Race. What a complicated subject.
Growing up, I was influenced by a variety of cultures. My father immigrated to the U.S. from the Philippines. My mom was "white", from near Boston (with Portuguese and Irish ancestry).
Then, there were my friends: I grew up in a racially diverse city in Virginia, where I went to a predominantly black high school. Naturally, most of my friends were black, with roots in the South...But I had friends from other backgrounds as well.
And then, I moved to world's melting pot: New York City.
This upbringing gave me a unique ability: Being close to people from so many varying perspectives, I learned a lot about how others see the world. For example, it was fascinating to me how a simple news report would elicit completely different responses from my mom, my dad, and my friends.
These experiences helped me to realize that people's views are shaped by a myriad of factors.
But what does any of this have to do with emotional intelligence?
Racial Prejudice in the Workplace
Emotional intelligence, also known as EI or EQ (for Emotional Intelligence Quotient), describes a person's ability to recognize emotions, to understand their powerful effect, and to use that information to guide thinking and behavior. EI helps you to better understand yourself, and others.
There's probably no subject in America that gets emotions more riled up than race. Just check out the headlines of any newspaper today.
Recently, a reader wrote seeking advice on this topic in a very specific context:
I would be very interested in understanding better how to make someone realize when they are "out of order" in a way which helps them to test their own assumptions, rather than becoming defensive or becoming more deeply entrenched in a particular position.
For instance, someone admits that a friendly relationship has cooled because of a joke about race, but then writes it off because "People of that race are just too sensitive." This individual has many good qualities but has an enormous blind spot.
What can be done?
First of all, kudos to Robin for recognizing that her friend has a definite problem in stereotyping an entire race.
The honest truth is, we all stereotype at times. And whatever prejudices we have (and we all have some) are deeply ingrained.
That's why conversations about the topic are so valuable--because hearing from the other side can challenge our beliefs and get us thinking. They help us close the perspective gap and find a way to display empathy--if we let them.
So what should you do in this situation?
How to Respond
In the workplace, race relations are tricky. Having a conversation about them, at the right time and place, can combat ignorance and help broaden views--if people are willing to listen.
But that type of conversation can also quickly get awkward. Or worse, very heated.
Of course, any communication you initiate must be tailored to the individual you're dealing with. Emotional intelligence includes recognizing that individuals respond differently to various styles of communication (as well as foreseeing how your own emotions get in the way of rational thought).
Additionally, although the ability to be flexible and adaptable is generally good, you also want to stand up for your principles and not water them down.
That being said, when addressing racial prejudice in the workplace, I offer the following suggestions:
Choose the proper place and time.
Certain behaviors require an immediate response.
For example, you shouldn't allow a colleague to make someone else feel uncomfortable with racially charged statements. If others hear such statements, refusing to address them immediately shows tacit support, and deals a huge blow to your organization's efforts toward diversity.
But some of the most productive conversations about race are done on a one-to-one basis, where people are more comfortable letting their guard down and expressing their true opinions.
There's a right time and place to begin these conversations. Choose a time when both of you are relaxed and in a positive mood.
Prepare the person for a sensitive topic.
Frame the discussion in a way that that relays that you want to be helpful.
You could begin with something like: "___, we've worked together for a while now, right? If you saw me display behavior that could be damaging, I would hope that you'd tell me. That's why I'd like to talk about something I heard the other day..."
The goal is to get them listening while minimizing the tendency to get defensive.
Get the full story.
At times, we've all been quick to judge people or situations based on appearances, without details.
If you didn't witness something personally, there's a big chance that details have gotten lost in between. And even if you were there to see or hear something, you did so through a lens of personal biases and leanings that affect your perception.
In view of fairness, ask the person to describe how they remember the event. Be open to hearing your communication partner's true opinions, and acknowledge their feelings.
Then, relate the situation as you saw it. Ask questions like: "Is that how you meant it?" Or, "Am I missing part of the story?"
Remember that this is a discussion, and you'll be dealing with (potentially) strong feelings and emotions. And depending on the situation, you may also be in the wrong--at least about some things.
Listen carefully, and speak respectfully.
Admit your own failures.
If your friend made an inappropriate joke about race, think back through your own experiences. Maybe you feel that you haven't said anything so extreme (or maybe you have--think hard), but we've all made mistakes. Then, try to relate.
Here's an example of how it might go:
"I once said something similar [cite example], and someone called me out on it. At first, I thought they were just being overly sensitive. But over time, I realized that I'd be upset if someone made a joke I felt was at my expense. It also made me take a closer look at my own prejudices and stereotypes.
In the end, I was glad the person spoke up."
Remember: If you're white, you can't fully understand what it's like to be black, or Asian, or anything else. And vice-versa.
But everyone can relate to the feeling of being uncomfortable, angry, or hurt. Try to get your friend to focus on those feelings, instead of events.
None of us have control over how our comments make someone else feel--but we can learn from those reactions, relate them to similar feelings we've experienced in the past, and adjust for the future.
Try to relate that lesson, kindly and tactfully.
Putting It into Practice
Of course, facial expression and tone of voice also play a large role in this type of discussion. And depending on your relationship with the individual (and their personality type), you may need to be more direct.
The goal is to create an environment where the person doesn't feel attacked, so they can receive the message the way it's intended: to help.
In the end, remember: You can only do so much for others. In order for a person to improve--and all of us can improve--he or she has to want it.
When we approach things from an emotionally intelligent perspective, hopefully we help them to do just that.
And we work on ourselves in the process.