Karen Discusses Racism: Using Anonymity to Educate

Held three times a week, “Karen Discusses Racism” is lecturer Rachel O’Neil’s effort to tackle questions related to racism in corporate settings and educate leaders.

Across the world, Blackout Tuesday was a moment of pause, reflection, and affirmation surrounding issues of racism and its manifestation in recent events. As black tiles replaced profile pictures and darkened social media feeds, the June 2 movement would also spark an initiative for Tufts Gordon Institute Lecturer Rachel O’Neil: “Karen Discusses Racism.”

Geared towards corporate leaders, “Karen Discusses Racism” is a webinar where participants tackle “taboo or politically incorrect” questions related to racism in an effort to dismantle it and empower attendees to create a culture of change. Video feeds off and microphones muted, the sessions are anonymous, open to the public, and held three times a week. With the help of a moderator, all questions are posed to Rachel without attribution. 

“I hope we are able to look back at this movement and acknowledge where we chose a different path for our future self. We cannot change 400 years of racism, yet we can change today and tomorrow while acknowledging yesterday’s harm,” said Rachel.

Leading up to Blackout Tuesday, Rachel, who teaches Talent Management offered through Tufts Entrepreneurship Center, was already having discussions with corporate executives on systemic racism, specifically, in the startup ecosystem.

“We need to do a better job and we can no longer call this unconscious bias. We need to avoid synonyms when we’re talking about this,” said Rachel, recalling a conversation she had with one of her clients. “Blackout Tuesday happened and everybody, I feel, including me, went to an introspective place. I already had this recent client conversation in my mind and was weaving together all the different themes.”

Karen, a name and slang term popularized by internet memes, references “an obnoxious, angry, entitled, and often racist middle-aged white woman who uses her privilege to get her way or police other people's behaviors,” according to Dictonary.com. Starting with a 10-minute narrative before proceeding into Q&A, “Karen Discusses Racism” is anything except “fluffy corporate team building,” Rachel noted. 

With a career spanning over two decades in law and human resources, Rachel is the founder of PeopleNova Human Capital where she coaches CEOs and works closely with founders, managers and leaders to help them thrive in high-visibility positions. “Sometimes trainings and workshops,” she says, “aren’t used effectively to foster a meaningful conversation on identity and race in the workplace.” 

“In a corporate setting, we get to control what we share, with who, and how that intersects, because we’re afraid of others thinking about us differently,” said Rachel. “Nobody learns when they’re backed into a corner. Not me. Especially not Karen. For Karen to really understand her privilege and how she moves through life, she has to have her questions answered in a way that doesn’t make her feel shame.”

On the project’s website, Rachel lists multiple resources that participants can review to further their knowledge beyond the sessions. Alongside the resources, Rachel says she’ll also continue to offer the webinars for as long as she can in addition to creating tailored anti-racism sessions for clients.

Leveraging Rachel’s legal background and HR experience, the project comes at a critical time for corporate America. Research from the Center for Talent Innovation found that only 40 percent of professionals believe their companies have effective diversity and inclusion initiatives.  
Rachel’s efforts with “Karen Discusses Racism” bring her to the intersection of education, law, and HR. More so, it puts into practice several key lessons from her Talent Management course: self-awareness, emotional intelligence, and diversity. In her course, students discuss white privilege and power dynamics while reflecting on their own backgrounds to further their understanding of diversity, equity, and inclusion in the workplace. 

“I want to help CEOs shift their mindset and have courage to create companies where inclusion and equity is a competitive advantage,” said Rachel. 

As the world continues to navigate the dialogue on racial justice, “Karen Discusses Racism” is another resource that individuals can turn to for critical but necessary conversations related to race. To learn more, visit www.KarenDiscussesRacism.com