6 mins

This one is for my White peers.

As a member of an engineering senior leadership team, I run a monthly department meeting for about 80 managers. During an otherwise unremarkable instance of the meeting earlier this year, there was one standout interaction.

I mentioned toward the end that the department’s Senior Directors and VPs were aware that between the COVID-19 pandemic and 2020’s political events, many individuals were concerned that lost productivity might affect promotions that people had been working toward. Further, I said, we wanted to be mindful that Black employees had been disproportionately affected by the pandemic and social uprising, and we wanted to figure out a way to take that into account. I’m White, and nobody among the Senior Directors and VPs is Black. A Black manager challenged my framing about race, and lots of people nodded in agreement. The meeting was about to end, so I thanked him and made a note to discuss his point with other senior leaders.

The exchange sparked a number of ideas for me about how we might improve our promotions process – a system I’d recently overhauled with a colleague and wanted to further refine. But it also sparked a nagging sense that he had misconstrued my point during the meeting – and that I wanted him to understand that my intentions weren’t racist. I sent him a note asking if he’d be open to further discussing the point he’d made. We agreed to talk the next day.

In the 24 hours before we talked, something important happened: I worked through my overwrought concerns about being misunderstood and my unreasonable need for him to affirm that I’m a good White person. It was an uncomfortable period in which I questioned my own motivations. I concluded that I was approaching the situation from a stance of white supremacy, rather than one of breaking it down. It was hard to admit that I was squarely in the wrong place, but it would have been worse if I hadn’t off-gassed those feelings before talking again with that manager.

By the time the manager and I met, I was able to focus on the content of his suggestion rather than his opinion of me. It turned out I had misunderstood him the previous day, rather than the other way around. We had a wide-ranging discussion about opportunities for improvement we each saw in the department, and disappointments we both had in the company overall. He also pointed out a couple of leadership mistakes I’d made earlier in the week. If my primary goal had been to have him recognize that my ideas weren’t racist, the meeting could not have focused on business goals or on building our relationship. It would instead have been about taking care of me – the person on the screen with more power.

Why am I telling you this story? Because in my experience, White leaders almost never talk or write, publicly or privately, about our own racism at work – which severely limits our ability to recognize and understand it. I offer this story in the hope of making it easier for you to discuss some of your own experiences and challenges, whether privately with peers or publicly, in writing and talks.

Why is it important that we discuss racist management as White people specifically?

In the workplace, unlike most other parts of life, White managers of Black and other employees of color derive individual power explicitly from the organizational structure and implicitly from white supremacy. This means our interpersonal behaviors can have an unusually large impact on the individuals we manage – potentially harming and undermining them in many ways. If we don’t work to see the implicit power structure, we won’t be able to break it down. And we’ll have a much harder time seeing it if we don’t talk about it together. (I’ll note here that Asian people are targets of racism at work, and White leaders must work against that. But in tech, in particular, as Michelle Kim and Ellen Pao discuss, Asian leaders have a responsibility to probe and eliminate the ways you may perpetuate white supremacy with respect to Black and Latinx employees.)

To be clear, there are a lot of resources available on building diverse, inclusive, and equitable organizations; that is, information about creating structures that attempt to produce equitable outcomes. (I have written and presented some of these.) And there are some articles and talks about what you can do as an individual leader to fight exclusionary structures and improve fairness. (Jill Wetzler’s fantastic series, The Antiracist Leader, has specific ideas and tips for both individual and organizational action. You should absolutely read and act on the series.)

But there is very little formal management advice for White people about recognizing and understanding our racism in managing and leading Black and other employees of color. (It’s worth noting that the opposite information exists – advice for traditionally excluded individuals on succeeding within the existing power structure. ‘The Memo: What Women of Color Need to Know to Secure a Seat at the Table’, by Minda Harts, is a good recent example.)

In anti-oppression work, a common theme is that it’s more important that we tackle institutional structures than that we break down individual biases. But the dual nature of power at work – both explicit in the org chart and implicit in white supremacy – means that even when we create more equitable systems, our interpersonal interactions can still harm the people around us. Moreover, those supposedly more fair systems – often at companies with vast resources available to ensure diversity, equity, and inclusion – have a miserable track record. Racism in tech companies is thriving, and the technologies we’re releasing are making it worse. If we’re going to make real change, we have to address the dual nature of racism at work and look not only at the systems we create but also at our own behaviors. Put another way: you don’t get a pass on microaggressions because you pushed your organization to write inclusive job descriptions.

We can hope that one day, meaningful antiracism skills will be among the requirements of serious leaders – and that this will be reflected in the management canon. In the meantime, we are not off the hook. As beneficiaries and perpetrators of racism at work, White people must engage in dismantling it if we are to have any true hope of change. (It is well-documented that targets of oppression are frequently penalized for trying to address it in workplaces.) Wetzler’s series includes a number of resources for self-education, to which I would add: listen to your Black and other colleagues of color when they talk about discrimination and barriers at work. But don’t stop at listening. To understand yourself, and to explore other ways you can behave, White managers must talk with and challenge each other to recognize and overcome reflexive, self-serving narratives.

Talking about racism, especially our own, is uncomfortable for most White people. And doing it in public, like this, might result in a number of unhappy possibilities: appearing hypocritical; appearing naive or misguided; and appearing self-involved. All of this risks alienating your colleagues of color. But without talking to each other, we run the bigger risk of failing to learn what it looks like to do the messy work of engaging with our own racism.

Fruitful antiracism work necessarily involves discomfort for White people. Whether we’re fired up about injustice or merely aware that we benefit from it, we shouldn’t shy away from that uneasiness.