The Nova Collective Chicago

Let’s Talk About Being White at Work

If you are like me you probably read this headline and thought ‘Hey, I have an idea! Let’s not talk about that at all, thanks!’.

When we bring this topic up to clients or colleagues, we typically hear one of these reactions:

Confusion – what are you talking about – why would we talk about that ever?

Defense – no sir! We are not racist – what are you saying, get out please!

Denial – no White people work here, we are colorblind – my best friend is a Black man.

Aggression – reverse racism! You’re attacking me!

So why do we need to talk about something that invariably gets such negative reactions?

If you work at a company (which most people do) it probably has a Diversity & Inclusion department or initiative (most companies are on board with this) and you probably think that is a good thing (because you understand the value of creating non-homogenous spaces and the overall benefit of a variety of experiences and points of view).

But we find that many corporate D&I programs focus on the idea of OTHER. What it means to be OTHER, how we make room for OTHER, how to encourage the OTHERNESS of OTHERS.

Many (by no means all) organizations in the U.S are predominately White. When we have predominately White spaces focused on OTHERNESS, it can exacerbate the very issues we are attempting to call attention to. Conversations can start to sound an awful lot like “how to tolerate OTHERS” instead of a 360 look at your spaces as a whole and how folks show up in those spaces.

And because most (but not all) organizations are predominately White, that means White people take up a lot of space. Encouraging White folks to simply recognize the unique beauty of Brown & Black contributions keeps the power and privilege right where it has always been – in the White majority.

By engaging in conversations that look at your organization 360, you can start to see an evolution in the framing.

You can go from:

”How can we be more inclusive of xyz population”
“Should I invite Angela to lunch with me to show how tolerant I am?”
“Maybe I can ask Dave about his heritage”


“What are the cultural norms of our organization and who has the power in setting those?”
“How could we shift some of those norms?”
“Where do I take up too much space, as I have been conditioned to do?”
“What systems and values was our company built on? Where might there be room to update systems and values based on the current composition of our organization?”

Getting started on this journey can be tough. Ask a White person what their experience is of being White at work and you will likely get a very confused reaction – you might as well ask a fish to describe water. Here are some first steps that can begin to break the mindset of “US” and “THEM”:

  • Get Information. Ask your D&I department about resources on race that may be available. (This article is a great place to start)
  • Look at Yourself. Create a “culture list” for yourself: list 4 items or experiences that relate to your Whiteness in the workplace and define how you do your job
  • Do a little research. Find out when your organization was created and write a short synopsis of what was happening in U.S culture at that time that might have impact in your office even today.
  • Start a Conversation. Explore some ideas with another White person in your workspace. Discuss how your Whiteness could be showing up, or how some of the norms in your office may be set.
    By starting to dive into cultural norms and examining our Whiteness we can become part of the Evolution, instead of the de facto center of Inclusion.

Is your organization ready to start talking about being White at work? Nova leads learning sessions that provide resources, contextual education and guided discussions about Whiteness in the workplace.

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