You know what's worse than America treating racism like a new album that just came out? People moving on like nothing ever happened.
Over the last few weeks, you’ve probably noticed most of your white colleagues have abandoned their outrage over George Floyd and Breonna Taylor, trading it in to enjoy summer’s finest things — sailing, bonfires and lake house getaways. But not us. Those tough and uncomfortable conversations everyone boasted about having have slowed (maybe even stopped), and once again Black trauma in the workplace has been placed back in the hands of Black employees. While I wish I could say everything about this is new or shocking, the truth is we’ve been here before.
Let’s take it back for a moment. My most prominent memory of Black trauma in the workplace was just a few years ago. The day was July 7, 2016. That day, from the moment my legs swept over the side of the bed and hit the floor, there was a heaviness that overtook my body. It was a feeling I wouldn’t be able to shake even in the commute leading up to the work day. In the elevator ride up to the office it felt like my anxiety had somehow multiplied. Philando Castile, a Black man, was murdered by police officers the night before. In a similar fate, Alton Sterling, another Black man, was murdered just two nights prior, also by police officers. While my brothers and sisters in Baton Rouge were protesting for justice, I knew that I was walking into a work environment with people that wouldn’t understand the significance of the pain and the weight of that kind of trauma. The last few weeks have presented a seemingly parallel feeling.
That morning I did all the things one does to “maintain professionalism” because let’s be real, as Black professionals we often feel like we can’t be caught slipping (aka displaying feelings). But when putting my best face forward failed, my colleague asked what was wrong? I explained my stoicism was due to Sterling’s and Castile’s death, which was ultimately the result of the racism and systemic oppression that plagues our country, constantly making Black people a target.
What came next was disappointing but not surprising. Her response was, “Well, did you know him?” In that moment, just as it had in others, it became clear that Black trauma had no place, no weight of relevance in white workplaces. This wouldn’t be the last time Black trauma was ignored, displaced or misunderstood.
1. Say Their Names
Eric Garner, Philando Castile, Tamir Rice, Sandra Bland, Mike Brown Jr., Freddie Gray, Trayvon Martin; not a single name on the list above (a list which crystallizes the war on Black lives) had ever crossed my work email. But George Floyd broke the mold of corporate silence. Most of us received messages from our CEOs who made a statement denouncing what happened to George Floyd with a generic, carefully calculated message (aka let’s acknowledge it but let’s be careful not to piss off those who don’t agree). The statements were likely drowning in phrases like “we stand in solidarity,” “we haven’t always gotten it right,” “we have work to do” — classic PR rhetoric. To be honest, I wasn’t impressed by a few paragraphs in an email or an Instagram post, and I’m still not.
As a Black professional in a predominantly white organization, you’ve probably found that issues in the Black community are treated like unspoken isolated incidents that are no good for 9 a.m. coffee and water cooler conversations. You’ve likely noticed in town halls or other company wide meetings leadership mentions every other social justice issue except for the ones crippling Black people, when in reality, Black injustice deserves a place in these conversations too.
It’s become the norm that our [Black employees] thoughts on racial injustice against the Black community are expected to be internalized — good for hallway whispers only, likely with your other Black colleagues (if you have that luxury of having others). In the workplace, Black issues have been reserved for Black employees only, a mindset that has poisoned organizations long before George Floyd.
2. Performative Allyship
Let’s get into the real irony of the situation. Many of these companies and organizations have served as breeding grounds for discrimination and institutional racism against Black people. For decades, Black employees have had to shield and affirm our own worth in the workplace. We did that. Not our employers. Yet, as the Black Lives Matter hashtag started trending, the black squares went up and generic captions like “listening and learning” spread like wildfire, it opened a flood gate of false concern from the very same employers that have avoided Blackness at every chance they get. So are they speaking out now because it’s trendy and they want to save themselves from scrutiny down the line, or are the beliefs they’re expressing in their statements actually ingrained in their company culture? If your answer to the latter is no, then guess what? We are watching a stage filled with great performers.
3. Do the Math
Here’s where things really don’t add up. While some of your favorite brands were speaking up, it became increasingly clear (thank you Pull Up For Change) that it was all a facade and pressure is one hell of a thing. Ask yourself, do the orgs speaking out even have Black employees? How many? What kinds of roles do their Black employees occupy? Are they making space for Black employees to thrive? Are Black employees provided equal opportunity to learn and have access to mobility just like everyone else? Are Black employees treated with respect? What is the racial demographic of the people sitting around the boardroom table? More importantly, have their Black employees had to teach the organization how to treat them?
