Editor's Note: A couple of months ago, two brilliant women – Vicky Xian and Mirna Cheet – joined The Work Psychologists for a three-month internship. They've both brought so much to the table and we are beyond grateful to have them on board.
In this post, Vicky writes with raw vulnerability about her experiences of racial gaslightling and racism in the workplace. It is both an uncomfortable and absolutely necessary read. For those of us who are not in a racial minority group, I'd argue that it should be mandatory.
The burden has been on POC (people of colour) and people from under-represented groups or minorities to speak up for too long. While we are so grateful that Vicky has written this piece, we are also painfully aware that it's on us to address this issue and to proactively work on being anti-racist.
To leaders, we want to lay down the gauntlet: you can no longer justify overlooking or ignoring this issue. 70% of black and minority workers have reported racial harassment in work in the past 5 years (Ashe, Borkowska & Nazroo, 2019). We all need to step up, because this statistic is, quite frankly, appalling. We need to talk about race and racism, and we need to do it now.
Colour-blindness and the topic of race in the workplace
By Victoria Xian
“I literally didn’t even notice you weren’t white – I don’t see colour!”
This is what my manager said to me, while I was sat down, facing her, in a dimly lit room. Word for word.
I was working part-time as a waitress while doing my undergraduate degree. The statement that overflowed with ecstatic enthusiasm was declared to me in the backroom, after I had summoned the courage, (which took 2 weeks to do) to discuss a racial attack I had experienced at work. I had spoken to colleagues, my family, my friends, to anyone but the people that needed to hear it the most: my management.
The quaking energy I felt from my toes to my fingertips when I finally confronted the matter was drowned by cold disappointment. I thought I would feel comfort. Warmth. Maybe even some satisfaction. That, something I will come to learn, rarely happens. Rather, I was left with the weighted realisation that when it boils down to it, nothing will change. Back to zero
Here’s some context. One of my colleagues had told a group of waiters what she thought was a really funny story – one that was riddled with very explicit racial discrimination.
The story entailed how her mother had thought my colleague was hideous when she was a baby, exclaiming how she looked Chinese, from the gross yellow skin, to the dark slitty eyes. I froze. What could I say? You could say my fight or flight mode was definitely activated, and I decided to take the flight route, scrambling out the room as soon as I could, which is still a choice that haunts me to this day. To make matters worse, everyone at the table either wasn’t aware of the underlying racial discrimination, or didn’t want to deal with it, eyes averting my gaze, glued instead to an inconspicuous mark on the lunchroom table.
According to Correll et al (2010), racial discrimination can be defined as the unjust negative and derogative behaviour and opinions towards an ethnic group or its individuals.
This incident certainly felt like racial discrimination: It was as if she had ripped apart my entire race and everything I stood for, condensed my racial identity into rotting, racist fruits, and tossed them over her shoulder into a bin, without a care.
Now, turning back to what my manager had said to me in that backroom (“I don’t see colour!”): you might brush that off as a harmless comment – at least a well-intentioned one, and that’s all that matters... right?
Well, I want to make it clear here that she was trying to help, which I fully appreciate. However, from a psychological perspective, this could be argued to be a form of gaslighting.
A more recent concept surrounding the topic of discrimination in the workplace, gaslighting is a form of psychological manipulation, aimed to misdirect the victim to perceive a false reality (Sweet, 2019).
According to research, racial gaslighting is a form of pushback, an enduring process that stands in the face of resistance and racial justice.
In other words, my manager had her conscience threatened as a white individual, and tried to ‘push back’ on this by hypothetically cutting herself (and in turn, white people) out of the equation. She wanted me to wholeheartedly think there was no way she could be ever be racist.
The problem with this, is that it does not in any way help the situation. In fact, it is detrimental. Layla Saad (2020) explains that “this kind of thinking is naïve at best and dangerous at worst”.
My manager might as well have said, “Race isn’t an important issue to you, and neither to me. This makes me colour blind, blind to the oppression and trauma you might feel. Blind to my own white privilege.”
This kind of thinking about race – the 'I don't even see colour' argument – is naïve at best and dangerous at worst.
My manager did at least express concern. That was something. I was being heard to some extent. But my confidence in the situation was soon to be squashed.
