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It’s About Racial Equity and Empathy, Not Representation

Race shouldn't matter. But it does.

I was talking to a fellow HR leader/coach about the need for racialized coaches in corporate workplaces. This colleague is white and an ICF certified coach, and I was asking them about the process of certification and whether they thought I needed it.

In my mind, there was no doubt about the value I’d provide as a racialized woman coach to other racialized women. My only question was whether I really needed to pay for a certification to be marketable.

But the conversation took a different turn. My colleague said that if the coach was a good coach, race shouldn’t matter. They said coaching itself is impartial and objective, it’s focused entirely on the coachee, and any personal, cultural, or subjective biases the coach may have should not impact the coaching itself, if done properly.

I didn’t know what to say at first. For context, this person is someone I really like and respect, someone who’s mentored me in HR, and who is well versed in diversity, equity, and inclusion. Until that moment, I thought they genuinely understood racial inequity and were doing great things in their workplace to bring that about.

That’s why I’m sharing this story with you. Even the most well-educated, empathetic, and seasoned white HR leaders will miss the mark when it comes to supporting racialized people.

Don’t get me wrong, I’m not saying that any Black, Brown, Indigenous, Asian or other racialized person will automatically be a good coach for people of the same race. Training and technique are as essential in coaching as it is in any service. But I also don’t believe that a well-trained white coach will be better for a Black person than a well-trained Black coach. (Neither would a well-trained Asian coach be as good for a Black person as a well-trained Black coach.)

The Benefits of Peer Support

To give a non-racialized example, think about peer support programs. When I worked at the Canadian Cancer Society, one of the programs they offered to cancer patients was called Peer Match, which matched “people living with cancer or their caregivers with a trained volunteer who has gone through a similar cancer experience”[footnote 1].

Take note of some key words from that description:

  • “People living with cancer” – i.e. people with the lived experience of having cancer

  • “Trained volunteer” – not some random cancer patient, they are trained

  • “Has gone through a similar cancer experience” – there’s many different types of cancer, and different ways patients deal with it. Brain cancer volunteers may not be as helpful to breast cancer patients.

Almost a decade later, I’m just beginning to appreciate how valuable that peer support program was. Today, there are many different types of peer support programs. Most chronic diseases have peer support groups. Corporate workplaces are increasingly implementing peer support programs for employee wellness initiatives like mental health. Peer Support Canada even provides certification programs to train peer supporters at work.

My mom has a chronic disease that disables her mobility and keeps her in chronic pain. She’s my mom, so of course I empathize with her, and I have head knowledge about her disease and what accommodations she requires.

But I didn’t truly understand what it’s like for her until we went on a family vacation and I lived with my parents. I saw what my dad had to do for her as a caregiver, every day. I saw the struggles my mom had to do basic things I take for granted, like getting out of bed or taking a shower. And only after I got carpal tunnel syndrome did I appreciate what it’s like to live with chronic, debilitating pain that is invisible to others.

Here's the thing. For the people who need peer support, no explanation is needed. They don’t need a business case or justification for why another cancer patient can be much more supportive than a doctor or social worker who’s never had cancer.

I’ve never had to explain to a racialized person the value of having a racialized coach instead of a white coach. Women know without being told the value of having a woman mentor at work instead of a man.

Race matters. Racialized experience matters. It matters in coaching, leadership, management, healthcare, government, economics, sociology, human rights, fiscal policy, judiciary – basically, everything.

It matters because of the empathy and inclusion that can only come from shared experiences.

We don’t need “representation”. To me, representation is adding some racialized people to a group of white people, and assuming that the interests of racialized people are now represented.

We need racial equity. We need the lived experience of just how much racism pervade all aspects of work and life.

When my white coaching colleague commented that race shouldn’t matter in delivering coaching services, they’re absolutely right. The problem is when white people believe that race isn’t a factor for them. These are the people who’ll say they “hire the best candidate”, “evaluate promotion objectively”, and “have taken unconscious bias/DEI training”.

Folks, racism can’t be “educated out” of people. No coaching certification course can give a white coach the experiences of a racialized person. Yes, knowing about racism and bias is a good thing. No, it does not mean you understand what it’s like.

Race matters. Racialized experience matters. Even in coaching.

What do you think?

If you’re a racialized person, do you have a preference between white or racialized coaches, mentors, managers, etc.? Please share your thoughts by connecting with me on LinkedIn, or emailing me.


From website, last accessed March 27, 2022.


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