What You Need To Do To Support Your Black Colleagues Right Now — And Always
Within the last few months, as a whole, we’ve experienced the ravaging effects of a global pandemic, including the loss of our loved ones, the loss of our jobs, and the loss of a semblance of normal, everyday life. Moreover, Refinery29 writer Danielle Cadet points out that, not only has the Black community weathered the impacts of COVID-19 (while watching the Black population die at staggeringly higher rates from the virus, may we add), but they have also witnessed the consecutive murders of George Floyd, Breonna Taylor, Ahmaud Arbery, David McAtee.
They have seen that people who look like them are not safe going for a jog outside, or spending the day bird-watching. And yet, many carry on and report in for work as they normally would. But things are not normal. Cadet writes, “…we have woken up and answered the emails and gotten on the Zoom calls. We’ve showed up with a smile, and put the pain and fear behind us.” But Cadet wants internet readers to know that your Black coworkers are most likely not okay right now.
“There are certainly ways that you can show your Black coworkers the care and concern you have for them. There are also ways you can make the problem worse, so be thoughtful, and understand that this is a process. There is no shortcut to becoming an anti-racist.”
I’m assuming you’re reading this because hopefully you’re looking for the best way to help support your Black colleagues — and thinking about the best way to do so is a great start. As a white, cis woman, I would never want to assume what I think Black coworkers need, but I do think the onus is on us to research and figure out the steps we can take to support our Black colleagues, friends, and peers in ways that are most impactful — not in a way that we, white folks, assume are impactful.
Matthew Kincaid (the founder of Overcoming Racism, which just launched a Patreon to help fund its pivot from classrooms and institutions to creating free resources for the general public. Matthew’s viral video on white allyship is available here), who graciously provided The Financial Diet some advice, tells us, “If you are white, there are certainly ways that you can show your Black coworkers the care and concern you have for them. There are also ways you can make the problem worse, so be thoughtful, and understand that this is a process. There is no shortcut to becoming an anti-racist.”
I asked several other experts for their insights on how to be a better ally in the workplace. Of course, everyone has been processing what’s going on (and what has been going on) in totally different ways, so please keep in mind there is no “prescribed” way of showing your Black colleagues you support them and that you are there for them. What matters, ultimately, is that you are putting your privilege and compassion into use in a meaningful, actionable way.
1. First, don’t ignore what’s happening.
“When my husband died, the people that didn’t acknowledge my grief by saying something, felt almost like they had committed an act of violence towards me. This is how it will feel to your Black colleagues now if you don’t say anything.”
“When my husband died, the people that didn’t acknowledge my grief by saying something, felt almost like they had committed an act of violence towards me. This is how it will feel to your Black colleagues now if you don’t say anything. You can’t see Black men being lynched on the streets and not say anything. I have seen a lot of the narrative online about checking in on your Black colleagues. While checking in to see how they’re doing is a first step in the right direction, it’s not nearly enough. We need to keep in mind that already the Black community has suffered massive losses in terms of COVID-19. It is estimated that at least 1 in 5 in the Black community either lost a family member or someone close to them or they know of someone that died. In addition, Black communities are dealing with the tragic images in the media of Black men and women being murdered (or lynched) in broad daylight with people filming the entire thing on their cell phones. It seems like a world in chaos, so not saying anything about it and ignoring the problem is highly problematic.” -Keisha Blair, author of Holistic Wealth
2. And then start by looking inward.
“Have there been times in the office where you might have contributed to them feeling invisible? Didn’t stand up for them in a meeting if you watched them experience a microaggression?”
“Is it harder at this moment to be Black in America? Yes. However, we live in this skin all the time. We work with our white colleagues on a daily basis. Our reality has not changed entirely just because the racism we experience daily is being broadcast to America. That said, it’s important to be reflective. Ask yourself how you have or haven’t shown up for this colleague before today. Have there been times in the office where you might have contributed to them feeling invisible? Didn’t stand up for them in a meeting if you watched them experience a microaggression? Engaging with your Black co-workers isn’t just about how you respond in this moment. Being a good co-worker and ally to a Black person is about building a track record in which that person can trust your actions rather than your words. In times like these, sometimes it is less about what you are willing to give, and more about what you are willing to lose. It is helpful if you typically post on social media about your pets or your children, that you also make a public statement regarding your thoughts about racism and police brutality.” – Matthew Kincaid
3. Acknowledge system racism and racial tension.
“Many Black folks operating in white spaces have been explicitly and subtly shown that it’s not okay to talk freely about their experience of being Black.”