She asked what I would have liked to be done. I asked “Well, what policies do you have in place? I’m not sure how to go about this….”, to which she replied with... A blank stare. It seemed she didn't know either.
What's the issue here? Well, it takes a huge amount of rumination and courage to dare to address a racial issue at work. When the response is peppered with “I don’t even see colour!” how do you, as a leader, think that makes us – people of colour - feel?
I’ll answer this for you.
It makes us believe nothing is going to be done. Intentions might be in the right place, but that’s only the start.
What impact could this have on our wellbeing, mental health, job satisfaction or even turnover? According to the Racism at Work survey conducted in the University of Manchester, 8% of men who had experienced racial abuse left their jobs, with an almost double in prevalence seen in women, with 15% (Ashe, Borkowska & Nazroo, 2019).
Studies have highlighted the real impact of racism on work stress, post-traumatic stress disorder, depression, and even physical health (Bhui et al., 2018). These statistics help build the case that leaders need to take particular actions to reduce negative work outcomes.
What can leaders do?
If you're a leader, you need to address both the big picture and the immediate present. Here are two longer-term strategies, and three short-term or immediate tactics that you can use to proactively work on creating an anti-racist environment.
1. Create a safe climate
First and foremost, one of the most important steps to tackling racism the hard (but right) way is creating a safe climate for those affected to come forward. If an employee is facing any form of racism, and they perceive their environment as not welcoming of such criticism, it can be extremely damaging for them.
One theory that ties neatly into creating, facilitating, and maintaining a safe climate at work is psychological safety (PS). PS can be described as the psychological state that encourages speaking up, building on new ideas or error reporting (Edmondson, 2018).
When PS is met, through colleague support, leader support or a healthy team climate, employees feel a sense of psychological well-being (PWB). PWB can be described as an employee’s physical and psychological health, emotional stability, and sense of adequacy at work (Erkutlu & Chafra, 2016).
To tackle this, Laura Roberts and Ella Washington (2020) cites that leaders should first educate themselves, while Pearn Kandola (2018) support a weekly minority support group.
Bottom line is: Let your minority employees know they will be heard.
Don’t take the easy way out and build those walls, because you are only hurting the real victim here: your minority employees
2. Be open-minded
You might not want to face the fact that racism is happening in your workplace. There may be an air of defensiveness, according to Kira Hudson Banks and Richard Harvey (2020).
Don’t worry, it’s a common reaction to the reality that your workplace isn’t the most forward-thinking, safe-haven you thought it was. However, what’s important is rather to fight this reaction, be accepting and open, especially if it is in fact you who was responsible for any racist driven situation.
According to Robin DiAngelo, a phenomenon known as white fragility has been taken hold in recent research, which accounts when a white individual becomes overly defensive in the face of racism.
Drawing out attention back to the story above, we can link this to my manager feeling the upmost need to tell me she was colour blind. This can only testify the existence of white fragility. Don’t take the easy way out and build those walls, because you are only hurting the real victim here: your minority employees.
3. Take appropriate and meaningful action
Leaders need to put appropriate and meaningful actions in place in response to a situation like racial abuse. Immediate rather than delayed action is also appreciated. That does not help anyone.
If an employee comes to you and flags a racial issue at work, they usually feel vulnerable, sometimes afraid or nervous, maybe angry or upset. The first step is to tend to them. Don’t be angry about what they've experienced for the sake of being angry. That’s performative and there is no space for that here. However, take a compassionate and supportive stance, immediately, asking how they feel and in turn, listening.
Next, Banks and Harvey (2020) explain, you need to be specific about the actions that will be taken to address the issue. What are the next steps? As my manager sat back blank-faced, it was more awkward than anything else! But it also proved to me that nothing was going to happen, or at least nothing effective.
Highlighted by Banks and Harvey (2020), companies like Activision have added reporting systems to identify and ban racist terms. Uber have introduced a free delivery service from black-owned companies. There are countless things you can do. You simply need to decide on actions that are specific and appropriate for your organisation’s employees, customers, and leadership.
3 small things leaders can do today, immediately
So those are the big picture things. Alongside creating a safe space, having an open mind, and taking meaningful action, I’ve also devised 3 small, immediate and actionable steps to kick-start these broader changes. Little wins are more sustainable than big, long-winded ones.
