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How do we make race and ethnicity work at work?

Folks, there’s a new sheriff in town. AB 979 passed in CA last year, mandating that all public companies have at least 1 woman and/or person of color and/or queer person on their boards. (Let’s not get into the haziness of these parameters now. I’ve done so before and promise to again.) In case this all seems, well, Californian, Nasdaq took up the torch shortly after, giving the regulations serious weight in the global business landscape.

Now, education--from high school to university--is getting its own makeover. The so-called “ethnic studies” bill has been ping-ponged across the aisle for years, but the 2021-2022 academic year will usher in mandatory classes. Plenty of top-notch schools have impressive track records of ethnic and racial studies, but now everyone is expected to join in.

As with all things power, there’s a raging debate. The concern is that some ethnicities and races are left out. And they’re right. For example, lumping “Asian” into one category is absurd because of wildly different languages, food, religions, etc. It’s pretty much ineffectual because it’s so vague.

Plus, these policies don’t really get into being “mixed.” Should we have boardroom rules or curricula about half a human? What about 3/5ths of a person?

All of this said, businesses are in for a treat. One common question I get from executives: “My team keeps asking for training, but just a bunch of information seems empty. How do we explore these topics in a deeper way? And how do we make race and ethnicity work at work?” They're right to ask--Employee Resource Groups, HR compliance, or PR on their own are surface level. This is why it’s best to create robust DEI&B (diversity, equity, inclusion, and belonging) strategies to pollinate across all departments. For example, jump right in and lead intergroup dialogue. Of course, there’s no one correct method as long as you’re actively engaged with deep DEI&B work itself, instead of adding it atop other functions.

Fortunately, ethnic studies, however vague, is a step in the right direction--equipping more people to productively discuss race and ethnicity with nuance will make for a more emotionally and intellectually resilient culture, in and out of the office.

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