“It’s scary and inconvenient to be Black in America. Verbally acknowledging that in the workplace is often the first step toward creating the space for important conversations to occur. Many Black folks operating in white spaces have been explicitly and subtly shown that it’s not okay to talk freely about their experience of being Black. When the oppressed start the conversation, we’re shouldering a burden on top of a burden.” –Robleh Kirce, one of the facilitators (trainers) at LifeLabs Learning
4. Be present.
“This is not the time to give your point of view, ask questions for your clarification, or to release your personal guilt.”
“Your Black Colleagues want you to be ‘in’ this moment. That looks like actively listening, being empathetic and compassionate, and being flexible and responsive with how you can provide support. This is not the time to give your point of view, ask questions for your clarification, or to release your personal guilt.” –Phyllis Reagin, Founder of At the Coach’s Table & Leadership Coach
5. Understand the concept of emotional labor.
“Resist the urge to ask your Black co-workers what you can or should do. If anything, with their consent, you should be finding ways that you can lighten the load for them.”
“If you are checking in on your Black co-workers, try first via text, and send correspondence that doesn’t require a reply. ‘Thinking of you, I am here for you’ is better than ‘how are you,’ because you could be asking the person to recount triggering situations for your edification. Lastly, and perhaps most importantly, do the work and do not ask people of color to do emotional labor for you. Articles like this can be a good start if you are feeling nervous or stuck, but you should not seek out resources that simply ‘give you the answer.’ Resist the urge to ask your Black co-workers what you can or should do. If anything, with their consent, you should be finding ways that you can lighten the load for them. This is a challenging time and many of us are hurting right now, and our wounds are on display for the world. Anyone has the ability to place a band-aid on a wound but if you truly want to heal, you will have to sanitize the wound first. And that part of the process might burn or sting a little.” -Matthew Kincaid
6. Privately messaging your Black colleagues may not be good enough.
“You need to start talking to your circles of influence and telling them how you feel and telling them the problem.”
Private confession is good but it can’t stop there. Sending notes to your Black friends is cool but you need to publicly say it. You need to start talking to your circles of influence and telling them how you feel and telling them the problem. Write Op-Eds, call your legislators locally, statewide and nationally and demand action.think one of the best things to do is listen.” – Dr. Froswa Booker-Drew
7. Amplify Black voices, make sure their accomplishments are made loud and clear, and offer to help with their workload.
“Do your part to amplify not only the voices and concerns of your Black colleagues but highlight their achievements, too.”
“Your Black colleagues get promoted far less often to higher positions (even if they work harder, because of systemic bias in the system). So, from an economic empowerment standpoint, there are huge issues. Offer to support in any way you can — whether it’s assisting with a task or project and taking a load off or speaking up on your team about diversity and the importance and recognition that certain groups have endured far more than others. Do you know what it is like to show up every day and no one at work acknowledges your pain? This is what it’s like for your Black colleagues. In the workplace, often Black people are hired and promoted at much lower rates, even though we have employment equity initiatives at work, most don’t function well, if at all. Do your part to amplify not only the voices and concerns of your Black colleagues but highlight their achievements too. Too often, their achievements are downplayed or worse, other team members take full credit for it. This is unacceptable and we need to start speaking up about it. Already Black people know that we have to work twice as hard in a system that doesn’t favor us. It’s devastating to think you have to do this with a lack of recognition tied to it. -Keisha Blair, author of Holistic Wealth
8. Create safe, virtual spaces for coworkers to gather and have open conversations.
“Keep in great communication with your Black colleagues/friends to see if there are any personal/work-related issues that you might be able to assist with.”
