Photo by Vita Vilacina (Creative Commons Zero)

We gon’ be alright

Tackling Race in the Workplace


I walked into work one day, a few minutes late into a team meeting cryptically titled “Let’s Talk About It Over Coffee.” The focus was on a draft of a public newsletter that briefly addressed recent tragedies in the news.

“It felt whitewashed to me,” a Black woman and colleague said as I slid into a seat — any thought of coffee evaporating from my mind. The statement was directed at a white-Latino man and colleague. The word “whitewashed” hung in the air.

“Whitewashed.”

As an Asian woman, many thoughts raced through my head in that instant. If you call someone’s actions ‘whitewashed’ are you calling them racist? Did the word take on extra sting when it’s not followed by an eye roll? (i.e. Unlike, “did you hear about that Matt Damon movie where he saves the Great Wall?”) Was “Let’s Talk About It Over Coffee” devolving into an awkward office moment?

That office I work at is August. We believe the world’s most valuable work depends on teams who work together as people, not as business robots. We work with organizations to help them change the way they work and build cultures where teams can thrive. The discussion during the 9AM meeting was around tragedies — specifically the terrorist attack in Nice, the coup in Turkey, the shooting of police officers in Baton Rouge — and whether we would use our weekly newsletter to address them.

When a draft of the newsletter with a preamble on the events first circulated internally, it elicited a swift written reaction from my Black colleague, who felt it wasn’t appropriate because it didn’t address the many distressing cases of police brutality towards people of color in America, and by extension, couldn’t equally address all that was going on without overlooking one group for another.

The morning meeting was a discussion around her response. When the word “whitewashed” rang in the room, the publicness of the statement disarmed me. This wasn’t my minority friends and I kicking the shits. This wasn’t a Netflix comedy special or a “safe space” where we relegate our difficult conversations. The statement had come from an impassioned place, but delivered with composure. In response, no one cowered or shut down, but one by one 9AM at work, offered their own observations and expectations.

We agreed with the intention of changing the newsletter. The desire to acknowledge what was happening in the world was sincere. Our standard newsletter with links on org development and productivity can feel trivial in the face of traumatic events. We applauded our colleague for taking the initiative at trying something. At the same time, our conversation highlighted the complexity of narrative and perspective, pushing us to examine our responsibilities as a socially-conscious company with the goal of creating a better future through the work we do.

I knew I was working for a different kind of company when I first saw my Black colleague’s written reaction — that of a company unafraid of itself. But after a team meeting that fleshed out a response into a difficult and deep-felt conversation, I knew I was a part of shaping something even bigger. In the end, we didn’t go with adding the preamble to the newsletter. Some might think this as exasperating, that we’ve entered a state of paralysis because there’s something to offend anyone in this country now. That’s not it. We emerged from the meeting more aware and aligned.

We want to reflect ideas in our conversation through action. That’s by emphasizing a core tenet of our methodology which brings more disempowered voices to the table, engaging more clients in education and civic spheres to impact larger communities, and continuing to practice what we preach in our own workplace — in time we’ll write that newsletter with results, believe that it’s coming.

When I decided to apply to August after hearing an advert on “Another Round,” a podcast run by two whip smart Black women on race, gender, and pop culture, my thought was “this company ‘gets it.’” A month ago I joined August, becoming team member #9. My hire followed two other minority hires. On the surface, we might look like Brad and Angelina’s adopted kids. Targeted diversity hires seemed to be at play, until I realized quickly that for a small company of less than 10 people, that’s not exactly it. This was not a company reacting to a lack of diversity after it’s grown too big. Diversity represents the core company values that elevate our mission of becoming more open, willing to learn, and networked. “Diversity of experience” is not the window dressing. It’s a key part of the product and part of our recipe for success.

The 9AM conversation clarified things for me. Intentions like diversity in the workplace, and policies like “not speaking on panels that don’t include women” set the foundation for what the company wants to be. The difficult internal conversations that deal with “otherness” are also crucial steps and these deserve to be vital, public, and active.

Before August I’d lived and worked in China for four years, gazing on America from afar. So much has changed in the past years — recent events have revealed an America with more anger, disillusionment, and fear. I felt a steep learning curve coming back to the US from a country where identity was often smashed indelicately against a grey authoritarian homogeneity. Black Lives Matter, feminism, intersectionality, the polarization of the American public, increasing wealth disparity, all massive ideas carried by many voices. At a 9AM meeting, I understood that no matter how hard, no matter how much anger, we must find the space for a conversation.

That is ultimately the aim too, of our work. Our work is more than optimizing workflow and achieving efficiency, but in turn by doing so — to create spaces for the important conversations. The workplace, the most common place for people of different backgrounds coming together. If this is not the place of change to start with, then where?