Conversations about race should start at work

We need to stop ignoring the problem of all-white workplaces.

This month, I’ve started and stopped writing this column a dozen times now, which isn’t like me. Normally, I get an idea and just go.

Writing about more pandemic-related professional advice would have been easy but given the current climate in the aftermath of the murder of George Floyd by a police officer and the subsequent days and weeks of protests that followed, it also would have been extremely myopic.

The state of race relations in America is all we really should be talking about right now because it’s clear that in many circles it’s been ignored for far too long. When people say things have gotten better for blacks in the days since the Civil Rights movement garnered equal rights under the law for black citizens, they’re correct. But better is a long way from good. When black men and women continue to be assaulted and killed by the same law enforcement officers who are supposed to protect them, it should be obvious that everyone’s work fighting racial injustice is far from over.

My wife and I have had a lot of difficult conversations in recent days with our 10- and 6-year old sons about what’s going on in our country. Difficult because they just flat out don’t get how something like what happened to George Floyd, Breonna Taylor, Ahmaud Arbery, and so many others, including Tony Robinson right here in Madison, can happen. I have answers when they ask “Why?” but none of them are good. They certainly don’t make any sense to me either. My younger son especially can’t comprehend why the police would kill someone who wasn’t a “bad guy.” Again, neither can I. But it sickens me and I’ll continue to have the hard conversations with my kids because I want them to be better than this.

It was with all of this as background that I read articles on LinkedIn in early June about “how to support your black colleagues.” And I know colleague in this sense is referring to all of us, everyone we cross paths with professionally, but I kept thinking about direct co-workers, people at our own companies. It probably shouldn’t come as a surprise given that the most recent data from the U.S. Census Bureau shows Madison’s white population sits at about 74%, but I don’t have any black co-workers. I haven’t had a black co-worker since 2010, two jobs ago. Before that, the last black co-worker I had was when I worked at a Whole Foods Market in high school in Wheaton, Illinois, which is even whiter than Madison. That’s sad.

I tell my kids all the time that we grow and enrich ourselves by putting ourselves in uncomfortable situations and surrounding ourselves with people who are different from us. The unfortunate reality is the place I spend a third of my life has almost always featured people who are just like me.

I don’t fault my employers wholesale for this. By and large, they’ve all been good people who wouldn’t disqualify an applicant consciously or otherwise based on race. But as we’ve heard often in recent weeks, the system has gatekeepers, and there are far too few minority journalists out there, let alone young minority youth exposed to this field as a possible career path.

What does this mean? It means we all need to do a better job of communicating at our places of work with one another about what we want to be and what we want to look like. It means we need to be better about seeking out minority applicants to fill job openings, and not just expecting them to come to us. It means we need to be better about being better because that’s the only way we’re going to get to good.