Confessing Racism in the Workplace

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"Then I acknowledged my sin to you and did not cover up my iniquity.
I said, 'I will confess my transgressions to the Lord.'
And you forgave the guilt of my sin
" (Ps. 32:5 NIV)

I’m a white man in a country that flavors white. What? My skin color is the chosen flavor for favor, which causes pain and harm to myself and to others. Living in a society that favors white corrupts my Christian identity by forcing me to accept that people who look like me are the truest representation of humanity. Without my intending it, this delusion maintains an underlying stigma toward black, indigenous, and people of color. As a result, I participate in and benefit from racist systems in society, in the church, and in my work as a denominational employee.

Racism is sin. I did not choose to be white. However, for me to have unmerited favor because I am white stands in contrast to grace in Christ alone. Unless I acknowledge and confess the sin of racism, I will continue receiving what may not be mine based on what biblical justice will allow. The sin of racism concludes that God created a superior race and inferior races and builds systems, structures, and practices that reinforce this perspective. The root of my sin is not mainly in what I do, but in what I do not do.

What are the receipts of systemic racism? My colleagues who are Black, Indigenous, and People of Color (BIPOC) including Race Relations staff who are people of color have helped with answers to that question. They experience the invisible but real impact of socialized racism. Here is a brief list that describes ways in which we (white staff) have maintained racism toward our BIPOC colleagues and ways we can stand up against it. This list arises out of the context of denominational staff, but the experiences related could happen in just about any workplace or church.

Self Awareness

As white people, we have a preferred way of working that is familiar and comfortable, but the way we prefer may be in place to reward “us” and punish “them.” Cross-cultural interactions are interpreted through a racialized lens. White people are comfortable and want to maintain the ways that things have been, while most people of color hope for a better future. In cross-cultural interactions, aim for the relational first, build trust, and then work on the transactional. Here are a few ways BIPOC staff have been impacted.

  • Expense reports: People of color have experienced culture shock with the scrutiny over expense reporting and an underlying sense of mistrust from white peers and supervisors. A value for frugality may be understood but not communicated as an organizational value. 
  • Off-hand comments: Some comments perceived as innocent jokes reveal deep-seated assumptions. For example, if several Black people are having a conversation, a white colleague may walk by and “joke”, “It looks like you are up to no good.” A group of Hispanic pastors were referred to by a white pastor as “the Latino Mafia.” Our language needs to reflect a genuine care for each other and for a godly workplace.
  • Interruptions: People of color have found that when trying to speak in meetings, white colleagues are more prone to interrupt them than to interrupt white colleagues. 
  • Tokenism: When asked to serve on various committees and teams, some people of color have felt that their opinions were ignored by white colleagues, making the people of color feel as if their presence on the team was only for optics but not for their contributions.
  • Responsibility: People of color have been expected to have all the answers to racism within the organization and have been expected to take responsibility for changing the organization’s environment. 
  • Ridicule: Making fun of food that is unknown to a white person: “What’s that green stuff?”
  • Suspicion: If a group of people of color or a group of people from a different country are talking among themselves, sometimes white people get suspicious because they think that the others are talking about them.
  • Minimizing feelings: If a person of color expresses their uncomfortable feelings about the white environment, they are told, “You’re exaggerating. It can’t be that bad.” Or "Well, you can't win them all." (In other words, the white colleague is operating under the assumption that the BIPOC staff member is asking for too much or asking for unrealistic perfection).

Mobility

Many people of color have been engaged but not been selected along with their white colleagues for promotion in the organization. Awareness and action alone may not be enough to change the culture, but it will heighten a broader awareness of the issue that may one day lead to the desired change. Too many times it is not just the salary, because the definitions of success reward “us” and punish “them”. Seeking to name and remove these barriers will make room for equity without getting into the tribalism related to color.

