This Project Makes Racism Into Literal Obstacles

by Georgina Lawton

Being an ethnic minority in a predominantly white work environment produces challenges that can be nearly impossible to navigate at times. But one ad agency has created a "Black At Work" obstacle course in an attempt to highlight the insidious racism, microaggressions, and overt discrimination many black people face at work day in day out. It's a perfect project for Black History Month and will hopefully educate and inspire both employers and employees to act in a way that works toward achieving real, actual equality.

According to a 2015 CNN/Kaiser Family Foundation poll on race, 26 percent of blacks and 15 percent of Hispanics believed they had been treated unfairly because of their race or ethnicity at their work within the previous 30 days. Furthermore, the Center for Women Policy Studies found that 21 percent of women of color surveyed did not feel they were free to be “themselves at work" — and more than a third of women of color believed that they must “play down” their race or ethnicity to succeed.

All of this is, of course, in addition to a number of other well-known facts and statistics: Black women make just 63 percent that which white men make for the same work; "black-sounding" names are even less likely to get interviews during the application process; and more. You've no doubt heard these statistics before — and yet we keep having to repeat them.

With all of that in mind, the recent project from ad agency Havas Chicago aims to help us become ever more aware of the environments in which we work and whether or not our personal behavior or work policies contribute to the discrimination against people of color in the workplace.

The brainchild of chief creative officer Jason Peterson, art director Jason LaFlore, and other creatives, the project is comprised of an interactive obstacle course within the lobby office of the advertising agency in Chicago. It was devised not only to display the lack of diversity within the United States' advertising industry, but also to highlight the racism faced by many black employees in the creative sector — metaphorical obstacles made literal. Members of the public are free to take part in the course.

Visitors are invited to walk the thin "Beam of Perception" which separates the words "Lazy" and "Angry" — an obstacle meant to highlight the narrow and harmful character stereotypes often linked to black people. Jason LaFlore explained to AdWeek, “If you’re too nonchalant about your job, you’re automatically seen as lazy. ... If you’re too passionate about your job, you might be seen as the angry black man or the angry black woman.”

Phrases showing the subtle and overt racism black employees can face at work are also displayed throughout the course. “That’s so ghetto,” “Can you teach me to Dougie?” and “You don’t sound black” are among the obstacles participants are forced to dodge.

LaFlore told AdWeek the aim of the project was to “show our point of view and not be passive and have a real active positioning.” Jason Peterson added, “In my point of view, America is multicultural, so if you’re an agency that doesn’t have or isn’t made up of a multicultural point of view, there’s no way you can do your job properly.”

Of course, this obstacle course isn't going to undo centuries of system and structural racism in the society overnight. But by highlighting the issues that plague so many people of color in the workplace, it may serve to get industries to take diversity issues more seriously and help individuals think about the insensitive or discriminatory behaviors they may be unwittingly — or deliberately — displaying.