A recent survey by the Institute of Workplace and Facilities Management revealed that only about half the office-based workers currently working from home in the UK are itching to get back to the office. Among those who were more lukewarm on the prospect, Covid-19 remained the primary sources of anxiety. Yet, since YouGov conducted the poll in late-May, global #blacklivesmatter protests have upended society. Might the prospect of some uncomfortable conversations back in the office now be an additional source of worry for ex-lockdown office workers, both black and white?
Black co-workers might be concerned that their white colleagues reveal a lack of understanding by saying something clumsy or by offering a hollow statement of support. Worse still, that they try to minimise the hurt felt by the black community by placing it in another context (“all lives matter”), or by pretending that nothing is going on at all.
White co-workers might torture themselves over whether to say something at all to their black colleagues, for fear of saying the wrong thing. Even the genuine allies might be embarrassed that it appeared to take hundreds of thousands of people on the streets before they were able to talk openly about racism and to take a stand.
We must have this conversation, though.
Commentators in the US have correctly pointed out that the safe space so many have previously occupied – the middle ground known as ‘not racist’ – is vanishing. Everyone must pick a side: one is either racist or anti-racist. One either supports the idea of a racial hierarchy and endorses policies that seek to preserve it, or one believes in racial equality and actively challenges racist policies.
Firms should not let employees figure this out on their own. We must have this conversation, so let’s deliberately create a time and place for it. Let’s find people to lead it who are knowledgeable and willing to be vulnerable. Let’s inform everyone that the most important thing we can do is to listen and to witness. And let the conversation be solely about racial justice. To dilute or sugar-coat will amplify the hurt, not minimise it.
This conversation will be different In each organisation. Yet, there is one statement that every white person can safely say to every black person, and that every black person will welcome: “I want to be anti-racist.”