Are Some White People’s Fear of Discussing Race Holding Back Diversity Progress in Silicon Valley?

Facebook’s global head of diversity, Maxine Williams, is taking a different approach to addressing the discussion of race in Silicon Valley, and, according to her, there’s no room for people to be sensitive about the subject.

It’s been a year since Williams was given the task of improving diversity within Facebook and creating a space that welcomed employees from a variety of different backgrounds.

Needless to say, the task certainly wasn’t going to be an easy one.

While the company still isn’t anywhere near as diverse as it has the potential to be, Williams may have unlocked the secret to really getting things moving forward – stop being so sensitive.

Williams sat down with Forbes and explained that many of the white people in the office were uncomfortable about discussing race.

At one point, she recalled that one white employee asked her if it was OK for them to even use the word “Black.”

“I would literally have conversations with people where they would say to me, ‘Can I say the word Black?’” Williams recalled. “And I was like, ‘Wow, these were the conversations we’re having?’”

Williams said years of sensitivity training and lawyers ready to pounce at the sign of any relatively offensive remark has white people terrified of even bringing up diversity and race in the workplace.

The idea of talking to a Black person in the office becomes a game of social Mine Sweeper where any wrong move can end in absolute disaster.

Williams says that to a certain extent that idea needs to be pushed out of the workplace.

“This needs to be a space where people can ask stupid questions and then be forgiven,” Williams said. “In the typical workplace that has employment lawyers, nobody wants you asking stupid questions because they could be offensive. You won’t want to ask that Black person, ‘Do you wash your hair?’ You just don’t. It raises risk … so we become hesitant to engage.”

Williams has flipped that philosophy on its head at Facebook.

“We’ve flipped that around,” she continued. “I’ve said to people: It’s OK to ask those things, but then I want you to forgive people when they ask stupid questions. What I came to see is the hesitation came because I’m operating in a country that has a heightened sensitivity around race, where, quite frankly, white people are afraid to engage. They’re afraid of stepping in the wrong place.”

According to Williams, the push for diversity in the tech sphere will fall short if people continue to be too sensitive about the subject.

“I think sensitivity was holding us back from being bold on diversity,” Williams said about Facebook. “We were bold on products, right? We would achieve things that you never thought were achievable. But on these issues of identity, there was hesitation and sensitivity.”

Williams explained that many times white people were “well intentioned” because they didn’t want to hurt anyone’s feelings or make a remark that could be perceived as racist.

In the end, all that really did was hinder progress.

Williams continues to push employees to be open and honest and ask those “stupid questions.”

That, she says, is the only way to truly get everyone engaged in a much-needed conversation about race.