By Tony Perry

Episode 4 of our Real Talk webinar series led to even more great questions pouring in from the audience!

Tony Perry answered many of your questions on racial microaggressions in the workplace and navigating predominantly white spaces. There were too many questions to get to during the webinar, so Tony has answered more of them in this post, so we can continue the conversation!

If you haven’t had a chance to view the webinar yet, be sure to check out our 45-minute conversation with Tony here.

If you’ve already viewed the webinar and want to learn more from Tony on this topic, keep reading!

Microaggressions and Creating Safe Spaces Q&A with Tony Perry

Social Justice Content Creator, Activist, Writer, and Afrikan Historian

Greetings everyone! Before I jump into the questions we didn’t have time to cover during the live session I’d like to take a second to personally thank everyone that showed up for my session, and submitted questions. As you’ll soon see, we received some fantastic questions that prompted in-depth answers that can be used in your personal life as well as in your organization.

I thoroughly enjoyed our session and I hope that it will not be our last. Anti-racism is a lifelong learning journey and I hope our session was one of many more to come as you continue down the path of living and promoting an anti-racist lifestyle.

So without further delay, here are my responses to the questions we didn’t have time to answer during the live webinar.

Q: What is your experience dealing with racial microaggressions?

I’ve been in a few situations where racial microaggressions have been in play. One situation that I’ve shared most recently happened before I joined BizLibrary. I used to work for a small startup company here in St. Louis prior to joining BizLibrary. So small I was the second hire on the marketing team, joining four other developers who made up the rest of the company. Needless to say, I was the only Afrikan-American in the company but that honestly comes with the field in most startups in the area.

Our main office space was located on a pretty busy street which would oftentimes get a lot of traffic. To make matters worse, a few blocks from our building was a firehouse and a police department, so we’d hear all types of sirens throughout the day. Whenever we’d hear a siren pass by, my boss’s boss (the owner of the start-up, who also happened to be a person of color) would always turn to me and make some off-hand cop joke.

For example, one time a cop drove past our building blasting their sirens and the owner looks at me and says, “What did you do this time?” There was another time when it sounded like two cops might’ve been chasing someone down the street, and he turns to me and says, “You better hide!”

These are racial microaggressions that play on harmful stereotypes usually attributed to young Black males in America, and in the West at large. The most glaring stereotype being the belief that Black men are inherently more violent than others and therefore need to be controlled or heavily policed.

Q: How do you maintain and sustain an effective D&I program during these turbulent times?

To be honest I think D&I programs work best when social unrest is on the top of everyone’s minds. By doing so, it makes it easier for those involved in the training sessions to draw real life connections to the content being covered. A few things to keep in mind when carrying out these programs:

Center BIPOC Voices at Their Discretion

Not every BIPOC is well-researched or comfortable sharing their experiences with racism/white supremacy or lack of diversity in the workplace. With that being said, an effort should still be made to give those BIPOC who are well-researched on the topic and have no problems sharing their personal experiences a chance to do so.

Maintaining a “Safe Space”

A safe space is essentially a space where tough conversation can be had with understanding and accountability both being the shared main goal for all parties involved. Actions that conflict with one of these shared goals ultimately jeopardizes the safe space, so it’s imperative that those who are responsible for maintaining the safe space avoid and snuff out the following:

  • Whataboutisms: (I coined this word by the way) Whataboutisms are questions that are asked to prove a point rather than seek clarification. For example, when someone asks a question like, “Well what about Black on Black crime” or “What about all lives matter” they’re normally not asking for clarification but instead are trying to “prove a point” and dismiss the subject-matter at hand which ultimately maintains the status-quo.
  • Interruptions: No one should ever interrupt or talk over another person.
  • Judging/Name Calling: Safe spaces are spaces where no question is a “dumb question.” Even if the question itself is rooted in ignorance. As long as the person asking the question is sincere, then the question should be respected and free of labels that might discourage others from participating.

Q: How do you create a safe space to share stories and then change behaviors?

As previously stated, a safe space is essentially a space where tough conversations can be had with understanding and accountability both being the shared main goal for all parties involved. A few things to keep in mind when creating a safe space for your team:

Establish Rules and Boundaries

Create rules and guidelines participants must follow if they want to be a part of your safe space. I’d suggest crafting your rules to combat the factors I listed above that jeopardize safe spaces: whataboutisms, interruptions, and judging/name calling.

Follow Some Sort of Structure (but Don’t Fully Commit to It)

Create a main theme as to why the space was created, i.e. addressing microaggressions, lack of diversity in the workplace, etc. That way those who want to be involved in the safe space know what to research or speak to beforehand. Once the discussion gets going and people start sharing their stories and experiences don’t be surprised if the conversation shifts slightly from what the main topic originally was. For example, a conversation on microaggressions could lead to conversations about the lack of diversity in higher management. This is ok as long as the flow of the shared conversations is organic.

Rely on the Experts

Try to always have at least one person who is well-researched on the main topic at hand in the “safe space.”

Q: What are some tangible steps toward shifting the work culture to be more inclusive?

Below are some tangible steps one can take towards building a more inclusive work culture:

  • Set up opportunities for team building that encourage employees to interact with people they’d normally never speak to.
  • Creating “safe spaces” for open and honest discussion.
  • Creating a diversity and inclusion month that features a collection of training materials, guest speakers, and workshops.

Q: What’s the best way to address conversations when people claim they feel intimidated because of the perceived power I have?

I’d suggest creating a channel of command that “separates” you from those who have complaints/concerns. Usually HR departments are that “buffer” for situations like this. The use of an anonymous tip box would also help serve as a buffer between you and those who might have complaints/concerns.

Q: In the same way we may seek out and identify mentors for professional growth, might we have cultural understanding mentors to expand our human growth?

I’ve never thought of this nor have I heard of a company try to implement something like this. However, I think it’s a great idea! At least one that should be examined further. One thing I’d stress is that those who want to be mentors in this space should come by way of volunteer rather than higher-ups appointing people. I’d also suggest screening those who do volunteer to ensure that they’re well-researched in the matter.

Q: Tony, what if a person just doesn’t get it? They say and do things that are really no doubt racist, but when you approach them they say they are not racist or they were only joking.

First things first, protect your energy. One thing I’ve learned after spending so much time in this space is that some people don’t want to change, nor take responsibility for upholding a legacy of privilege that’s tied to oppression. When you encounter people like this you have to do what is best for your own mental and physical wellbeing.

I’d also suggest that it is not your job, nor BIPOC at large’s job to educate and monitor white people in the space on anti-racism. Donna Bivens in her work centered around internalized racism said it best when she said, “Practically speaking, people of color cannot force white people to notice, acknowledge, or dismantle racism and the white privilege that results from it. Nor can we continually monitor and check up on their progress. For one thing, a great deal of what happens to hold racism and white privilege in place goes on out of the purview of peoples of color. Ultimately, white people must come to their own understanding of why it is in their interests to dismantle a system that does not work for all humanity and commit to creating something better.“

If this is happening inside the workplace and it’s effecting your performance than I’d highly suggest using the proper HR outlets provided, as well as documenting your efforts to try to resolve the issue. I’d also be sure to include how these interactions affected your psyche and mental health.

I loved these questions and I truly hope that we can continue to have conversations like this as time moves forward. Feel free to connect with me on LinkedIn to do just that, and for those interested in viewing more of my work in this space, please be sure to add a note to your friend request asking for more access to my writing materials.  

If you learned something from Tony’s insights on microaggressions and safe spaces in the workplace, be sure to view the on-demand webinar to learn even more!