“During this time, let’s even focus on virtual & group discussions, calls, and communications with our colleagues, join company-related committees and groups associated with their Black colleagues, keep in great communication with your Black colleagues/friends to see if there are any personal/work-related issues that you might be able to assist with, etc. We are at the cusp of our new normal, and what we don’t want to keep around is THIS! Prevention of these types of events, happenings, racism, etc. is required, and our work as members of world society will never be done until we reach the extermination of such negativity!” –Michael James Nuells, Professional Actor & Special Events Manager
9. Please do not ask your Black colleagues or put them in a position to defend or rebuke the riots or looting.
“This question will come off as racist, and as if you are putting your colleagues in place to speak for all Black people, we are not a monolith.”-Lutze B. Segu, MSW
10. Do the work and educate yourself.
“Do not ask your black colleagues to explain racism to you. It is not their responsibility.”
“If you do not understand what is happening or the history of this country’s racial issues, then do the work and find out. Read (e.g., “How to Be an Anti- Racist” by lbram X. Kendi, “White Fragility: Why It’s So Hard for White People to Talk About Racism” by Robin J.DiAngelo), listen (e.g., 1619 in The New York Times, At the Intersection with Brian Kennedy and Marion Johnson) and watch (e.g., 13th created by Ava Duvernay, I Am Not Your Negro created by Raoul Peck). Do not ask your black colleagues to explain racism to you. It is not their responsibility to educate you about racism.” – Phyllis Reagin
11. Be okay with being uncomfortable.
“To support your Black colleagues, you need to be uncomfortable.”
“Be uncomfortable. To support your Black colleagues, you need to be uncomfortable. This means examining your own biases, challenging colleagues to behave differently, creating a culture that respects and upholds diversity, and developing and implementing new business practices and policies that support diversity.” –Phyllis Reagin
12. Don’t be afraid to ask your Black colleagues how they would like to be supported right now.
“Black people are often not asked about their needs and feelings, which fuels the racist idea that we are superhuman and can weather anything.”
“Black people are often not asked about their needs and feelings, which fuels the racist idea that we are superhuman and can weather anything. Yes, as a group, we are resilient, and we should ask why we are Black people tasked with being resilient. Some Black people might want to power through work, and others may want to take a day off or have shorter workdays. Treat this moment the same way you would treat a team member experiencing a death in their family because this is what this feels like for many Black people. Taking a trauma-informed approach right now is a good way of operationalizing your support and values.” -Lutze B. Segu, MSW
13. There’s no one-stop-shop or definitive guide for getting this right.
“Are you reading this because you want to spare yourself from committing an embarrassing gaffe? Or out of caution, because you’re aware of the burden Black Americans are carrying right now?”
Black people are not a monolith — there are no one-size-fits-all solutions to supporting us right now. Be wary of any list that spells out a fill-in-the-blank step process to being a better white friend. You should also reflect on why you are seeking out the list in the first place. Are you reading this because you want to spare yourself from committing an embarrassing gaffe? Or out of caution, because you’re aware of the burden Black Americans are carrying right now? Don’t try to skip steps, your co-workers live with this reality on a daily basis and you should share the load with them. -Matthew Kincaid
14. Educate yourself.
“In the United States, it is imperative that non-Blacks make themselves aware of the plight of African Americans in this nation, to know where it came from and how it works.”
“One of the key ways white coworkers can support their Black coworkers is by becoming culturally astute. One thing I know for sure that if you talk to someone who’s Jewish, they’re gonna tell you about the culture. If you talk to someone who’s Italian, they’re gonna talk about their culture. They are going to be very proud of it. Oftentimes, if you’re African-American people assume what your culture is or your heritage is, and then when you start talking about it, they can’t believe it’s factual. If everybody else can have a culture and be proud of it, why can’t we? Your Black coworkers can’t be responsible for teaching you all about African-American history and culture. Of course, none of us are going to be an expert in every culture. But in the United States, it is imperative that non-Blacks make themselves aware of the plight of African Americans in this nation, to know where it came from and how it works.” — Carolyn Davis-Cottle, M.Ed. MSW, LCSW
Gina Vaynshteyn is an editor and writer who lives in LA. You can find more of her words on Refinery29, Apartment Therapy, HelloGiggles, Distractify, and others. If you wanna, you can follow her on Instagram or Twitter.
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