While tempting, your desire to have a conversation often puts us at risk
By Nikki Brueggeman
This summer has sent people scrambling towards Black employees, and not in a good way. In a piece on Medium titled, My Ex-Bosses Are Scrambling to Not Get Canceled, the writer chronicles how former co-workers and bosses rushed into his texts and DMs to offer apologies for past transgressions, hoping to not get publicly outed for their past behaviors. The writer was not alone in this experience; many others experienced the same thing. This surge of apologies and a desire to “talk about” racial tensions hit Black employees like a wrecking ball, leading many of us to feel even more exhausted as we catered to white guilt, intellectual debate kinks, and the dreaded explaining.
While it is temping to schedule a Zoom meeting with one of your Black employees to pick their brain about current events and the murder of George Floyd, it is essential for non-Black bosses step back and realize this is an unfair expectation of your employees.
Expecting Black employees to talk about racism is asking us to bring up painful experiences for the purpose of discussion and dissection. While it might be done with the best intentions, such as building a connection to your employee, it also requires us to do emotional labor. It means we must discuss the images we see on TV, the personal stories we have about abuse, and we’re pressed to speak on behalf of a group that is not monolithic. When you start chatting with your Black employee about racial tensions, you are oftentimes putting them in an educator position, with you, as the non-Black person, benefiting off of our painful experiences and trauma. These conversations also put Black employees in disempowered positions that expose us to potential abuse.
Speaking to our co-workers about politicized issues is dangerous for Black people because we know there is often retribution for our words. Every Black person has a story about how, at one point or another, they made a comment and it resulted in them being treated differently, being gaslit, or being fired. Often, when it comes to discussing our trauma related to racism, Black employees are pressured into a position of censoring our true feelings and words to keep others comfortable. As such, asking us to discuss things like Breonna Taylor or Black Lives Matter at work means we must worry about how our discussion of trauma could harm our work-life separation.
As a boss, you must acknowledge that every interaction with your employees has an unequal power exchange. As the boss, you hold power over your employee’s paycheck, access to health insurance, 401k, and other aspects of survival. In the middle of a pandemic, these things have become even more precious, especially to Black Americans who are systematically dying at higher rates. To ask them to expose themselves so you can have an intellectual conversation means you are not taking into consideration the privacy and boundaries they may have established between work and personal life. That said, there are things non-Black bosses can do for their Black employees.
The first thing you can do as a non-Black boss is simple: Listen. You can tell your employee you understand things are difficult right now and are open to listening if they want to talk. This allows them to control the timing and setting of the conversation. If they do come to you about things, do not see it as a time to engage in a healthy conversation, instead see it as an opportunity to listen and support. However, if you do offer to be a listening ear, be ready to hear things that may be difficult to process. Jodi Savage, an equal employment opportunity officer based out of New York City, says that bosses should, “Give employees the grace and space to be honest about what their experiences are. Be open to the fact that they [bosses] may hear things that they don’t agree with; that they don’t like…bosses need to be open to listening and be willing to address issues.”
This brings us to the second point: Do, don’t talk. Fix the workplace environment for your Black employees. Hire diversity and inclusion employees to improve your work culture, put Black people in more leadership roles, assure your Black employees are paid equally, support Black employees through training and skill building opportunities, and that is just the beginning. If your goal is to simply stop at the listening stage, you are not going the distance for your Black employees. The workplace can be a hostile environment for Black employees. If you want to improve things, begin by addressing the culture and policies of your workplace that are not welcoming to Black employees.
Lastly, if you want a discussion on race for your employees, create a space for them to talk with people at work about these issues — but not with you. “I really think employers should talk about race with facilitators, people who are actually trained to have these conversations in a way that is productive, safe and respectful,” Jodi suggests. Sometimes, the best answer is to let the professionals handle things. Discussing issues of race can bring up a lot of emotions and the reality is, you may not be the best person to handle that situation. You wouldn’t let someone without a medical degree operate on you, in the same vein, you should not let just anyone lead a discussion about racism. Jodi reminds us that these opportunities should be optional – employees should not be pressured into discussing race if they are not ready or feel uncomfortable, even with a trained facilitator. By providing a space for employees to discuss race (with an expert), it shows that you as a boss care about the culture of your company. One of the most powerful things you can do for your Black employees is to create a space for them to process.
Want to improve your understanding of race? Business Insider has compiled a list of books that may be a great place to start!
Nikki Brueggeman is a writer based out of Southern California. She has been published in Yes! Magazine, Byrdie, and Upworthy. Her adventures in writing can be followed on Twitter: @warriornikki.