Diversity Expert Shares 3 Practical Steps Whites Can Take to Help Combat Racial Discrimination in the Workplace

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In conjunction with Black History Month, Carmen Van Kerckhove, president of workplace diversity education firm New Demographic, outlines ways that white professionals can show solidarity with colleagues of color and combat racial bias without ruffling feathers on either side.

As companies increasingly emphasize the importance of workplace diversity, outright racism has become socially taboo. That doesn't mean racial prejudice has gone away - instead, many people have simply learned how to hide their racism at work. It's often only white people who hear, without censorship, what bigoted whites really think about people of color.

In a situation of unspoken discrimination, a white voice often carries more weight than the person directly affected and marginalized by the perpetrator. Unfortunately, without white confirmation, claims of racism are often shrugged off as someone "playing the race card" to get ahead.

Van Kerckhove explains, "When white people stand up for co-workers of color, it sends a powerful message. But before they do, it's important to remember a few guidelines."

1. Don't make the mistake of unilaterally becoming a savior, rushing in to defend your co-worker without permission.

If the co-worker is, without doubt, experiencing discrimination, take him or her aside and see if they're feeling as you are about the situation.

If your co-worker is uncomfortable when asked, just back off. They may have compelling reasons for not wanting to rock the boat. Or they may be handling it their own way. Or they may not trust "intervention", having been burned by other colleagues who did more harm than good when they tried to help. Don't take it personally if they rebuff your approach.

But if the co-worker is in agreement, offer to speak up the next time a slight occurs. See how comfortable he or she is with the idea. Make it clear help is being offered to show solidarity as a friend and colleague.

2. With the colleague's consent to intervene the next time discriminatory behavior occurs, handle the issue the moment it occurs, whether it happens in a group or one-on-one.

If a supervisor is shutting down when the colleague offers input, say something like, "Oh, think that's a terrific idea! Your proposal could benefit us in a number of ways (and enumerate them)." And should the supervisor steal a colleague's ideas and claim them as her own (or another's), step in immediately with something along these lines: "Yes, I thought that was a great idea when my colleague _____ first presented it."

3. Whenever racist sentiments are aired among white co-workers, question the speaker (and anyone agreeing) about the statements they made.

Remain calm. Simply ask the person how they reached the conclusion they have about the ethnic or racial group they have just insulted. They'll feel convicted by the response and may self-correct in the future if they become uncomfortable often enough.

Obviously, the act of self-censoring isn't a signal that anyone has been "cured" of racism, but it gives them something to think about next time. And self-censoring often enough may cause them to begin to reflect more deeply on their prejudices during quiet times at home. It's a first step.

Carmen concludes, "All of us -- not just white folks -- need to learn how to go beyond the concerns of the specific community we belong to and recognize that when one group is discriminated against, it's an affront to everyone. Recognizing and resisting prejudice in all forms, even when we're not the target of it, is critical if we really want to make a difference."

Beginning February 5th, 2009 Van Kerckhove is offering an affordable, transformative professional development course titled Diversity Career Success: How to Take Your Organization From Culturally Clueless to Diversity Dynamo (And Skyrocket Your Own Career While You're At It):

The course is designed exclusively for professionals who are involved in any way with their organization's workplace diversity efforts - whether they're the Chief Diversity Officer or simply a volunteer in the organization's diversity employee networking group.

Carmen Van Kerckhove, president of the workplace diversity education firm New Demographic, specializes in working with corporations to facilitate relaxed, authentic, and productive conversations about race. She has appeared on CNN, MSNBC, and has visited as a guest lecturer at Harvard, Princeton, Columbia, and many other colleges and universities across the country.

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