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  • Writer's pictureDr. Cherie Bridges Patrick

Normalizing Racial Dialogue in Classrooms & Workplaces

The wave of life-changing events introduced in 2020 is accompanied by a perpetually denied racism has resulted in a profound social response that refuses to be ignored. Heeding these demands, universities and organizations are intentionally pivoting towards diversity, equity, inclusion, and antiracism, emphasizing the need for organizational change. Despite its omnipresent nature and harm that it inflicts, race remains a taboo topic for many.

In our racial justice workshops, leadership coaching, and consulting, the most common concerns hover around how to have conversations about race. As such, the spaces for generative racial dialogue we endeavor to create are deliberate and draw attention to the ways race is always the elephant in the room, whether it is acknowledged or not. Although having intentional dialogue around race is challenging for a host of reasons, the purpose is clearly defined. While everyone in the conversation may not have the same level of comfort, skills, or even desire to be present, they all know why they are there. On the other hand, inserting the topic of race into academic or workplace discussions where race is not the explicit focal point is an entirely different undertaking. Race is always present, and its operations often function implicitly. The question of how to explicitly introduce (and eventually normalize) it to classrooms and workspaces where it is not the primary focus is a critical one that is at the core of our racial equity and justice endeavors. At Paradox, we understand this distinction which is why it is a cornerstone of our work. This writing then is an attempt to explore the complexity presented by the question and offer detail on how Paradox supports organizations in identifying and achieving their racial justice goals.

Using findings from my PhD research, the query is deconstructed and four considerations that reveal the sophistry and ubiquity of racial dominance are offered. These deliberations are useful for organizations seeking to productively engage in racial justice efforts. The relevance of discourse is then introduced, followed by a brief exploration of an adaptive approach to racial justice, and concluded with a glimpse of action steps for personal growth.

Challenges to Making Race Explicit & Normalizing Racial Dialogue in All Spaces

First, the inquiry on how to introduce the topic of race to the classroom or workplace when it is not the primary subject reveals the implicit boundaries that govern racial dialogue. Even with the salience of race combined with increased national demands to address racial injustice, the forces of racial dominance still determine the terms and conditions of when and where conversations can occur. Racially speaking, although white is a social construct (as is the notion of race), there is a recurring practice of ascribing 'race' primarily to non-White people. Our racialized hierarchy privileges the White body and has created the illusion that it is the standard of humanity and non-White bodies are a deviation from that norm. All aspects of our current social systems center the White body, relegating Black, Brown, and Indigenous bodies and needs to a subordinate status. In many spaces, denial, comfort, and fear maintain a stifling grip that obstructs race-related conversations from occurring in workspaces. My critical discourse analysis on racism and denial in the workplace revealed the presence of numerous strategies that precluded essential conversations about race. Themes of avoidance, silence, and the maintenance of comfort emerged from social worker stories and contributed to where, when, why, how, and who gets access to talk about race. Access to engage in racial discourse was central to how power abuse was enacted as a form of control.

Second, the inquiry on introducing race into classroom conversations where it is not the central subject substantiates the need for generative racial dialogue to become normalized. In order for racism and injustice to become explicit in our academic and organizational discourses, its current silent presence must be routinely called out and named. Identifying and naming racial dominance and the ways it functions to maintain and reproduce itself makes its destruction possible. Social worker narratives powerfully illustrated the complicated ways in which racial dominance works in silence to further its mission. For example, in a county collaborative project led by a predominantly White group, system structures and fear around reactions to acknowledging the presence of racism precluded naming it as a root cause of infant mortality among African American women. As a result, reverence to dominance short-circuited the collective work of the group.

The third consideration from the inquiry suggests concern with, deficit in, or an absence of skills and capacity. Although my study was not an investigation of education, the absence of academic and practice preparation was prevalent. Social worker stories cited deficits in educational experiences that contributed to inadequate preparedness to engage in racial dialogue on the job. The broad topic of education goes beyond the classroom and into academic institutions. It also draws in professional accreditation, licensure, legislatures, governors, school, and regulatory boards which, in their respective domains, contribute to the topics to be covered, competencies, standards, restrictions, and other elements of governance. These layers of authority complicate the already obscure challenges that accompany systemic transformational racial justice efforts.

