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Black Lawyer's Burden: Calling Out Racism.

Vivia Chen

July 23, 2020

African-1128863_1920Corporate America has a new mantra: “If you see something, say something.”

That used to refer to untended packages left on the subway or suspicious people wearing big vests in crowds. Now, it’s also what good corporate citizens are supposed to do when they witness harassment, bullying or racism in the workplace.

Arguably, with Black Lives Matter gaining traction, this is the perfect moment to call out colleagues, managers and even clients who make offensive remarks or demonstrate intolerance. Institutions are knocking themselves out about how much they value diversity, so why shouldn’t we tell it like it is?

Sounds empowering, but who are we kidding?

It’s hard for anyone to raise thorny topics like sexism or racism in the workplace. And if you’re a woman or a person of color making the charge, it’s almost impossible.

I hear this from women and diverse lawyers all the time. In my own circle of diverse female friends, we often share stories of sexism and racism and debate at length what actions to take.

And guess what? We tend to let it go. We know from experience that those who complain seldom get satisfaction, especially if the offender brings in business or carries clout. Sure, management will go through the motion of hearing us out, but how often is the offender (and I’m talking about someone with a troubling history) demoted or ousted? And if the complainer persists in pressing the issue, guess who’ll be labeled a troublemaker?

A recent article in the Harvard Business Review talks about this problem, particularly for Blacks. “As high as these stakes are for white people who speak up, they’re higher if you’re Black,” the authors, James Detert and Laura Morgan Roberts of University of Virginia Darden School of Business, wrote. “Raise these issues and you risk being seen as biased, overly emotional (e.g., too angry), and a host of other negative stereotypes.”

The HBR article attempts to offer a realistic road map for how minorities can broach racism at work. For starters, it suggests that they enlist others to their cause: “Find like-minded colleagues and raise the issue together. People we studied reported that speaking up as a group on workplace issues had more of an impact because it was hard to write them off as ‘one disgruntled person.’”

I think that’s very good advice, but I’d go further. Rather than enlist only minorities, it would likely be more effective to enlist members of the majority. Indeed, it often feels that it is the burden of people of color to raise awareness of bias—and it shouldn’t be.

The HBR authors offer other suggestions and warnings about raising issues of race in the workplace:

Don't get too emotional (but don't suppress them either). "Revealing the full extent of your rage or despair in front of those with power sets you up to be dismissed or punished for being 'too emotional.'" 

Expect negative reactions. "Demanding improvements in racial equity stands a good chance of evoking defensiveness and fear."

Be inclusive and make your argument compelling. "Delivering your message as inclusively as possible can help with the sense of divisiveness often associated with calls for racial justice." The message should be, "'We are evolving together' rather than 'I am revolting against you.' This framing highlights collective progress."

Followup: "If you need those people to stand with you for real change to take root, you’ll want to check in."

All sound advice. But so exhausting. Thought the authors write, "our aim in providing this advice is not to place an additional burden on people of color," it feels exactly like that. It seems minorities have to walk on egg shells and perform Jujutsu to talk about racial injustice in their own workplace, lest they come off as too angry, strident or demanding. Then, they have to "followup" on the conversation, because, chances are, management will need a lot of nudging on these issues.

Which brings up the authors' final point: "If you have attempted to implement these suggestions, and still see little to no progress, take stock of where you are and where you wish to be. It might be time to look around your organization for a new team or assignment with leaders and allies who are willing to join you in this work."

And people wonder why minorities don't stick around.

Related post: "We Are Tired and Fed Up": Kirkland & Ellis Associate Speaks Out."

vchen@alm.com

Twitter: @lawcarerist

 

 

 

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So yeah, if you raise issues your are either ignored, minimized or demonized. Just sayin'.

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About The Careerist

The Careerist takes an inside look at how lawyers shape their careers and manage their lives. The blog aims to dissect developments in the profession, provide useful information and advice, and give lawyers a platform to voice their views. The goal is to provide a fresh, provocative take on the state of lawyering.

About Vivia Chen

Vivia Chen

Vivia Chen, The Careerist's chief blogger, has been covering the business and culture of law firms for a decade. A former corporate lawyer, Chen is fascinated by those who thrive (as well as those who don't) in the legal profession. Her take: Success in the law (and life) doesn't always travel a linear path. If you have topics you'd like to discuss or information to share, contact her: VChen@alm.com

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