Imagine being a Black employee at a company that made a statement but has consistently failed to uphold any of the standards above. A company where trust has always been met by disappointment. It’s a blow to the chest, one that hits different.
4. White Check-Ins
In the midst of processing company antics, so many of us were bombarded with texts and emails from white colleagues who reached out to see how we were doing — probably because they read an article that told them to do so. The thing is, it’s likely not a single one of the people who reached out had ever bothered to ask you how you were doing before, especially because we have in fact been Black in America our entire life, not to mention usually one of a handful of Black employees in the office.
While some of these messages were rooted in genuine concern, others reeked of white guilt, privilege and the quest to prove allyship. Consistency counts, folks.
5. Lay Your Burden Down
Some of your colleagues probably said things like “I had no idea,” listened to your experiences about racism in fascination or have put you in a position to constantly prove your experience and your trauma is real. As Black people, we often venture into these spaces carrying ourselves like nothing is wrong, when in actuality nothing is right about the way we’ve had to operate and navigate race both as Black employees and Black people in society.
We are expected to separate ourselves from the trauma in our communities, masking our collective grief and burden from the outside world. We’re encouraged to bring our whole self to work under one condition — leave our Blackness, our culture at the door. This, my friends, is just another level of code-switching, better known as the basics of corporate survival. Acknowledging Black injustice and trauma would mean putting our country’s inherent racism and classism on display — a convo most companies aren’t ready for, nor are they equipped to have.
6. Separation Anxiety
What most of our white colleagues don’t know is that trauma we’re carrying, the weight we’re feeling, yes, it’s for the headlines they see, but it’s also for the names the world doesn’t know. It’s for our family and friends who were murdered without a second thought, cases gone uninvestigated because the souls taken weren’t seen as important enough. It’s for the years of living in heavily policed communities and witnessing endless harassment. In addition, as Black professionals, we’re already up against all kinds of stereotypical narratives that have been planted in the minds of our colleagues. It’s also possible that when your white colleagues see you in the office, they look at you as the exception to the rule of every bad thing, every stereotype they know to be Black.
We are constantly caught in between living in two different worlds — the one where we have to prove our worth to our white counterparts, and the one where our Blackness knows no boundaries and we can freely celebrate the magic of us without explanation.
7. Black Voices Over White Credit
When we talk about Black trauma in white workplaces, we can’t forget the latest phenomenon around elevating Black voices. Traditionally, Black voices, intellect and perspective have been marginalized, silenced and overlooked. If your experience has been anything like mine, then you’ve likely seen an uptick in Black voices being used as performative props. Unfortunately, with the current socio political climate, elevating Black voices has in many cases meant organizations leveraging Black employees as a compass during this time; endless temperature checks not because they value Black opinions, but out of fear that they are so far out of touch that they might say or do the wrong thing. Meanwhile, the same ones doing the “elevating” have edited, scrutinized and questioned your expertise each and every time.
At the same time, we’re also combatting organizational performers; people seeking glory and a “good job,” looking to earn their spot on the anti-racist scale during this time. You’ve probably also encountered white colleagues seeking credit for being “woke,” wanting applause for elevating Black voices. But guess what? If the motivation is just to be “on the record” or have carefully cultivated convos, then you’re still capitalizing on Black trauma. Imagine being invited to the table now, not because of your skills, track record or great ideas, but simply because now your Blackness is in style.
I’m good love, enjoy.
We are too special to allow our magic, our wisdom and brilliance to be used up by people who saw us as invisible before.
So what now? Where do we go from here? You need to know that for us, Black trauma doesn't just evaporate or morph into the shadows because the world is ready for their feed to get back to normal and the corporate moments of allyship have passed. Anti-racism isn't about keeping a scorecard of "doing the work." It isn't just about bumping up diversity numbers or bringing in experts to speak about Black history and Black rights. It's about uncovering the closet parts of company culture that have kept those rights from coming to fruition in the workplace.
We don't want the stares of sympathy over Zoom. We want you to dig deep, address personal racial bias and weaponized whiteness that make work days energy depleting and demoralizing. We are still finding our footing and our white colleagues should be too, new shoes and all.