High Alert: How to Bring Up the Topic of Hate and Societal Trauma with Your Colleagues of Color
Several weeks ago, while shopping at my local grocery store, I reached the checkout counter and started exchanging pleasantries with the two young men who were checking my groceries and packing them. Suddenly we all heard it – three loud noises echoing through the store, following one another in succession.
It was only a few seconds, but it felt like the longest break of my life. The three of us turned toward the noise coming from the store’s exit door. In that moment, we realized that our greatest fear was not happening right in front of us. The sound we heard was of a grocery store customer being overwhelmed by dozens of birthday balloons trying to push through the sliding doors and the balloons bursting as the door closed. It wasn’t the sound of a gun.
As the three of us looked at each other and exchanged deep sighs, I realized something we all shared: trauma. We were very aware of recent news reports that saw mass shootings in grocery stores and other public places across the country. Each of us being black, we also recognized that we had a potential target on our backs due to the rise of these racially motivated attacks. We have all shared the constant cycle and what seems like an endless cycle of trauma, hate and violence that seems to have become a constant companion in our lives, especially as people of color.
I didn’t tell this story to anyone until recently, after a grocery store shooting in Buffalo, New York claimed the lives of 10 people at the hands of a man who was specifically looking to target a black community. And I shared it with a work colleague.
Increasingly, our places of business have recognized the need for compassionate empathy and safe spaces to engage with what is happening in the world around us. The days of employees having to “check their feelings at the door” are long gone – instead, we are bringing our feelings and traumas, with us to work with. This is especially true as the pandemic and remote working have blurred the line between our home and work lives.
People, especially people of color, are openly discussing their growing concerns for their workplace safety, which means connecting with allies in the workplace has never been more important. But how do allies (managers and colleagues) connect meaningfully with colleagues of color in a way that fosters a sense of security and support and not a sense of burden? Here are four suggestions for building this bridge.
Find out before you commit.
It’s crucial to make sure you’re aware and knowledgeable about what’s going on in society before reaching out to your colleagues of color. Coming from a place of knowledge on any topic opens the door to authentic dialogue as it can help set a more empathetic tone. It’s also a clear effort to show friendly behavior. There are a number of ways to get informed these days, including via news alerts from your favorite news source, Instagram, Twitter, and more. so you’re not listening to your morning Zoom call not knowing what’s going on in the world.
Staying informed allows you to truly understand what is affecting your colleagues of color and not overload them with questions for your own understanding, but to come from a place of genuine support when you decide to reach out.
Respect the boundaries of each relationship.
Often, we don’t have an overview of our personal vs. professional relationships with our colleagues. Personal friendships extend outside of the workplace into personal relationships that bring you and your co-workers to spend time with each other outside of work. This could include going out to dinner together, maybe even playing dates with the kids, or attending weekend activities or social events together. Other relationships are strictly professional and hierarchical. This means that you are only interacting at work or at professional events or you are in a scenario where you are a superior engaged in a work with a subordinate or a peer-to-peer working relationship.
Checking in at times like these requires a nuanced understanding of which rung of the relationship ladder you are on and acting accordingly. For example, if you are a manager and want to get in touch with one of your direct reports who is a person of color regarding a difficult current issue and want to check on their mental state, do so with caution and In General. way. Say something like, “Hey! I know there’s a lot going on here at work, but I also recognize what’s going on outside of work right now. I want to make sure you’re okay and I want you to know that if you need or want to talk about it, I’m happy to hear from you. If not, that’s ok too. If you need time or space, it’s available. Let me know. And leave it there. Prepare for a potential flood of emotions, a solemn response or nothing at all. The answers can run the gamut, but your touch to make a connection and make room for your employee will be remembered and likely appreciated. Going forward, you’ve opened a door that will allow you to bond stronger and create a safe space for your employee to share if they choose to.
Personal friends may connect differently and more intimately than professional colleagues. Know what relationship you are in before contacting your colleagues of color.
Follow the natural lines of your communication.
Reaching out to your colleagues of color at times like this can be a very sensitive act, but it works best when you connect with those you know well through the mode of communication you typically communicate. Nothing is worse than receiving a heartfelt, empathetic text from a colleague that you don’t even have their number in your phone. You might be greeted with a “Thank you, but who is it?”. Annoying!
If you’ve texted them recently, text them. If you haven’t spoken to them in months, but you follow each other on social media and often comment on their Insta, send them a DM. If you only talk through Slack at work, do a quick “Hey! I’m just checking on you..” via Slack. Don’t overdo it or push it. wait to see if a natural moment arises to speak.
Understand the nuances.
Not all people of color are a monolith. That’s it. It’s the tweet. But seriously, no group of people thinks or reacts the same way to what happens to people who look like them in the world. And more importantly, we don’t all feel the same way about things that happen in society to people who look like us or are part of our community. Fine-tune your approach before you approach and, frankly, be prepared for what you might hear. You may find that your outrage and empathy meet with disconnection and denial or your desire to check in turns into a strong emotional outpouring that leaves you both bewildered.
That said, as a leader speaking to leaders, I often say that recognition is always appropriate. It demonstrates empathy, connection, and caring. So again, if that’s okay with you, do it. I also advise you to connect with your cultural informants – or find them and bring them into your circle if you haven’t already – to advise you on how to move forward in times like these. to address the concerns of employees of color and create safe and courageous spaces. These are difficult times and workplaces have become a place where colleagues unpack both workplace dramas and societal traumas. Make space for it and connect in a meaningful way, especially with your colleagues of color. All effort and care is appreciated.
Ashley Kincade is Senior Vice President and Chief Culture Officer at Business Schoolan Atlanta-based advertising agency and full-service production studio.