From Amy Cooper to George Floyd (and let us not forget Ahmaud Arbery, Breonna Taylor and the countless others) all in one fell swoop. Speaking as a woman of color, it has been a lot to deal with. The black community’s legs were taken from under us and we were left breathless as we watched a life be taken by the hands of a law enforcement officer. Now there are protests all over the world and riots in several cities. Emotions are running high. The work week has begun and it’s business as usual. But not exactly.
Black professionals are expected to work as if they are not upset and scared for their families’ lives. Many of us know what it feels like to be pulled over by police, praying that we make it out of what would normally be considered a routine stop alive. Some of us even know what it feels like to be stopped or profiled on our way to work or being out at lunch and accused of a crime simply because of the color of our skin. Yet, we still go to work and pretend everything is okay. That pretense is not for us, but for our colleagues. We do not want to be seen as the angry or emotional ‘black person’ so we hide our feelings to keep our jobs.
True inclusive organizations and leaders understand that this situation will not go away in a weekend, and it should not be ignored either in the office or in remote environments. How does a leader engage with members of the black community during this time, especially if the leader is not a member of the community his or herself? Here are some things to consider before you engage with your black colleagues. And let me be clear: you SHOULD engage.
This is not just a cop/offender issue. The repercussions of the guilty officers in cases of brutality and abuse of power go deep into the black community. It is just one more thing to worry about. The goal – to make it home alive.
In actuality, most black professionals already feel like they have to “code switch” in the office just to accommodate their white counterparts; never really able to be their true selves. This code switching goes as far as the words we use in the office, our clothes, for women – our hairstyles and more. I can remember being told that I should buy a separate car for work that is small and ‘not as luxurious’ to accommodate my white male counterparts. The frustration has been brewing for decades and the two most recent events have caused most to boil over.
If you have a Diversity & Inclusion program with your company, IT IS NOT ENOUGH. Most companies flaunt their D&I programs (that are still run by mostly white men and women) as the best in the business, and brag that it drives the culture. It does not. Your black professionals should not be expected to wait for a meeting to be called to feel included. As a leader, it is your job to check in individually with your team members to understand what each feels comfortable with. Do they want to discuss the recent incidents or not? Do they need space? Can they fulfill their job duties and sit in meetings without feeling distracted? Most importantly, do they feel included? It’s not helpful to assume you know what they want. Also, just because you are uncomfortable does not mean it should not be addressed. Remember, it is not about you. I cannot emphasize this enough.
Address the elephant in the room. Let us be honest. There will be some that do not see an issue at all with what is happening in the world. If you find yourself interacting with one of your team members that feels this way, it’s your job as a leader to deal with it quickly. The last thing you want to happen is for someone to post an insensitive comment on social media and you become the next new headline.
We are individuals. Most black professionals feel like they must speak for the entire race when discussing issues with colleagues, especially if they are the only minority in the room. NEWSFLASH: we are not here to speak for everyone, but we can discuss our personal thoughts and beliefs.
If you plan to engage, be prepared to LISTEN and not comment. It is not the job of black people to make the white community feel good about their social media posts, their one black friend, or even the conversation they had with their parents. In times like these, you will do better just to listen.
With all of this, let’s not forget about the pandemic that has disproportionately claimed the lives of more black people as well. It is a lot. Tired and exhausted is an understatement. As professionals, we want the same understanding and respect as you would expect if you lost a family member. You may say, “my colleagues are not family members of the deceased”. I beg to differ. Our family has been killed publicly for generations. We grieve each life, and you should too. We all belong to the same family and that is the human race. It would be nice if we all were treated that way. The reality is things must change and they may as well start with you in the workplace.
Still do not know what to say or do? Ask yourself the following questions:
1. Do I have to run through a mental checklist in my head to be sure I have my ID, my family knows where I am, and ensure my phone is charged just to take a walk in my neighborhood?
2. Have my tires ever been slashed at work because my car was “too nice”?
3. Have members of my family been arrested and feared for their lives just because they did not “look right?”
4. Do I fear for the men in my family to walk down the street?
5. Do I have to teach my children how not to die when being questioned by the police?
It sounds horrible, doesn’t it? If you have black people on your team, know the majority of the questions (if not all) will be responded to with Yes. For those individuals, there is one thing you as a leader and human can do, and that is extend them grace as they navigate this time. A leader’s job is to set an example.
Show your team and your company what empathy looks like. Live the core values your company displays so proudly on the walls. It will not be easy, but neither is the situation we, in black community, find ourselves in each day.