1. Ask about our culture
People fear change, and fear coming across as wrong. This leads to many shying away from ‘the elephant in the room’ – essentially stunting growth or room for development.
One small action leaders can do today is get to know your minority employees. Ask questions about our culture, our language, our family background (and be authentically interested). Maybe if someone were to mention a traditional celebration (like Chinese New Year), just ask: “That sounds interesting, what is it about? Did you enjoy it?” Simple.
I totally understand that it may sometimes come across as ‘racially insensitive’, but it’s not rude if you don’t make assumptions or ask inappropriate questions. Shying away from conversations about something so important probably makes you feel unproblematic, but the existence of a multi-cultural workplace doesn’t just vanish into thin air.
Even in a pandemic, it takes 15 seconds to think of someone to call (Brownlee, 2020), and even less to ping them a short message. We really appreciate people who are genuinely curious about our cultures, which contributes to building stronger relationships and safer spaces.
2. Read one to two articles
In the same instance, it should not all be placed on our shoulders. There are ways you can also gather information other than your minority employees. You can start change right now by reading a peer-reviewed paper, a reputable news article, a social media thread, even better, if they are written from a person of colour (POC).
Take time – 5-10 minutes – out of your schedule to focus on reading what’s out there: scientifically, politically or socially. Let literature and content guide your perspective, kick-starting conversations, or meaningful actions.
Pre-warning: literature should help you understand your people, not aim to debate and act as the “devil's advocate”, which is a prevalent issue and points toward racial gaslighting. Aim to help, not defend.
I've put some links included at the bottom of this page so you can start that reading today.
3. Book in a meeting slot with your minority employees.
Don’t know what to say, how to organise a mentoring programme or develop a minority talk group? That’s understandable. But that isn’t an excuse to neatly fold that problem up and tuck it on a high shelf.
Book a meeting with a few minority employees, co-workers from any level in the organisation. A few clicks and you can say you’ve done one of the first steps to making change.
Like I mentioned before, this opens the dialogue and start the oh so important conversations – but maybe avoid dictating. Leaving the floor up for ideas can actually help you, and in the long-run, have longevity as it comes from knowledgeable and appropriate perspectives. You can even preface the meeting to say you are wanting to explore the options – and there are no concrete actions just yet. However, once you have garnered the appropriate perspectives, you will take responsibility as a leader and follow through.
Pre-warning: Allow your POC and minority employees to have the option to take-over – but don’t expect them to, that’s their choice. So be prepared either way.
By early 2020, I hadn't seen my colleague since the incident. I knew she didn't work at the restaurant anymore, but I was more curious than satisfied. Did she leave because of me? Was I the reason she left her job?
When I asked my employer a month or so after the discussion, all they said was she had been let go, but wouldn’t disclose anything further for confidentiality reasons. So, I thought, they fired her? Did they tell her why? Surely?
One crispy early morning, I ran into my ex-colleague in the library when we both turned around a corner. My heart blasted through my chest – the anxiety! But her face lit up with a friendly smile. Hiya, long time no see! She proclaimed. I smiled back warmly, hoping my feelings of extreme, itchy uncomfortableness didn’t leak through my facade. As the conversation flowed, I nudged her on what had happened in 2019. She explained, with much disdain, that they called her in and just let her go – they fired her without any explanation.
All I could think was – if she found out why – that I could be blamed. I never asked for her to be fired! If I knew telling my manager would lead to her losing her job, especially coupled with no explanation, I would never have brought this up in the first place.
The guilt muffled my thinking and I honestly couldn’t pay attention to anything else she was saying. According to research, I’m not the only one, with 40% of employees who reported racial abuse had their issue swept under a rug, or – worse – labelled as the troublemaker. Was I really the ‘troublemaker’?
40% of employees who reported racial abuse had their issue swept under a rug, or –worse – labelled as the troublemaker
So, what is the huge issue with this outcome, you might ask? In essence, nothing was achieved.
I didn’t feel psychologically safe, I was left with more questions than answers, and in the end, I felt more guilty and burdensome than I’d had at the beginning of this whole ordeal.
The more important issue is that my colleague was left jobless, but also ignorant. How, in any way, is this making the right kind of change?
