes do you want to see? Are they within your boss’s power to effectuate? What would be the impact of these changes? How do they align with your boss’s other priorities? What metrics will you use to [assess] the success or failure of your conversation based on that goal?

“‘If you’re facing that kind of pushback, you’re probably not the person to change them. And sometimes a departure can be just the wake-up call that a company needs.’”

MarketWatch: We are still in the midst of a tight labor market; we’re in the middle of what you may have heard is called “The Great Resignation.” How do you know when to quit, and when a fight is not worth fighting at your workplace?

Hutchinson: First, I think the conversation that you have — if you decide to talk to your boss about race, or talk to anyone — it’s going to be very telling. What do they do? Do they immediately have a defensive reaction and shut down the conversation? That’s a sign. Are you seeing surface-level investment, but investment that isn’t actually about changing anything? Leadership that’s disengaged, disinterested or, at worst, opposed to this? That’s another sign. 

Do people ask folks of color to put forward this work, push this work ahead, without actually investing in them? …  Are extra burdens and extra harms being created without regard for the impact and without compensation or recognition? Are you now facing retaliation? That happens a lot in these conversations. Do you start getting marginalized on your team? Have your performance reviews all of a sudden taken a dive? Are you given less-prestigious assignments? Are your managers no longer giving you feedback? Are you seeing social exclusion? That, to me, is also a really big red flag. 

Related: More employees are filing retaliation charges — here’s what every whistleblower should know

And then finally, I would say think about where HR is in all of this. In all likelihood, HR is probably not your friend. HR’s job is to protect the company from liability. And once you start pointing out discrimination and potential violations of federal civil-rights law, you become a liability. And so then the question becomes, do you feel like you have an ally in these structures? Chances are you don’t. Do you feel like you have another adversary? If you do, that’s probably also when it’s time to go. 

I always recommend: Don’t let it hit rock bottom. If you start to get the inclination, particularly in this labor market, that hey, this isn’t the right space for you, and you can leave on good terms with some people — people who can give you a recommendation, whatever — and go to a place that’s better for you, don’t belabor it. Just do it. Because those institutions, I’m not saying they’re not going to change, but if you’re facing that kind of pushback, you’re probably not the person to change them. And sometimes a departure can be just the wake-up call that a company needs.

So if you have the privilege, the economic privilege, to be able to look for other work and survive a job transition, and you’re facing those kinds of hurdles, I would certainly recommend that you consider it.

“‘Do you start getting marginalized on your team? Have your performance reviews all of a sudden taken a dive? Are you given less-prestigious assignments?’”

MarketWatch: You became a new parent during the writing of this book. You also went through a lot of personal challenges, including the death of your sister. I’m so sorry for your loss. You write that working with someone to establish boundaries and self-care routines including therapy, etc., helped you process and cope with that. What advice do you have for folks who are taking on this anti-racism work in their workplace when it comes to taking care of themselves and avoiding burnout, especially if they are also a person of color?

Hutchinson: Yeah, what a time we live in where there’s just this sort of cognitive dissonance between the reality and work — the expectation that you show up every day and do your job plus a little bit extra while the world is on fire, and sometimes literally. I think it’s really cruel. It’s really hard. 

I think it’s a tall enough order to ask somebody to think about how they make their organizations less racist. I certainly don’t expect within this conversation we’re going to cover the scope of how to dismantle capitalism, but I think that that realization, No. 1, is super important. These are — I struggle to say “abnormal” because racism is a normal aspect of our country, ableism is a normal aspect of our country, “work above all else” is normal in our country — but this just feels like extraordinary times. And we are trying to normalize a situation, a series of events and a social/political reality that is fundamentally not normal. So I would say recognize that; I think that’s the first thing. And be realistic about the expectations that you set for yourself. 

Putting your mental health first, saying no … This extra work is actually personal work for us, and it’s work that is quite often associated with really deep trauma and history, and our current reality, and current harms that we’re facing. … So I think it’s OK to say no to these things even though they feel personal. It is really not your responsibility as a traumatized person to change the trauma.

It’s great you want to do it. That is a very selfless act that you are doing, and it’s good for the community. But fundamentally it’s not your responsibility, and it is going to be really hard for you to do it. So it’s OK to say no. It’s OK to say, “Actually, I’m not the one who needs to do the work right now. You’re the one that needs to do the work.” It’s OK to say, “OK, I’m going to do this, but you need to pay me.” 

I think Black and brown people really need mental health support as we’re navigating this time and as we navigate these traumatizing institutions. So making sure you have something in place, and acknowledging that that is a privilege — not everybody can afford a therapist — is really important, but also thinking through what other free resources you may be able to access.

One thing that is free, though, that we can all do, is build our communities outside of work. … I think particularly for us in the U.S., there is a sort of conflation of work with our identity, and we’re often encouraged to self-actualize through our work and we often talk about excellence in a workplace setting. And often for us as Black and brown children, it’s drilled into us that the way out of our oppression is through respectability as obtained in the workplace. 

And so when this workplace becomes your source of identity but also the source of your trauma, it can be incredibly, incredibly, incredibly disruptive. And so I really encourage people, No. 1, form an identity outside of work, but No. 2, nurture those relationships that have literally nothing to do with how you produce money. 

I think where you have healthy family dynamics and your biological family is one that’s healthy to engage with, great. But also, if you need to build a chosen family, do that. Figure out what kind of community you need to surround yourself with to feel nurtured and supported. Invest in the friendships. Stop putting work first, because work is not putting you first.

Even if you’re not working on racial and cultural issues, work-life balance is really important. … If you wake up working and go to bed working, at the end of the day it’s going to start f—ing with you. It messes up your sense of reality, and your sense of relationships, and your sense of your place in the world. Your place at work becomes your place in the world. So you really have to intentionally fight against that.

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