Workplace Culture

White People and Political Correctness

By Kris Dunn

Jan. 23, 2015

The first thing I want you to know is that this page has nothing to do with what you might expect to find based on the title.

It’s obvious that white people should think twice before commenting on a lot of things because it puts you in a no-win situation. Don’t get me wrong; I’m not suggesting that being white is a burden, but I am suggesting that as a white person, you might have something to add to the dialogue on race. But based on the audience, your personal delivery skills and a million other factors, it might go horribly wrong.

So most balanced white people do the smart thing. They shut up, especially at work. 

Because this is a column about work, it makes sense to talk about it here.

The white people with the most interesting things to say in any situation involving race are the ones who shut up. Think about it: The bigots generally are the ones who are the most vocal and disruptive. The white folks who generally are wrestling with it all and really trying to get to the right place on any item involving race? You won’t hear from them.

Here’s another reason smart white people are conditioned to shut up on any item involving race: There’s a whole group of politically correct white people who love to evaluate anything you say and — you guessed it — criticize you for being insensitive at best, racist at worst.

Need an example? I recently used the word “kemosabe” in a blog post. 

Now, my use of kemosabe wasn’t guided by any background in Native American history or a love for the “Lone Ranger” series. It was driven by the way I’ve heard references to the way the always goofy Matthew McConaughey talks (alright, alright, alright).

But as you might expect, I got comments on the post that basically said I was being racist by using the term. Although a definitive meaning is elusive, subsequent research on the word “kemosabe” indicated it might mean “friend” or “trusty scout” or even “one who is white.”

Sorry about calling you white. My bad.

Further research into the commenter to my blog indicated she is a self-proclaimed expert on diversity and, yes, while she has not completed a self-ID form, whiter thanpost-rehab Courtney Love at a legal hearing. She felt compelled to wag the finger at me for my use of a word she tied to the Native American culture without doing the research.

The point? The more the politically correct segment of Americans chooses to wag the finger and call reasonable people insensitive or racist rather than engage in meaningful conversation, the more the majority — white people — avoids dialogue on all these topics.

Look around your workplace and it’s everywhere. People of different races refusing to discuss current events because they’re not sure of the ground rules.  Fewer conversations among reasonable people lead to feelings that certain individuals are aloof or worse.

That lack of communication spills over into quality of work. Conversations about news and world events are just practice for the conversations that really matter — the ones that are work-related and determine whether your company succeeds or fails.

If I wasn’t willing to share my feelings with you on what’s going on in the news, why would I risk giving you feedback on your communication style witha customer?

I wouldn’t. Trust is built by discussing things outside of our comfort zones and finding commonality where we thought none existed.

Finally, if you really dig into your company’s communication style, you’ll find that your manager’s ability to drive performance is hamstrung by the same phenomenon. Is a tough conversation needed to give a direct report the chance to succeed? Most managers will pass on that. Too risky.  

We think we’re doing the right thing by forcing political correctness in corporate America. We’re actually doing theexact opposite, lowering the probability that employees and managers alike give feedback that drives performance, engagement and a general sense of team.

That’s bad for America, and it’s bad for your workplace. 

Kris Dunn, the chief human resources officer at Kinetix, is a Workforce contributing editor. To comment, email

Kris Dunn, the chief human resources officer at Kinetix, is a Workforce contributing editor.

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