She was left with no acknowledgement of the issues at hand, and could possibly still be inflicting harm on others without even realising it – a hidden form of emotional and psychological abuse.
That, leaders, is not the way to do it. I hope you'll find the courage to find a different way through these kind of situations and that you won't brush people's identity under a rug.
Useful links and further reading
Ashe, S., Borkowska, M., Nazroo, J. (2019). Racism Ruins Lives. Retrieved from: http://hummedia.manchester.ac.uk/institutes/code/research/projects/racism-at-work/tuc-full-report.pdf
Saad, L. (2020) ‘I don’t see color’ Is an act of racial gaslighting. Retrieved from: https://forge.medium.com/i-dont-see-color-is-an-act-of-racial-gaslighting-da5dca7063bb
Finally... a closing note from the editor
We hope you found this as valuable, challenging and informative as we did. If you did, we'd love you to share it on social media (we're sharing it on LinkedIn - we'd love you to follow us there and share your thoughts) or with your network of contacts. Not only does this help advance such an essential conversation, but it also acknowledges and supports the work people like Vicky are doing all over the world. We must not side line this conversation.
Ashe, S., Brokowka, M., & Nazroo, J. (2019) Racism ruins Lives. Retrieved from: http://hummedia.manchester.ac.uk/institutes/code/research/projects/racism-at-work/tuc-full-report.pdf
Banks, K. H., Harvey, R. (2020). Retrieved from: https://hbr.org/2020/06/is-your-company-actually-fighting-racism-or-just-talking-about-it
Bhui, K., Nazroo, J., Francis, J., Halvrosrud, K., Rhodes, J. (2018). The impact of racism on mental health. Retrieved from: https://synergicollaborativecentre.co.uk/wp-content/uploads/2017/11/The-impact-of-racism-on-mental-health-briefing-paper-1.pdf
Browne, B. (2019). 20 of the best leadership quotes from Brene Brown. Retrieved from: https://www.theceomagazine.com/business/management-leadership/20-of-the-best-leadership-quotes-from-brene-brown/
Brownlee, D. (2020). Dear White People: Here Are 10 Actions You Can Take To Promote Racial Justice In The Workplace. Retrieved from: https://www.forbes.com/sites/danabrownlee/2020/06/01/dear-white-people-here-are-10-actions-you-can-take-to-promote-racial-justice-in-the-workplace/?sh=58f62b504a92
Correll, J., Judd, C. M., Park, B., & Wittenbrink, B. (2010). Measuring prejudice, stereotypes and discrimination. The SAGE handbook of prejudice, stereotyping and discrimination, 45-62.
DiAngelo, R. (2011). White Fragility: Why it’s so hard for white people to talk about racism.
Edmondson, A. C. (2018). The fearless organization: Creating psychological safety in the workplace for learning, innovation, and growth. John Wiley & Sons.
Erkutlu, H., & Chafra, J. (2016). Benevolent leadership and psychological well-being. Leadership & organization development journal.
Kandola, P. (2018). Racism at Work Survey Results. Retrieved from: https://pearnkandola.com/research/racism-at-work-survey-results/
Livingston, R. (2020). How to Promote Racial Equity in the Workplace. Retrieved from: https://hbr.org/2020/09/how-to-promote-racial-equity-in-the-workplace.
Roberts, L., Washington, E. (2020). U.S. Businesses Must Take Meaningful Action Against Racism. Retrieved from: https://hbr.org/2020/06/u-s-businesses-must-take-meaningful-action-against-racism
Saad, L. (2020) ‘I don’t see color’ Is an act of racial gaslighting. Retrieved from: https://forge.medium.com/i-dont-see-color-is-an-act-of-racial-gaslighting-da5dca7063bb
Stahl, A. (2020). 10 Steps Businesses Can Take To Improve Diversity And Inclusion In The Workforce. Retrieved from: https://www.forbes.com/sites/ashleystahl/2020/07/21/10-steps-businesses-can-take-to-improve-diversity-and-inclusion-in-the-workforce/?sh=4ecb4f7e343e
Sweet, P. L. (2019). The Sociology of Gaslighting. American Sociological Review, 84(5), 851–875. https://doi.org/10.1177/0003122419874843