In July of 2016, I attended a staff summit for a former employer. The week prior, both Philando Castile and Alton Sterling were killed within two days. My employer set aside dedicated group time for us to discuss the protests that were erupting across the country to mourn their deaths and demand justice. At one point I lamented to the group, “The news has been so overwhelming, I had to shut it off.”
Another group member replied, “That’s fortunate that you’re able to check out. If I shut off the news, the lives of everyone that I love are at stake.”
It was a defining moment that changed how I thought of my role as a white colleague and as an aspiring ally to my coworkers (something that they get to determine, not me), as well as my responsibility to be fully engaged in anti-racist work. Since then, I have made mistakes and have often fallen short, and you will too. But that should fuel you to work that much harder to show up for your black and brown colleagues in this moment, and your colleagues of other identities in future moments. With the help of many mentors, I have learned and am still working on the following; I hope this can be of service to you in your own efforts to combat racism in your professional and personal relationships.
- Check in with your colleagues. Do not ignore the outcry or be afraid to mention it. However, asking black or brown colleagues “How are you doing?” may be an exhausting question – and one to which you can likely surmise the answer. Instead, a message that names that you’re aware and that you care may be better received. Consider: “I am thinking about you and am here to support with anything you need this week, whether that’s space to talk or space to be left alone. I’ll check in again soon.”
- Initiate conversations with your co-workers – and continue them. You don’t need to wait for black and brown colleagues to start discussions around racial injustice. They would appreciate it if they did not have to be the ones always bringing it up. If you don’t feel comfortable leading the discussion, ask a colleague to co-facilitate or organize an affinity space where you can be vulnerable. The continuation of that discussion needs to happen consistently – not just in the week that follows a national tragedy. This really should go without saying, but also remember that every time you talk to a black or brown colleague, it should not always be about injustice or diversity, equity, and inclusion. Find balance and get to know your colleagues on a deeper level.
- Avoid centering white feelings. Burdening black and brown colleagues with how you are feeling before they can express their own emotions may diminish their pain and proximity to racism. Be sensitive about expressing shock as it relates to your grief or anger. While this may be the first time you are awakening to racial injustice, this has been happening for generations. If you are having trouble with a concept, Google and social media are powerful tools. There are scores of anti-racist educators on social media who have done the work to help you understand issues so you don’t have to ask people of color to educate you. If you need to process with someone else, pull a white colleague aside and ask them to discuss.
- Stay checked in. It may be easy to have one conversation about racism then move about your day. It may be easy to post a hashtag to social media and keep scrolling. We need to take a hard look at performative allyship and dig deeper to commit to real anti-racist work. Think about what locus of control you have to enact change in your own sphere of work, whether it’s in hiring and onboarding, conversations with donors, diverse representation on panels or events that you organize, or how you market your mission. Taking breaks from the news or social media is necessary for self-care, but checking out entirely is a privilege that you have – and others do not.
Despite decades of events preceding 2014, many of us became aware with Eric Garner, Michael Brown, and Tamir Rice. And then we went back to business as usual. We woke up again with Castile and Sterling… and dozens of names that deserve our recognition and respect…and then went back to business as usual. Now it’s 2020. We cannot go back to business as usual – no checking out this time.
*I want to thank my black and brown colleagues and friends, as well as countless others from other identities, who helped educate me when they didn’t have to and who expended emotional labor to push me forward.