How to talk to your boss about race

It’s easy to get overwhelmed by the enormity of the social change in recent years. Many people are understandably asking themselves, “How do I, as one person, try to change a system?”

As an international human rights lawyer,  then as the CEO of diversity, equity, and inclusion consulting firm (in addition to always being a professional Black person)—I’ve spent my entire career exploring this weighty question. From my experience, the first step involves knowing yourself.

Perhaps something specific has prompted you to ask these deeper questions. Maybe your eyes have recently been opened to dynamics at work which before, you never noticed. Maybe there’s been yet another racially-motivated shooting in the news; maybe your boss is treating you in a problematic way; or maybe you just can’t handle the current culture anymore.

In any case, something has motivated you to have a conversation about race at work. The first step in figuring out how to have this conversation is understanding how you show up. How does your identity influence your perceptions and the ways you will be perceived?

I believe it’s always best to start with self-reflection—or in other words, get real with yourself about yourself. How do you understand your own identity and relationship to racism, your position in your organization, your power to make change, and the likelihood that your boss will be receptive to having the conversation that you want to have? Doing this introspective work enables you to approach the conversation strategically and effectively.

As you can imagine, I am often called into conversations about race. Some people even pay me to have them. But those conversations are not always effective. Sometimes it’s about overall readiness—the person who I’m talking with, who has paid me to talk to them, isn’t ready or doesn’t want to have this tough conversation, period. And sometimes the question of readiness is more relational: the person who I’m talking to just isn’t ready to have that conversation with me.

It’s not just about what you say and how you say it. It’s also about who does the talking. In fact, I have seen clients have a much easier time opening up to my White colleagues or to my Black male colleagues. Some clients gravitate toward some personalities over others; that’s natural. But it’s also a function of bias: Those people who individuals allow themselves to see as competent, who they feel comfortable confiding in, and who they will accept criticism from.

I stopped taking this personally a long time ago and learned instead to give strategic consideration to this dynamic.

Like it or not, our identities play a critical role in the conversations that we have about race. We can’t bury our heads in the sand about it. If we’re going to be successful, we have to confront this reality and develop conscious strategies to avoid our own biases, manage the biases of other people we encounter and, wherever possible, use our position to have the most productive conversation.

The term “social identity” refers to the groups or categories that help determine our sense of self, based on our own perceptions or the perceptions of others of our membership. Race, gender, class, country of origin, age, and religion are all part of our social identities. At work, our occupation, seniority level, and team membership could also be considered social identities. Some social identities are immutable. Some can change. Some confer advantage and some disadvantage based on membership.

For example, I am a queer woman in her late-thirties, descended from enslaved Africans, from a middle-class background, who is married to a White-passing, cisgender man. This affects the way others interact with me. Sometimes I experience racism; sometimes I experience sexism; sometimes I experience both. Rarely do I experience homophobia, because of my socially acceptable status of being in a heterosexual marriage. However, because of my class status, I’ve also experienced, relatively, easier acceptance at school, and work and social access that other African Americans do not.

My identity has also given me access to educational and professional resources that others do not have. For example, because I was born into the middle class, I’ve lived with less financial precarity than others. Although I had to take on crushing debt, my pathway to college was still easier than it would have been for someone from a less privileged socioeconomic group. As a result, I was also allowed into professional spaces that other Black people weren’t. As a result of my education and class signifiers, some White people see me as an “acceptable Black person.” I’ve been told more than once, “I’m not like other Black people.”

That said, I am still a Black woman, and society treats me according to this identity. I’ve experienced job discrimination, I’ve been called racial slurs, and I’ve been followed around in stores and pulled over by the police for no reason. My class position can’t buy me out of that. While my social identities afford me some advantage, they disadvantage me as well.

Where social identity systemically confers advantage, such as the ones I just mentioned, we can think of that as privilege (because yes, Black people can have privilege, too). Usually, I like to steer clear of that word: “privilege.” It’s attached to a ton of cultural baggage, irrationally pisses off some White people, and can derail a conversation. People tend to see privilege as an absolute concept: you either have it or you don’t. They react strongly when they feel they are being placed on the wrong end of that binary. But social identity theory shows that privilege is in fact layered and relational.

Though my writing focuses on racism, it’s important to acknowledge that other aspects of our identity influence our interactions. We bring all of our social identities to the conversations that we have.

Our social identities can influence the content of our discussion. We may miss certain aspects of discrimination because our membership in a social identity group insulates us from seeing it. We may overemphasize one struggle and underrate another because it personally affects members of our group. We may ignore our own biases or miss intersectional marginalization.

Our social identities can also affect how we are heard. Our words and actions may be interpreted a certain way simply because of our social identity and the biases related to it, since competency biases and assumptions of neutrality tend to work in your favor. Our social identity may also impact our ability to be seen as credible, knowledgeable, or neutral on the topic of racism. For example, a younger employee may have their concerns about race dismissed because they’re a “woke snowflake Zoomer.” If we voice concerns as members of an impacted group, we might also find ourselves being dismissed as too sensitive or paranoid (early on in my career, I got labeled with both).

So to avoid these pitfalls, and to uncover ways that we can leverage identity to build connection, introspection is key.

Excerpt adapted from How to Talk to Your Boss About Race: Speaking Up Without Getting Shut Down by Y-Vonne Hutchinson, with permission from Portfolio, an imprint of the Penguin Publishing Group, a division of Penguin Random House, LLC.  Copyright © 2022 by Y-Vonne Hutchinson.

Y-Vonne Hutchinson is the CEO and founder of ReadySet, a diversity, equity, and inclusion consulting firm. 

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