Culture & the Family

Oklahoma business officials told to stress racial issues in workplace

December 22, 2021

Ray Carter

Business leaders should publicly focus on racial issues in the workplace, or they risk being viewed as opponents of racial progress, a speaker at a recent program sponsored by Paycom told attendees.

“You have to have the conversations,” said Shalynne Jackson, chief inclusion and diversity officer for the City of Oklahoma City. “A lot of people—less and less—but a lot of people want to stay neutral. There is no neutral. By being silent you are picking a side, especially nowadays.”

Jackson said business officials are sending an implied message when they do not have a public focus on race in the workplace.

“I am telling you now, if you are not having these kinds of conversations and leaning into it, even if it is uncomfortable, your employees in this situation have an opinion about what opinion you have,” Jackson said. “They are creating the narrative for you, so if you want to control your own narrative, you need to have these courageous conversations.”

Jackson was among several panelists participating in the latest session of Advancing Oklahoma, which is described as “a lengthy conversation about race and race relations in Oklahoma.” The program’s presenting sponsor is Paycom, joined by a dozen other foundations and state businesses who serve as lower-tier sponsors. The program is offered to the members of Leadership Oklahoma, The Oklahoma Academy, Oklahoma Center for Nonprofits, Oklahoma Center for Community and Justice, and the Oklahoma Hall of Fame.

“I don’t know how to describe [systemic racism] other than what it is. … It’s in everything. It’s in our public policy. It’s like the smog we breathe in the air.” —Beverly Daniel Tatum

The December session of the program focused on how attendees can foster “everyday conversations” about race.

Jackson said business leaders need to know the “daily, hourly, sometimes second-by-second or minute-by-minute impact that race has on” employees and indicated that asking workers not to engage in such issues while on the job is harmful to employees.

“A lot of people say that these conversations don’t belong in the workplace, but that’s not true at all,” Jackson said. “Empathetic and inclusive leaders understand that asking an employee not to bring race into the workplace is asking the employee to deny a part of themselves, a very important part of themselves, from 8 (a.m.) to 5 (p.m.), Monday through Friday. Not only is that not possible, but that’s damaging to one’s psychological safety and ultimately impacts culture, morale, engagement, and business success.”

Beverly Daniel Tatum, author of Why Are All the Black Kids Sitting Together in the Cafeteria? And Other Conversations About Race, offered similar comments.

“Sometimes people say we should be, quote, ‘colorblind’—not notice, not comment on someone’s racial-group membership,” Tatum said. “And I would argue that there’s no such thing as color-blindness in this sense, in that people do notice. They sometimes tell you they don’t, but they do notice. And it does influence behavior.”

She recalled a conversation with a black father whose child attended a predominantly white school. The father objected when a teacher told him, “I treat all the kids the same.”

“His response was: ‘The same as what? The same as though they’re all white? They’re not all white,’” Tatum said.

She said the father believed his child’s experience was different from other children’s experiences due to race.

Tatum also suggested that those who wish to avoid racial conversations have not faced reality.

“In a conversation that I was in recently, I heard someone say, ‘You know, “systemic racism” sounds so harsh. Isn’t there a better word for it?’” Tatum said. “I don’t know how to describe it other than what it is. If it’s systemic, that means it’s in everything. It’s in our public policy. It’s like the smog we breathe in the air. It’s certainly true that there are, quote, ‘trigger phrases.’ ‘White privilege’ is a trigger phrase for some people. ‘Systemic racism’ is a trigger phrase for some people. Can we find other words? Sometimes, we can, but we also need to acknowledge that people are being triggered because they are unaccustomed to thinking about these issues. It’s not because the words are wrong.”

During the session, another panelist, state Sen. Kevin Matthews, said many Oklahoma lawmakers act out of political expediency more than principle because voters in their district are “not reasonable.”

“Some of the head-butting is posturing for the constituency that these people represent,” said Matthews, D-Tulsa. “And, sadly enough, you have good, reasonable people that might represent an area that the majority of the people in that party and the ones that elected them are not reasonable. And so, there’s a lot of posturing that happens. And so, what you see in the Senate is the first or second year when they’re two, three years out from an election, they’re a lot more reasonable, because they’re not worried about representing their constituency.”

As an illustration, Matthews referenced how legislators voted in recent years on two different measures, one to establish a commission to observe the centennial of the 1921 Tulsa Race Massacre (previously known as the Tulsa Race Riot) and another measure that banned schools from teaching certain concepts broadly associated with Critical Race Theory.

“In the case of supporting the 1921 centennial commission, 100 percent of everybody in the House and Senate voted for that,” Matthews said. “But then we saw this year we had a bill that says, ‘Don’t teach it in schools.’ Posturing.”

That comment was in reference to House Bill 1775, which made it illegal for public schools to teach Oklahoma students that “one race or sex is inherently superior to another race or sex,” that “an individual, by virtue of his or her race or sex, is inherently racist, sexist, or oppressive, whether consciously or unconsciously,” and similar concepts.

In response to a request for additional comment and clarification Matthews wrote that enacting HB 1775 at the same time as observance of the anniversary of the Tulsa Race Massacre increased “the likelihood of confusion and misunderstanding of the law and therefore possibly cause school administrators to seek to avoid the controversy” and also “avoid all subjects of Black history or race.”

“We passed a bill to solve a problem that does not exist,” Matthews wrote, “and it is embarrassing when we are trying to attract businesses and people to our state that also don’t understand this unwarranted fear.”

HB 1775 includes a provision stating that it “shall not prohibit the teaching of concepts that align to the Oklahoma Academic Standards.” The state academic standards include the 1921 Tulsa Race Massacre.

In a recent “Know your rights” guide, the National Education Association (NEA) and its state-affiliate Oklahoma Education Association (OEA) acknowledged that HB 1775 and similar laws nationwide “generally do not prohibit teaching the full sweep of U.S. history, including teaching about nearly 250 years of slavery, the Civil War, the Reconstruction period, or the violent white supremacy that brought Reconstruction to an end and has persisted in one or another form ever since.”

The teacher-union guide noted that Oklahoma’s academic standards show that teachers are expected to provide instruction on “the causes of the Tulsa Race Riot and its continued social and economic impact.”

NOTE: This story has been updated since publication to include additional comments from Matthews.