  • Salary: In various arenas, people of color receive less pay than white people. Ignorance is bliss but working on having trust in the workplace depends on equity. 
  • Higher expectations: When people of color apply for a position, they often have higher qualifications than the white person who is hired for the job. Has an internalized racial superiority crept into the culture and created unequal expectations for people of color? 
  • Work after retirement: White males, after retirement, get rehired for other jobs within the organization. That rarely is an option for people of color.

Silent Support

A white colleague expressed fear about speaking out against racism for fear of the backlash from other white people, but having that choice to speak up or not is part of white privilege. When racist actions happen, leaders remain silent instead of calling out the offending action. Silence communicates support. Standing up is never easy, but it becomes easier as people stand up against racism.

  • Validation: A comment or an opinion expressed in a meeting has weight or is validated when a white person says it but not a person of color. Sometimes the white person uses the very same words that a person of color expressed! Likewise in meetings, a person of color might make a statement or explain something, but the idea gets validated when a white person repeats it.
  • Presumed expertise: White people do not become experts on racism because they have lived outside of North America. Nor does someone understand racism solely because they are an expert in a language other than English. Yet, positions requiring some expertise in racial issues often are filled by white people rather than people of color. Patronizing attitudes are offensive.

As is clear from the list above, racism is not just overtly racist remarks and actions, but hidden, often unintentional assumptions revealed in attitudes and behaviors based on skin color.

Here are a few ideas to be active bystanders against racism.

  • Let go of your fear of being called “racist”. We white people need to engage regularly with people of color, and we will make mistakes. Reading the list above can feel overwhelming because one can feel that any action might be racist, and that could lead white people to avoid any interaction with people of color. That would be a tragedy, because it would only exacerbate racism among us. So keep interacting, and acknowledge to yourself (and others as appropriate) that you will say and do racist things. “Racist” is a condition not an identity.
  • Get informed. Many books, webinars, workshops, and movies help us who are white grow in our understanding of racism and white privilege. Don’t assume that it’s the job of the BIPOC people in your life to teach you. Do your own research starting with this list from Race Relations.
  • Embrace self-doubt. When learning any new skill, one must move outside of the comfort zone and into an arena in which we will expose ourselves to embarrassment and criticism. We begin to question our actions and words, and that increases discomfort which no one enjoys. However, unless we white people embrace self-doubt and begin to live in the discomfort of not being sure whether BIPOC colleagues may perceive our actions as racist, we will never grow into becoming active bystanders.
  • Cultivate humility. Although we who are white might want interactions with BIPOC colleagues to be about our own comfort, in reality those interactions need to be about grace and love. Interactions can be gracious and loving while also uncomfortable. When a BIPOC colleague calls you out on your racist behavior, take a deep breath and get curious (as Brené Brown likes to say). Avoid defensiveness. Avoid excuses (such as, “I was just making a joke.”) Instead, apologize and express appreciation for your colleague’s willingness to engage with you to help you better understand your own behaviors. We who are white swim in waters of white privilege. We can’t see it because our privileges come as unwritten and unspoken assumptions which benefit us. BIPOC neighbors, colleagues, and community members are fully aware of those privileges. When they name them for us white people, they are offering a gift to help us become more loving and turn from the racist practices that we assume are normal behavior.
  • Solicit feedback: Admit to others, including colleagues who are people of color, that you welcome feedback. You don’t want to burden people of color with educating you about racism, but you do want to let them know their feedback is welcome should they choose to give it.

God has made every human being in his image. We are all “precious in his sight” as the childrens’ song says. We “are all one in Christ Jesus” as Paul writes in Galatians 3:28. But in society, in churches, and in the workplace, we live within a caste system that withholds wealth and privilege from some groups of people in order to bestow them on other groups. If we embrace the gospel that makes us one in Christ, then we who have white privilege will take steps to move away from racism toward beloved community where all live with equity and are one in our magnificent diversity.

 

For further reading, start with this report from the CRC Synod (1996), God’s Diverse and Unified Family.

In addition, here are some good books dealing with the subject: Waking Up White, How to Fight Racism, and How to be an Antiracist.

For an in-depth discussion on being an active bystander, see The Roots of Goodness and Resistance to Evil.

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