A Relational Approach to Racial Inclusion Practices: Supporting People of Color in Pre-dominantly White Workspaces

By Shirley Ley

Predominately White work environments can move beyond the rhetoric of racial inclusion and beyond focusing solely on recruitment efforts for a racially diverse staff. Cosmetic representation or representation by numbers is not racial justice, even though employers often stop there. Such misguided actions can lead to racially traumatizing consequences for people of Color who often find themselves feeling dehumanized, invisibilized, and erased by White culture. For this reason, it is imperative for any employer to uphold racial justice ideals to develop a thorough, action-oriented plan to include, retain, and maintain the wellbeing of staff of Color.

My recommendations on racial inclusion are derived from my lived experiences as the only person of Color employed as a psychology resident and diversity and inclusion liaison within a university counseling center. Informed by a collectivistic worldview and trained in racial justice and psychological theories on healing within relationships, I emphasize the importance of the creation of belongingness and community in any workspace. Such efforts should be initiated by people who are overserved and overrepresented in society. As the beneficiaries of social, political, economic, and cultural power, White-identifying individuals can advocate for greater racial inclusion in the work environment in a number of relationally-informed ways.

White staff members are invited to continually engage in self-reflection to bring into awareness their socialized privilege and internalized superiority. As members of the dominant group, they are the least qualified to determine the effectiveness of their allyship (Sensory & DiAngelo, 2017). For this reason, they are urged to approach this work from a place of humility and humbleness. This can be best achieved by admitting to not knowing, taking accountability for making mistakes, and engaging in race-related discussions with curiosity and empathy (Sensory & DiAngelo, 2017). White staff members are encouraged to invite all voices, including competing and counter perspectives and take time to wait for responses without rushing to conclusions (Sensory & DiAngelo, 2017). When reflecting on unexamined privilege and misuse of power, they must learn to tolerate any feelings of defensiveness, discomfort, guilt, and shame, pausing on any urges to reduce or avoid internal dissonance. Instead of expending energy withdrawing inwards, becoming paralyzed with guilt and shame, White colleagues are encouraged to appreciate the risk that people of Color assume when offering feedback. The public acknowledgement of injustice requires tremendous courage and should be regarded as an act of resistance, an effort to reclaim dignity and liberation. In moments of disclosure, bear witness to not only their stories of racialized trauma, but also of resilience, courage, and perseverance. Ask about their yearnings, desires, hopes, and dreams. Invite them to draw on the expertise that lie in their lived experiences as people of Color.

White staff members should not rely on People of Color to caretake their emotional and relational needs. They should only address such needs on their own time, in relationships with other White-identifying anti-racists. White colleagues should hold themselves accountable for their privilege by denouncing inequitable racial dynamics. They need to develop an awareness of the means by which people of Color are relegated to minoritized statuses to sustain White dominance (Sensory & DiAngelo, 2017). They should advocate for more equitable racial representation and strive to create more supportive workspaces. To this end, they are encouraged to initiate and actively participate in discussions on racial justice issues. Such dialogue should involve topics on how power is reproduced and maintained in White dominant workplaces. Discussions should also focus on how information on racialized topics are received (Sensory & DiAngelo, 2017). When a member of a minoritized group speaks, White colleagues are urged to be mindful of any body language conveying disgust or disregard and to proactively and mindfully override any tendencies to mentally “check out” or physically leave conversations on race-based matters. White colleagues need to understand that people of Color do not experience the world in the same way as them (Sensory & DiAngelo, 2017). Instead of assuming that silence on a subject matter is evidence of assent, actively invite and seek the opinions of minoritized group members.

To demonstrate greater cross-racial sensitivity and awareness, White colleagues are encouraged to research the history of various marginalized and minoritized groups. For instance, they could develop a greater understanding of how racialized peoples have been historically excluded from citizenship in both the US and Canadian contexts, how immigrants of Color are often recruited to engage in back breaking, low paying jobs in the industrial industries and the construction of major US and Canadian transportation systems, and how people of Color have been physically and mentally colonized and forced to defer to Whites. Other than becoming educated on their ancestral and historical background, White staff members are encouraged to build authentic relationships (mutual, committed, and ongoing as opposed to targeting a lone minoritized individual for education purposes) with groups they have been separate from, such as people who have been racialized, people with disabilities, or people occupying lower socio-economic statuses (Sensory & DiAngelo, 2017).

As demonstrated in this article, the work of retaining staff of Color should be achieved in relationships that support healthy human development. Such efforts require a number of proactive, intentional, and persistent measures involving White-identifying individuals to self-examine, to take accountability for change, and to welcome the discomfort that accompany learning. If my insights have resonated or moved you in some way, support my fight for human liberation by leaning into relationship with the people of Color in your workspaces.



Sensoy, O., & DiAngelo, R. (2017). Is everyone really equal?: An introduction to key concepts in social justice education. New York, NY: Teachers College Press.


IMAGE CREDIT: Jelili Atiku, Political Impasse, Gouache on paper, 57 x 34cm, 1994.


Shirley Ley (she/her/hers) is a licensed psychologist who holds a doctoral degree in clinical psychology from Adler University. Working from an inclusive, anti-oppressive stance, she continually engages in self-examination of her multiple identities, including areas of privilege and power, and how they intersect her counseling and consultation work. Students are regarded as expert collaborators and supported in harnessing their inner strength and resilience to achieve health and healing. To ensure that therapeutic gains extend beyond the boundaries of the counseling room, she forges relationships with people across disciplines and communities, inviting them to become allies in creating environments that allow students to live with greater dignity, liberty, and inner peace.