What Not To Say To Your Black Colleagues Right Now

Don't focus on your own feelings or make assumptions when offering support to Black colleagues amid police brutality protests.
The best form of support you can be to a Black co-worker is to back up words with actions and to double-check your intent before reaching out.
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The best form of support you can be to a Black co-worker is to back up words with actions and to double-check your intent before reaching out.

Nationwide demonstrations have been taking place across the US this past week to protest the injustice of yet another Black person killed by police.

George Floyd died after three Minneapolis police officers pinned him down, with one of them pressing his knee against Floyd’s neck and ignoring his repeated statements that he could not breathe. His death followed the March killing of Breonna Taylor, a Black woman who was shot by police who invaded her home as she slept, looking for a suspect who did not live there and was already in custody.

During these protests, police at times have erupted in violence and attacked protesters. More than 4,000 protesters have been arrested so far nationwide, according to an Associated Press tally. And on Monday, law enforcement officials shot and killed David McAtee, a Black restaurant owner in Louisville, Kentucky.

The feelings a Black colleague may experience after witnessing or being a victim of police violence do not end when the workday begins. And for many, the workplace is yet one more space in which they have to grapple with other people’s racism and indifference.

If your colleagues include Black people, it’s your duty to figure out what genuine care and support you can offer, moving beyond assumptions of how they should feel or talk with you.

The goal of your words and actions in the workplace should be to protect your Black colleagues’ time and ability to heal, and to not make yourself additional burden on them.

Don’t let this be your first outreach.

Before you make any overture of support, consider your prior relationship to your Black colleague. Have you ever spoken with them before?

If the answer is no, consider sharing your support through concrete action for showing Black lives matter and protesting police violence, rather than striking up a conversation right now.

Before you check in on your Black work colleague, dig deep and ask yourself, “What are you really looking for?” said Lisa Orbé-Austin, a licensed psychologist who focuses on helping professionals through career transitions.

If the result you want is about you or how you want them to view you or feel about you, skip it.

“When you look at the fantasy and the way you expect this conversation to go, sometimes it’s very revelatory about what you want in this situation versus what the situation should truly be about, which is comforting and caring for somebody else, and letting them know you’re there, not only there in words, but also there in action,” Orbé-Austin said.

Don’t centre your feelings or assume theirs.

If a Black colleague does decide to confide in you, be a good listener. Don’t push or pry for information; do affirm their experiences. It’s not about you.

Not making it about you means not getting defensive when your worldview is challenged or you feel uncomfortable. Whiteness studies scholar Robin DiAngelo’s research on white fragility highlights the phenomenon of how white people get defensive when they are implicated in white supremacy, and respond with anger, fear, and guilt. Your white fragility is definitely not something your colleague needs to deal with now or ever.

Part of not making it about you also means not making assumptions and minimising a Black colleague’s experience with race and racial injustice.

Vivianne Castillo, a user experience researcher with a background in human services and counseling, shared in a LinkedIn post some of the insensitive ways that people have checked in with her over the past week, including a person who told her, “Racism has always existed in America, this isn’t new.”

“This is new or comforting information how?” Castillo wrote. “Or are you saying that I shouldn’t be so traumatised and shocked at how little my life means in America?”

Castillo told HuffPost that these kind of statements to Black colleagues signal, “Oh, this person is trying to comfort themselves, not me.”

“It’s really important to lay off the potential ways that you may be inciting guilt to respond and eliciting caretaking.”

- Psychologist Lisa Orbé-Austin

Don’t put Black colleagues on the spot.

The goal of support is to validate Black experiences and to show your solidarity. But demonstrating solidarity “has to happen without exacerbating the spotlight that Black folks already feel in and on their skin, and without putting the burden on Black employees to devise solutions to overcome their own oppression,” said Erin L. Thomas, head of diversity, inclusion and belonging at Upwork.

Thomas said one common mistake some make is putting Black employees on the spot in front of their peers.

“Don’t single out Black employees in a team meeting and ask everyone else to pity them and their circumstance; I know firsthand how mortifying this is,” Thomas said. “Instead, ask your Black colleagues privately for explicit permission to broach these events in a team setting. If they agree, engage your team in a conversation about how you can effectively ally with each other.”

Do eliminate pressure to respond to your words of support.

If you do reach out, make sure it’s an opt-in conversation by emphasising that your Black colleague does not need to respond. This could be done with language like, “I’m here for you in whatever you may need. I’m present but no need to do anything for me,” Orbé-Austin said.

When you check-in, lead with your care for the other person and don’t make it about your own feelings.

“I think it’s really important to lay off the potential ways that you may be inciting guilt to respond and eliciting caretaking,” Orbé-Austin said.

Do not press if a Black colleague does not want to engage with you in this conversation. “Some Black employees will never want to discuss race at work for a number of reasons: segmenting work from home, low identification with their race, injury from a previous employer, current lack of psychological safety, too painful, too exhausting,” Thomas said. “There’s no substitute for knowing people as individuals and respecting their personal preferences for disclosure and vulnerability.”

Do back up your words with action.

If your words of support are simply “I wish I knew what to say,” “I’m so sorry,” or just “Thinking of you,” do more research on how you can become informed and take action before reaching out to a Black person to make you feel better.

Castillo said instead of folks asking what they can do, she is more interested in hearing what initiatives these folks are committing to with their own lives. She said it’s encouraging when she sees colleagues who are “willing to put skin in the game, they’re willing to have those harder, difficult conversations in the workplace ... and they’re doing it all without expecting me to praise them for it.”

Another common mistake that occurs is under-preparation for these conversations, Thomas said. “When colleagues haven’t done their homework, Black employees bear the burden of steering conversations about race or correcting misinformation,” she said.

Consider the cost of investing in conversations about race to Black colleagues’ careers. Women and minorities are penalised for promoting diversity like racial differences and are rated worse by their bosses, while their male and white counterparts face no penalty, according to a 2016 study published in the Academy of Management journal.

“Silence, especially in these times, is deafening.”

- User experience researcher Vivianne Castillo

If you’re a manager, you need to get specific about what support means.

When you’re a boss, words of support are heard differently than from a co-worker, because you have the power to shape the listener’s professional career. Your job as a boss is to make sure your Black colleague has whatever they need in this moment and that they don’t feel like their job is at risk for using resources.

Castillo said managers of Black colleagues should acknowledge what is happening. “Silence, especially in these times, is deafening,” she said, that this acknowledgment is a signal that the manager is “aware of what’s going on and that that impacts me as a Black employee.”

Thomas said managers should first reach out over Slack, email or text, so that employees have time to respond without being put on the spot in a one-on-one meeting.

When such a meeting does happen, managers should get specific about what offers of support mean. Instead of the usual “How are you?” Thomas said managers can ask specific questions about their employees’ well-being, such as, “How are you, really?” or “Are you sleeping?”

Thomas said managers can directly ask what they or the company can do to support an employee’s needs with questions like, “What additional resources do you need right now?” or “Is there something the company can do to make your life easier?”

Castillo said it’s helpful for managers to take the guesswork out of what “support” means by putting it in practical terms. “I think a lot of companies are saying, ‘Yeah, take time off,’ and it’s like, OK, I need you to tell me how you are going to support me in my absence,” Castillo said. “Help alleviate some of that mental and emotional burden that I am already grappling with right now. I think that’s really key for managers to think about.”