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Summit Focuses on Subtle Racism

Margaret Summers | 4/9/2014, 3 p.m.

African-Americans and other people of color frequently confront racism in the workplace. But they are often hesitant to complain to supervisors or act on such behavior because it is so subtle they cannot be sure it is racism.

The Second Summit on Race: Racism 2.0 Micro-assaults, Micro-insults, and Micro-invalidations, explored such situations in a four-hour workshop and discussion on Saturday, April 5 in Alexandria’s historically black Alfred Street Baptist Church on South Alfred Street.

“We will provide resources for African-Americans and other individuals to know how to handle workplace racism,” said Dr. Vanessa J. Weaver, event facilitator. “We will provide a biblical response to workplace injustices and how we should respond to them.”

The summit was sponsored by the church’s AGAPE Ministry (Achieving Growth and Awareness through Psychological Empowerment). AGAPE is the church’s counseling service which helps individuals and families achieve and maintain optimal mental health and life management skills.

Weaver has facilitated similar workshops in government agencies and the private sector through her Potomac, Md. company Alignment Strategies. “Businesses are losing about $85 million a year from [discrimination-related] litigation, and from workers becoming sick due to constant exposure to racism,” she said.

“In our society, we tend to think of differences as a deficit. In my work, we teach that differences are a value, and a diverse workforce gives companies a competitive edge.”

Weaver defined racism as prejudice plus power. Such power can prevent people of color and others who are considered different from career advancement.

Employees of color are often subject to “micro-inequities,” subtle slights causing them to feel devalued, discouraged or excluded. “We know what they are,” said Weaver. “People may avoid eye contact with you. Some people may roll their eyes at you. There are those who cut down your ideas before they can be entertained. And there are people who mispronounce or misspell your name.”

The audience of approximately 50 people formed small discussion groups, each of which focused on specific micro-inequities. They included “Being Discounted,” “Discomfort with Cultural Authenticity,” and “Being Excluded from Informal Networks.” “Being Discounted” group participants agreed to speak freely as long as their full names were not used in this article to protect them against possible workplace repercussions.

Rea, 49, of Maryland, told the “Being Discounted” group that she was dismissed from her job as a contractor in the military, although her co-worker in their two-person office performed less work. “He would be rude to people, and fall asleep at his desk,” she said. “The man would never meet deadlines. I made things [at the workplace] so much easier. Everything was in order. But he was part of the good old boy network.”

Rea said during the Christmas season, her supervisor told her she was no longer needed. She later found out that she was fired for being rude to someone, which she denies.

“These situations happen with so much frequency you don’t know when they’re going to hit,” said Renée, 60, of Washington, D.C. “You have to be able to articulate to someone how you feel. But you have to do something. Most people just walk away.”

Joel of New York City said defending against subtle racism means appealing to federal civil rights agencies. “Take it to the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission,” he said. “If someone even looks at you crazy, report it to the EEOC.”

Returning to the large group setting, Weaver told the audience that there are other ways to deal with subtle racism before calling in the EEOC. “Many of the slights we receive from others are unintentional or unconscious,” she said. “Think about how you can modify your view of others to reduce the impact these slights have on you.”

Weaver added that those who feel slighted should think about what they can stop doing which causes them to feel excluded or overlooked at work, and what to start doing to feel respected and valued at work.

“Participate in five actions,” said Weaver. “Give the benefit of the doubt. Put yourself in someone else’s shoes. Engage your circle of friends and colleagues. Engage in positive activities. And help someone see the good in someone else.”