Teachable Moments: Emotionally-Charged Workplace Discussions About Politics, Race, Gender, and Ageism

John, a white male manager, says that “he is sick and tired of hearing about how ‘poor little ole’ Obama is being picked on because he is a black man,’ while he has to stand by and watch John McCain and Sarah Palin get labeled as angry and incompetent over and over again without anyone speaking up.” John is a Democrat. Jane is a white female who is a social justice advocate. She tells John that “he needs to get over it and realize that it is the privileges he has enjoyed as a male that keeps him from fully appreciating the oppression Obama has to endure. Beverly is an African American woman who is also in the coffee break conversation. She is voting for Obama, but she is very concerned about the media treatment of Sarah Palin. She says “For Christ sake! Now they are carrying on about how much it costs to dress her for the campaign. It is ridiculous!” Suddenly all three of them begin to interrupt each other in an effort to one-up their individual views about the topic before returning to work.

No one doubts that the 2008 presidential campaign in the United States is historic. Consider that we have an African America male running against the oldest person to ever become President if elected. The Republican candidate for the vice presidency is a woman. The Democratic primaries were exciting because the African American had to compete against the tenacity of Hillary Clinton, a white woman with laudable political campaign experience. The media has been having a hay day.

There is an under belly to all of the excitement. Old wounds that maintain social cleavages in American society have been exposed at a level comparable to the civil rights movement. Media coverage of statements made by Jeremiah Wright, Bill Clinton, Geraldine Ferraro, John Murtha, Sarah Palin, Gloria Steinem, Michael Hirsh, and Chris Cillizza—just to name a few—has us all talking about differences and taking sides on the matter. We don’t leave these conversations at home either. We spend a considerable amount of time in the workplace and discussing politics is one way to relate to colleagues—for better or worse.

Some of the discussions become quiet emotional as many of us have witnessed firsthand. Our culture socializes us to believe that people with different political views than our own are misguided and would be much better off if we can convince them of their faulty thinking. When it comes to a political race, having our side win may have to suffice if our best efforts to straighten them out beforehand does work out. [I found it interesting, for example, that more Bush-Cheney bumper stickers were noticeable after the 2004 election than prior to election day.] Things get a bit emotional when talking about the comment people have made about Obama at Palin rallies and the RNC’s recent mailings linking Obama to terrorism.

My sense is that most diversity officers avoid “interfering” in these discussions unless there is an incident. However, the fact that gender, race, and age are such hot topics make them ripe for what we call “teachable moments” in the diversity profession.

Diversity Officer Certification Instead of shying away from these conversations, take full advantage of the gifts they offer. Here are some ideas harnessing these conversations so that they augment your diversity education program.

Here are a set of things to consider:
• Send out a communication followed by a series of others that acknowledges the media coverage of race, gender, and ageism in the presidential race. Let members of the organization know that it is natural to have different points of view about the topics among colleagues. Then remind them about workplace etiquette and the need to keep them in mind during conversations about politics. Keep the focus on maintaining a productive and respective workplace.
• Get them to use their discussions to learn about and share their different points of view without needing to take sides.
• Provide them with a set of ground rules for the discussions, such as listen without interrupting the other person, avoid evaluating another person’s beliefs and values, and use as many fact-based statements as possible to avoid appearing judgmental.
• Let them know that the conversations are opportunities to develop intercultural communications skills that can be useful to teamwork and problem solving.

What you will learn with this exercise as a diversity officer is some basic emotional intelligence skills. Being able to identify teachable moments in order to embed diversity education into the everyday practices of your organization requires knowing your personal feelings about the presidential campaign politics, how you share your views about it with others, and considering the range of reactions among members of your organization. The next step is to come up with a strategy for harnessing the “hot topic” in the service of making the diversity education program practical.

About the author: Billy Vaughn, PhD CDP is Editor-in-Chief of Diversity Officer Magazine. Please comment below.
If you like this blog, you will love the DTUI.com diversity officer certification program. Click on image above to learn more!

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