What Are My Black Colleagues Thinking
As a facilitator for an Unconscious Bias training course, one of the micro-aggression's I point out is called spokes-modeling. That is, asking one person with a particular diversity dimension to answer for all people who share that diversity dimension. So, it would be irresponsible of me to not preface this with, not all of your Black colleagues may be thinking this. These are my thoughts only, but I thought I would share them as they may provide you with some insight. If you truly want to know what your Black colleagues think, you should ask them. But if you do, approach the discussion with a goal of only to listen. You can ask clarifying questions to make sure you understand what they are conveying, but not to try to change their perspective. And be prepared for a variety of responses and emotions, but keep your emotions in check.
I've been on an emotional roller-coaster over the past few weeks. COVID-19 had already wreaked havoc on the year, and then I watched the horrific 8 minute and 46 second video of George Floyd getting killed. Before that, my heart broke for Ahmaud Arbery. And since then, Breonna Taylor, Rashard Brooks, and Elijah McClain (to name only a few), have repeatedly picked at an unhealed wound. So, how do your Black colleagues carry that to work?
Many workplaces have begun to have discussions on how to improve racial inequality within their organizations. This is obviously a good thing. But I can't help but wonder, why now? Many Black people have seen company practices that lead to discrimination (many have previously spoken up), and have seen no interest in change. So, many of us are confused. I mean, we get that it's currently a mainstream topic, but in some ways we feel smaller because you didn't care about these items when it was only us trying to make change, or when your practices and policies were negatively impacting me, with no other media hype, and you could seemingly care less.
This confusion leads us to skepticism, or maybe cautious optimism about what the future truly holds. You have to understand, our suffering is hundreds of years deep. So pardon us if we are not quite sold on the 180 degree pivot to making things better and more fair. Sure, we as individuals haven't been here for 100's of years (that suffering is in our DNA though), and sure your organization hasn't been doing wrong by the BIPOC communities for that long (hopefully), so there should be some latitude. But understand this, if the George Floyd incident is the reason your company is investing time and dollars into doing right, why weren't they doing it before? Do we really believe they just didn't know there was a problem?
Many Black people in the corporate world have been invited to meetings with the purpose of sharing feelings, emotions, or talking through solutions. The meeting attendees are usually a diverse cross-section of a department, location, etc. Talking these things out can be therapeutic, but many of your Black colleagues don't want to speak. Not because they have nothing to say, quite the opposite actually. They are not certain you're really ready for what needs to be said, and they know that next week they still have to work next to you. They also know that what they say may cause feelings of guilt by the White people in the room. Ordinarily, we'd navigate that by trying to make you feel better about your guilt. But we are in no mood to make you feel better about our pain and suffering.
Conversely, many of us are not excited about attending a meeting led by a well intentioned White person. This may confuse you, I know, but hear me out. Having that White person lead the meeting only reinforces the power dynamic, even if only imagined based on appearances. It also makes it more difficult for a Black employee to speak up because it requires the White person to either offer comfort if there's emotion, or to offer validation if there's a suggestion. Both of which, again, speak to that power dynamic. So what's the answer? The conversations must happen, and shouldn't be avoided. Consider having a Black person who is an outsider (either from another organization, or someone from a different location) lead the meeting. Or, have your D&I Officer lead the meeting, if you have one.
Additionally, they are limited in how much they want to provide you with solutions on how to fix the problems within the organization. Yes, they have solutions, but they realize that they carry all of the burden in that conversation. The burden of sharing the solution, and the burden of carrying your rejection. Basically, you have nothing to lose from the conversation and they have to measure whether it's worth being that vulnerable. Their ability to truly be heard and to affect change is limited to the person in power providing their support. And that person in power is usually not Black.
Many Black people at your job do not want to debate racism with you. They do not want to hear counterpoints, or hear about All Lives Matter, Black on Black crime, etc. They have to navigate that space in the news, and on social media, among other places, and so they don't have the energy for it at work. Even if you think this kind of debate would ultimately help you become an ally, don't do it. Google your questions. There are tons of resources to help you understand why those counterpoints are not productive.
You might find this surprising, but many of us are more inclined to talk to you about our personal experiences with racism. Many of us recognize that many of you really don't see the day to day microaggressions and more overt racism we have to deal with regularly. We're certain that you'd be surprised about what we've had to deal with. But this discussion can be a slippery one. We are not sharing our experience to have a debate, so if you decide to diminish how our experience impacted us, the conversation will quickly be over.
Many of us have received an outpouring of support from our non-Black friends, and colleagues. It's been great, and overwhelming at times. But we are also not always sure what to do with that outpouring. It's not that we don't appreciate it, but it's a lot of attention in a short amount of time, dealing with (potentially) one of the most impactful, and incredibly personal, things we've had to deal with in our lives. It's a lot, so be mindful of that.
Many Black people are feeling a renewed energy around their Black community. This has led to trying to spend more dollars in the Black community, and partnering with organizations that are invested in seeing the Black community thrive. And they are excited about it. In some ways, we haven't felt this close with the Black community as a whole, in a long time. This renewed energy has the purpose of creating a stronger Black community, which in turn will provide more economic power, which will result in our voices being heard more clearly. I hate to even have to say this, but here goes...do not take this energy personal. It's not about you, it's about Black people. Ultimately, this will also result in a stronger American community, and a stronger American economy.
There are likely many other thoughts and feelings that I could share with you, as there are a lot of emotions, thoughts, and ideas running through our heads. But these are what are top of mind to me, and to some of the people in my circle. Do with it what you will. Again, don't let the title mislead you, we do not all think alike and therefore do no assign these thoughts to all of your Black colleagues. But rest-assured that the majority of us are having some reaction, so use that knowledge carefully. Be well.