Finally, the query captures the essentiality of organizational engagement and support. Study participants in management roles vocalized the ways in which organizational leaders subtly engaged in discriminatory practices and turned away from addressing the debilitating operations of racial dominance in their agencies. For example, one White participant noted that her all-White leadership team routinely avoided the topic of race and when it did make its way into meetings, quickly escalated into being conflated with liability, legal issues, and risks for leadership. In each of these scenarios, discourse—text and talk—is a prominent feature. In relation to discourse, text may include reports, emails, assessments, progress or clinical notes, educational curriculums, and policies. The writing used to create and convey data from this article is a form of discourse. While discourse is the marrow of racism, it is also an essential element and invaluable tool in the work of racial justice.


Discourse was an analytical tool in my research. In my consulting, coaching, and training practice we also rely heavily on discourse. Here’s why discourse is so relevant.

First, discourse is a universal social practice that is widely used by most, if not all, societies. While an exceedingly common practice, its ubiquity is routinely taken for granted, its potency often overlooked and influence commonly undervalued. Second, discourse is a multifaceted resource that carries with it the potential to not only create and solve social ills but to act as a mediator for everything in between.

For purposes of this writing, I use discourse, dialogue, communication, and conversation interchangeably.

Words do things…As it relates to racial injustice, discourse is directly involved in its creation, maintenance, and (re)production. Discourse also shapes efforts towards equity, justice, and transformation. In all of my work, and particularly in racial justice and psychotherapy, discourse contributes to everything I do, and its primacy cannot be overstated. Consider a world without communication. To illustrate the power of discourse, what comes to mind if I ask you to picture an apple, or a cat, or a waterfall. For those of us that speak the same language, most would agree that an apple is a round or oblong fruit that grows on trees, comes in multiple variations (colors, textures, cultivations, and flavors), can be eaten fresh or cooked, and has medicinal and beauty benefits. While unity in identifying the apple as a fruit would be expected, divergence in the ways readers envisioned their apples would also be assumed. In a shift towards the topic of race, the concept carries with it similarities in the ways it is broadly understood. For example, race is often conflated with violence and is commonly accompanied by immediately imputing 'race' to non-White people, thus creating variations in how the term is interpreted.

Critical discourse scholar, Teun van Dijk, argues that discourse lies at the heart of racism. Accompanying discourse then are various meanings ascribed to race and all that falls within its auspices. Racial discourse discretely informs policies, guides practices, designs images, constructs people and communities, imagines and revises history. Racial discourse undergirds values and ideologies prescribing who is worthy of veneration and who deserves subordination…it produces fear and hate…it fabricates, expands, and preserves stereotypes that transcend time. Closely related to the question of how to introduce race into classroom and workplace discussions is how do we prepare students or employees to engage in such conversations? A framework grounded in adaptive leadership is a divergence from conventional approaches applied to issues of racism. Among other things, viewing the work of racial justice as an adaptive challenge asks people to examine their personal beliefs. An adaptive approach also directs leaders to interrogate disconnects between stated organizational values and the actual practices they undertake and policies that guide them, using emergent data to inform change efforts aimed at building racially just organizations.

Relational and collaborative, my work also relies heavily on Heifetz, Grashow, and Linsky's adaptive leadership theory where core processes are likened to the practice of medicine which requires diagnosis first, then treatment. As it relates to change, they argue that one of the biggest reasons for leadership failure is trying to meet an adaptive problem with a technical fix. I'll briefly explain what is meant by adaptive challenges and will start with a quick contrast to technical challenges.

An Adaptive Approach for Racial Justice

Universities and workplaces are under immense pressure to quickly solve problems and in the case of addressing racial equity and justice-related challenges, efforts tend to result in implementing reactionary diversity initiatives. Frequently underlying these actions are desires (often unconscious) to reduce (or avoid) tension and discomfort, and/or create or maintain organizational social image. To frame this portion of the discussion, I'll briefly revisit the primary focus of the original query which was around explicitly introducing the topic of race into classroom and workspace dialogue where it is not the primary focus.

