An Inside Look at Workplace Racial Affinity Groups

By Arlene S. Hirsch September 20, 2021
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An Inside Look at Workplace Racial Affinity Groups

As many employers struggle to achieve racial equity in their workforces, a new approach has emerged that can help create a more equitable and inclusive culture.

Racial affinity groups, or racial caucuses, provide separate spaces for people who share a racial identity to gather, share experiences and explore how racism may manifest in their organizations. Employers can use the recommendations that emerge from these groups to take corrective action, address racial inequities and advance the company's diversity, equity and inclusion (DE&I) goals.

When CompassPoint decided to incorporate racial affinity groups into its racial equity framework, the San Francisco Bay area nonprofit training firm created two staff groups: a people of color (POC) caucus and a white caucus. The groups investigate how their experiences impact the ways they approach social justice.

The facilitator of CompassPoint's POC caucus, Kad Smith, believes it's critical to separate groups along racial lines.

"In the process of exploring and talking about race in an organizational or professional context, I have personally seen how the vulnerability of people of color in multiracial spaces is seldom matched by white colleagues," he said.

Mary Conger, Ed.D., founder of The American Dialogue Project in New York City, and Ali Michael, Ph.D., an organizational culture consultant and race educator in suburban Washington, D.C., have come to a similar conclusion.

"Bringing white people and people of color together to discuss race can be like placing pre-algebra students in a calculus class," they wrote in an article. "The people of color are often so far ahead of the white people that they would have to slow down in order to let us catch up."

Adds Kevin Eppler, a curriculum content specialist, facilitator and co-founder of the White Men's Racial Justice Group (WMRJ): "We are first graders when it comes to talking about race. Black people are Ph.D. students."

Although CompassPoint's POC caucus ultimately chose to make the group's primary focus individual reflection over organizational change, Smith said caucus members also worked to acquire organizational influence in appointments to roles and positions.

"What you call [the group] matters," noted Smith, founder of Twelve26 Solutions, an organizational development and leadership consulting firm in San Francisco. "It raised the question, 'What were we caucusing for?' Were we caucusing for organizational change? Were we caucusing for representation on the management team?"

The answer likely will be different for different groups.

"Every group decides for itself what it wants to be and do," said Tiffany Wilhelm, project officer with the Opportunity Fund, a foundation in Pittsburgh based in arts and economic justice. "Racial affinity groups can be a place for learning, strategy and action."

Pippi Kessler, an organizational psychologist and leadership coach in Cummington, Mass., notes, "The work of caucuses is ultimately to figure out how to work in multiracial teams. Caucus groups are not twins. We have separate work to do."

A caucus space can lead to real, concrete change in organizations because there is a direct conduit between what a POC group wants from the organization and the steps company leadership, which is traditionally white, can take to make changes, according to Judy Blair, a Seattle-based organizational development consultant.

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The POC Caucus

Reasons people of color may be reluctant to join a racial caucus include fear of being reduced to their racial identity, distrust of organizational support of the space and fear of retaliation, said Courtney Harge, CEO at Of/By/For All, a Brooklyn, N.Y.-based nonprofit that helps arts organizations become more equitable and inclusive. "Some people don't want to engage in that in the workplace.

"Even if people aren't on board at first, it can be helpful to remind POC who may not be participating that the space will always be open and welcoming to them," she added.

"A POC caucus is an oasis in the middle of a desert—a place for people of color to feel psychologically safe," said Eric Ellis, president and CEO of Integrity Development Corp., a management consulting firm in Cincinnati. "It can be a lifeline to extend tenure, a resource for recruitment, and a source of insight that allows the organization to build strategy and improve its products and services."

Many Integrity clients form racial affinity groups to provide a safe place for employees to gain support from one another. Over time, leaders realize they can benefit from the groups' insights to improve their understanding of their diverse customer base and various customers' unique needs for products and service offerings, Ellis said.

He recalls working with one major corporation that leveraged learnings gained from its POC affinity group to develop innovative beauty products to meet the needs of its customers, as well as to improve its workplace culture.

In another example, the CEO of an aircraft engine manufacturer regularly met informally with members of an African-American caucus to better understand the challenges its members faced within the organization.

