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What to say to your coworkers about Ferguson

black/white mannequins

We’ve all know the rules of what constitutes proper work chatter and what doesn’t. We constantly break these rules, though, because coworkers are like family due to the amount of time we spend with them.

When big national events happen, we want to chat with our coworkers about how we feel. The most important common sense rule is to keep the conversation respectful. Otherwise we’re supposed to keep our mouths shut. Sometimes, though, silence is the least respectful option. Sometimes your coworkers need to know you realize they are hurting or upset. Staying silent (when you don’t know what to say) can cause rifts in team cohesion. At the same time, heated arguments don’t help morale or efficiency either.

When it comes to chatting about the Ferguson case of police officer Darren Wilson killing 18-year-old Mike Brown, we need to stay aware of our coworkers’ varying experiences.

This is the hardest part. Seeing and validating a separate experience from our own is easier when the other person comes from another country and culture. For example, we automatically assume a Chinese national has grown up differently and has a very dissimilar perspective to ours. But when it comes to minority cultures within one’s own country, it’s much more difficult to assume the wide variance in life experience. The truth is there are many different cultural groups within one country and those groups’ members share their own common experience. Non-members are usually ignorant of that shared awareness.

Race relations overwhelm the Ferguson case, and that makes the discussion even more challenging. My suggestion is this: don’t shy away from the conversation. Here are some “scripts” (conversation phrases) you may want to use:

  • “Tell me how you feel about this Ferguson case.”
  • “I am ashamed to say I don’t know many of the details. What have you heard about it?”
  • “Grand juries almost never indict police officers. Is it time we re-examined why this is?”
  • “Here is what the Washington Post said is next for the case. What are your hopes about it?”
  • “Did you grow up in a diverse cultural situation or no? What was that like?”

For the sake of simplicity, here are some ground rules. First, remember: In general, for those in the majority, this case is to be viewed individually. For those in the minority, this case must be viewed in a greater historical context AND individually. Here are some things to think about before you jump in:

black/white dog


  • Assume your black co-workers know about the case and they are upset
  • Don’t expect them to bring the case up with you
  • Don’t expect them to chat about it or act as representatives
  • Ask questions, and apologize for not following the case or knowing details
  • Let them know you are at least a little bit aware of the unfairness they face every day
  • If you are feeling comfortable, ask them to share some of these unfair experiences


  • Assume most white people have very little idea about the details of the case
  • Expect coworkers may want to talk about it with you but don’t know how
  • It’s OK to say, “I appreciate you bringing it up, but I really don’t want to talk about it right now.”
  • Share some stories from growing up. Childhood life is relatable and can break the experience gap sometimes.
  • Assume (as you already do probably) white people think we all stand on common ground
  • Expect extreme views on the liberal/conservative spectrum. The majority culture is dominated by these outlying influences lately.

IF YOU’RE IN A GRAY AREA (like most of us):

  • Assume human nature is to categorize and will want to “pin you down” and place you in a group, even just for the sake of one conversation
  • Get used to saying something like, “Well, there’s always a gray area”
  • Expect discomfort when you express a non-committal opinion
  • Make “I” statements. Don’t start sentences with “You.” e.g. “I feel…”
  • Encourage sharing of stories that hold common experiences. Look to generational touchstones, like “children of the 80s will remember…” etc.
  • Perhaps be the summer-upper. Paraphrase the sides of the conversation for clarity. This can be helpful and will serve to keep the focus off you.

I realize seeing race, controversy, cultural divides, etc. spoken of so plainly in a web article can be jarring. We so often respect an unwritten ban on uncomfortable topics. Also, overgeneralizing about black or white people’s experience isn’t the best option for me, but I thought I’d take the risk. I’ve run into so many people online and off who want to speak about these issues more openly but are fearful of doing so. Perhaps with a few scripts or an article to link to, we can begin to open up and find a better way for all of us.


Also published on LinkedIn

Photo Credit: Header: DryHundred Fear on Flickr

Photo Credit: Black/white dogs: Rakib Hasan Suman on Flickr

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