Problems that can be solved through existing expert knowledge or that can be accomplished by applying established know-how to routinized processes and generally within a short time frame are technical challenges. While technical challenges may be complex, there is conventional knowledge about how to fix them, or we can seek out or grant authority to solve them and thus meet our needs. For example, we look to lawyers to argue our legal problems, we seek out doctors to fix our ailments and bring us health, we engage realtors to find, buy, or sell property. In each of these cases, we authorize people to find solutions and quite often they are able to meet many of our needs. In essence, Heifetz and Linsky argue that technical problems reside in the head and that solving them requires an appeal to the mind, to logic, and to the intellect.

On the other hand, adaptive challenges are those problems that have no pre-designed solution and technical solutions cannot fix them, rather resolutions for adaptive challenges often lie in people themselves. Most social problems are adaptive challenges and logical arguments cannot resolve them. Such is the case with dismantling racism and efforts towards racial justice. Many individuals, communities, and organizations end up treating adaptive problems as technical ones because there is often a gap between represented or stated values and the capacity to live out those values in their environments. Moreover, working towards adaptive change requires leaders and their constituents to interrogate long-held beliefs about how education (or whatever professional endeavor) is done and what it should look like. It means critically examining disconnects between what we say we value and what our policies, practices, and assessments indicate we actually give preference to or honor. Essentially, adaptive challenges lie in the gut and the heart. Solutions require changes to people's values, beliefs, habits, ways of working, or ways of life. For example, in order for instructors or supervisors to learn how to introduce race into classroom or workplace conversations, they will be faced with a host of risks. Professionals may endure a temporary loss of confidence as they attempt to fill the gap between demands for shifts in performance and their current capacities. The challenge will not be for instructors or supervisors alone. Organizations will need to make adaptive changes, adopting and practicing new norms of communication, experimentation, and collaboration.

The construct of race, its ubiquitous nature, and the practice of discourse creates a dynamic of always 'doing race' whether consciously or absent awareness. 'Doing race' requires those serious about the call for justice to build muscle, tolerance, and capacities to ‘stay with’ accompanying discomfort it engenders. There will be a need to develop routines that first bring attention to its constant presence in all of our daily lives, and then develop practices that normalize generative racial dialogue and develop higher levels of consciousness that allow us to see and thus act. Diagnosis first, then acting aligns with both an adaptive approach and supports antiracist scholar, Ibram Kendi's injunction to first identify, name, then dismantle racism. While adaptive work is deliberate and sometimes slow, there are actions that can be initiated right away. Regardless of one's race, individual labor can focus on developing or increasing capacity or practices for racial justice efforts.

Racial Justice Labor

The work of antiracism is part of the larger labor that seeks to dismantle the system of white supremacy that perpetuates racism and leads to racial justice. It is a process that requires ongoing, consistent, intentional observation of our thoughts, words, and actions, how they function within us and how they impact others and the larger society. One of the first steps for individuals seeking to make transformational change is to explore why one would undertake the onerous work of dismantling racism.

Engagement in the oftentimes gut-wrenching, dissonance provoking, and ultimately liberating labor of striving toward racial justice must be grounded in a clear understanding of the motivations and values driving involvement around such a risky and elusive endeavor. Value-driven motivation—the why of racial justice—informing one’s engagement will be frequently returned to in the course of carrying out the work. According to Ibram Kendi you’re either working toward antiracism or not. This suggests the journey towards justice also requires accountability. Partnering with a mentor, coach, supervisor or group invested in one's growth supports accountability. Accountability should include on-going inquiry into one’s racial identity, history, experiences of internalized racism and whiteness, and how they have and continue to operate in one’s life. Finally, the consequences of ongoing racial justice work takes both an emotional and personal toll often accompanied by bouts of discouragement. Self-care is essential for sustaining the vicissitudes of racism while journeying towards justice and includes attention to physical, mental, emotional, and somatic needs.

The work of racial justice beckons and transformation comes with a great cost. The perplexing dilemmas that accompany efforts for introducing race-related conversations in the classroom or workplace should not be underestimated. After all, if we can't explicitly name and talk about race in all the ways it functions and the places it dwells, how do we expect to solve the seemingly intractable problems that accompany it?


At Paradox, we help groups and organizations develop and build capacity for sustained racial justice efforts.

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