Navigating discussions on race in the workplace in the aftermath of George Floyd's death

Navigating discussions on race in the workplace in the aftermath of George Floyd's death
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As COVID-19 restrictions continue to lift and more people are preparing to go back to work, many black professionals are bracing themselves for the dreaded “safe,” politically correct dialogue concerning the state of racial disparities in the United States. 

This is a conversation that, if had with complete transparency and honesty, can cause the black professional to be labeled as “sensitive” — or even worse, “uncivil” — by their non-black counterparts.

Black professionals are frequently reminded that the comments, requests and/or tone afforded to their white counterparts are not equally afforded to them. It is spoken about within the black community but avoided when in larger circles, for fear of blackballing, professional reprimand, emotionally draining/traumatic conversation, or being excluded from the decision-making table. 


I recall the first time that my direct feedback to white colleagues was met with the response, “there’s no need to be uncivil.” As I re-read my email multiple times and consulted with other colleagues, I realized that it was not what I said but the direct tone of how I conveyed my message.

As a communicologist, this is something that I teach — and until that moment, it was an area that I felt extremely conscious about. 

I proceeded to ask myself:

“How could I have rephrased the email to soften the tone, yet be very clear about my stance?”

“Did I make any incorrect assumptions based on the original email?”

“Is there something that I could apologize for, that I would honestly be apologetic about?”


“If I weren’t a black woman, would I have to do this much thinking?”

In less diverse organizations where minorities may not be able to be themselves in leadership positions or even among their colleagues, it is more difficult to engage in open and honest racial dialogue, with ever-present concerns about “white fragility” that could manifest in unexpected ways in the heat of the moment. 

As CBS News reported last year, “Black people account for about 12% of the U.S. population, but occupy only 3.2% of the senior leadership roles at large companies in the U.S. ... About 65% of blacks in the study said they have to work harder to advance, compared with only 16% of white employees [who believe it is hard for blacks to advance].” With such a lack of representation and safe spaces, any potential conversation that can lead to the perception of incivility gives black professionals reason for caution. 

Discussions at work pertaining to current events and persisting racial tensions add an additional layer for black professionals, as they are either intentionally or unintentionally placed in a position to educate, defend and/or become the spokesperson for racial issues — often before they have had a chance to process their own feelings. 

People deal with trauma in different ways. To assume moments of silence or isolation are signs that black professionals are acquiescing to the perspectives held by the larger group, or that they fear engaging in conversation for reasons other than being misunderstood, would be an error. 

Similar to when someone is grieving the loss of a loved one, we provide that individual with space to grieve, and an opportunity to share thoughts about their experience and feelings when they are ready or willing. We work with the individual to identify ways to support them. Impersonal clichés (e.g., “Time heals all”) and unsolicited personal thoughts about the griever’s situation are inappropriate. These are some ways to support your black colleague(s) during this time.   

As COVID-19 has disproportionately affected those of color, George Floyd’s killing has simultaneously reopened the never-healing wound. 

So please excuse some of us as we take a moment of silence.

Rachel Bonaparte teaches communication studies at Montgomery College in Maryland, and is incoming chair of its President's Advisory Committee on Equity and Inclusion.