"He was able to build trusting relationships with people of color, which enabled them to share clear examples of how systemic bias manifests within the culture," Ellis said. "Those trusting relationships increased his ability to believe the information they shared and be able to validate it with his own data and experiences."

Those relationships and insights also led to an increase in qualified people of color in senior leadership roles and in the C-suite, Ellis said.

The White Caucus

"Our workplace will make little to no progress advancing racial equity if white people, especially white men, are not engaged in the work," said Jay Coen Gilbert, co-founder of WMRJ and B Lab in Berwyn, Pa. "To be engaged in the work, they need spaces to do this where they can learn and question and share vulnerability, and without causing unintentional harm to people of color. A best practice for these spaces would include not only personal exploration but also organizational implications."

Blair agrees. "It is a reflective space where people who share a racial identity and have similar racialized experiences are allowed to talk about those experiences without retraumatizing people of color—it holds us in an accountability relationship with each other," she said.

Racial caucuses can seem counterintuitive to some participants and company leaders, Eppler noted. "However, a precondition to building those relationships and to working effectively in multiracial groups is taking responsibility to do our own work. [Racial caucuses] are part of that work."

Wilhelm added that "white people can be resistant to the challenging and awkward conversations that are bound to happen in racial affinity groups because we've rarely needed to do that. We need practice."

In order for white affinity groups to work, there has to be skilled facilitation, Conger said. "You can't just throw a bunch of white folks together."

Leadership involvement is key. "You need to have buy-in from senior leadership," Kessler said. "If leadership isn't committed or racial equity isn't a core value, the groups won't succeed."

However, some leaders may be ambivalent about joining racial affinity groups in their own organizations.

"Leaders may be hesitant to be vulnerable, but it's important for them not to just show up. They need to model, take risks, and be willing to share their challenges and learnings," said Maggie Potapchuk, founder of MP Associates, a national consulting practice in Baltimore.

"Although there may be times you want to limit what you share, it's helpful for staff to see your commitment and investment, especially if you are the white leader," Potapchuk said. "Leaders may also want to participate in a community-based caucus, to fully participate in a space without positional power dynamics present, and it is important to continue to share what they learn back to their organizations. That's part of the accountability practice."

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Working Together

Although racial affinity groups and caucuses meet separately, the groups' facilitators usually debrief each other to ensure transparency and accountability. This gives participants in the POC caucus an opportunity to express what they want participants in the white caucus to address, Blair said.

Eventually, the groups may share a space and participate in joint sessions.

"One step in creating accountability practices within the organization is moving toward having joint caucuses when the white caucus and the POC caucus come together," Potapchuk said. "Coming together is building a community of practice, action and accountability, and encouraging people to create new narratives of each other's personal work. As relationships and feedback loops develop, the groups can hold up a mirror more readily to each other as they work to co-create a racially equitable culture."

Ellis suggests that joint caucuses implement what he calls "race-based fishbowls." First, he says, the POC forms a "fishbowl" circle to discuss their realities, experiences and concerns as white participants sit on the outside simply listening without talking. Then the roles are reversed. The white participants become the fishbowl as POC sit on the outside and listen. After that the facilitator can jointly debrief what people heard and learned, along with what questions they had and the important takeaways.

Smith recommends having a clear outline of how the caucuses can come together and how to facilitate the joint sessions. "When folks start talking race in a [shared] POC/white space, you run the risk of potential harm being done even when the intention is one of healing," he said. "The beauty rests in the emergence of unprecedented honesty and a shared willingness to take off the professional armor and embrace the vulnerability of bringing our full selves into the work."

DE&I experts agree that racial affinity groups and caucuses are more likely to advance racial equity goals in organizations where DE&I is already a core value that is espoused and practiced at every level.

"If you aren't interested in doing real work around culture, the caucuses will seem artificial and you're setting them up for failure," Ellis said.

 Arlene Hirsch is a career counselor and author based in Chicago.

Join us at the SHRM INCLUSION 2021 conference Oct. 25-27 in Austin, Texas, for three engaging days of learning and networking. You will get the tools, best practices and actionable solutions you need to build a more diverse, equitable and inclusive workplace.

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