Tired of Educating Your Peers on Race? Think again 

Group of people listening to a talk.

The next time someone asks you to explain race to them, profit.

Imagine this. You’re out at lunch, minding your business, when a colleague approaches you. Perhaps said colleague is your teammate. They could be someone you’ve talked to maybe once over the past three years since joining the company.

Your mind races as you do your best to anticipate their request. You don’t really want to talk about work right now. Did you forget to follow-up on an email? Is there a bug in your code impacting users? The anxiety grows bit by bit as your colleague draws closer. Their smile does little to set you at ease. You smile in return anyway.

“Hi,” they begin. “So I read the email about our company’s new investment in Diversity & Inclusion initiatives and—I was wondering if you have any thoughts about it.” 

The look on their face straightens and wrinkles over and over again. “I mean, I get why something needs to be done, but is now really the right time?”

Hold up, wait a minute

If you’re in a historically marginalized group, you’ve likely encountered an experience like this in the past.

At any other time, you feel like you’re just another number in the company. Now, you are suddenly the dē factō subject matter expert and field correspondent on race.

“I’m Jamar with the Ain’t Got Time For That News Network. Back to you in the studio, Karen,” you muse in your head.

I know what you’re thinking. 

It’s not fair. Why should I have to educate people on centuries of systemic oppression? Why must the burden fall on me to explain slavery, Jim Crow discrimination, and lynching in the mere three minutes you have to spend? Isn’t there a book you can read or a YouTube video you can watch about this stuff?

For many black folks like myself, this is an experience that is all too common.

Explaining our own experiences with race can feel like another burden on top of an already difficult reality. As I have often written, this code of the “Black Tax” is still alive and well.

So, how should one deal with explaining race to other people?

What do you do?

The way I see it, you’ve got three options:

One option is to stand your ground. Reject the premise that you have any responsibility at all to educate anyone on race. You may lack the power and privilege of others, but you can surely push back on this. It’s your lunch time. You have rights! You deserve at least one opportunity in the day to break from the pressures of existing in a space not built for you. Even while you sit in this lousy chain restaurant playing music you don’t like. Even while eating this barely seasoned food you know your momma could make five times better.

What about option two? You can just pretend that race isn’t an issue at all.

I mean, why would somebody spend time and money on this obviously frivolous pursuit? Besides, now is not the time to stand out. You’ve got to fit in and show that you’re just like everybody else.

It doesn’t matter that you’re the first and only Latina woman in the whole engineering department. What’s that got to do with it? You are as smart and capable as every other employee. If your coworker thinks this isn’t the right time to talk about diversity and inclusion (though it IS worth interrupting your day), then who are you to disagree? Besides, you’re eating your lunch. You’d rather be doing anything else other than talking about this with them.

There is yet a third option (and this is the choice I prefer). 

What if we each did our part to start a genuine dialog with patience, understanding, and good will. Instead of dodging the discussion, what if we chose to play an active role in educating our coworkers on the experiences we face as underrepresented folks?

I’ll give you a few reasons why I think this is the superior choice.

If you’re good at something, never do it for free

First, it’s an opportunity for you to build your own social capital. 

Throughout my career, I’ve made it a point to be unforgettable. Part of the way that I do that is by having conversations with colleagues that others cannot. That’s because I am usually either one of the few or the only person qualified to speak to the Black experience in my circles. And as interest has grown in corporate America around understanding race and gender dynamics, this gives me the chance to interact with people whom I might not normally engage. It makes it easier and faster for me to expand my network and, potentially, my net worth (more on that in a moment).

Secondly, it’s an opportunity to grow your leadership skills. 

Throughout my career, I’ve demonstrated the most leadership skill not in the technical aspects of my job, but in the equity advocacy work that I’ve done within organizations. Before leaving Google, I achieved my most recent promotion, in part, on the strength of my influence and thought leadership. I took opportunities to lead various company culture initiatives and manage teams of volunteers to promote real good in the community. That required developing my communication and empathy skills in addition to basic project management abilities. I’ve carried these skills with me into my life as a full-time entrepreneur as well.

Thirdly, it’s an opportunity for value exchange.

It took several years for me to figure out that being willing and able to discuss race is a marketable skill. I’ve been able to develop a public speaking brand that has netted me many paid speaking engagements. My perspective as a Black software engineer of over 20 years is valuable.

And you know what? I’ve come to realize that I don’t have to give that value away for free.

Companies invest tons of money into paying consultants to help them understand the workforce to drive more effective recruitment and retention. Why shouldn’t you see a piece of that action for the burden of sharing a piece of yourself? 

Capitalize on the value of your narrative

Now I’m not suggesting you make your coworkers pay you $50 bucks for a 1-on-1 consultation on race. But I’m sure you can figure out a value exchange that will work. Maybe you can compare notes on compensation. Perhaps you can gain intelligence on workplace politics. Maybe you can cash in the opportunity for some useful mentoring advice.

The best part about this strategy is that this doesn’t just work when it comes to talking about race. We can all, no matter who we are, figure out that X-factor we bring to the table that provides value to other people. 

There must be real value to you being in the room that goes beyond the work you do. It’s up to you to take advantage of that for your benefit. Mark my words—others will definitely find a way to exploit it.

And isn’t that the real point of diversity?

Anthony D. Mays is a former Google software engineer with over 20 years of experience. The story of his journey from Compton as an abuse survivor and former foster kid was documented in a 2018 BuzzFeed documentary entitled “From Compton to Google.” He is now founder, career coach, and public speaker at Morgan Latimer Consulting. Follow him on Twitter at @anthonydmays and book him as a speaker for your next event at