Supporting Colleagues Dealing with Racism

By Jamie McDaniel, Canadian Management Centre

Supporting Colleagues Dealing with Racism image

There’s the stress and anxiety that affects all of us and makes our work experience a challenge. Then there’s the grief, trauma and injustice that stem from a long and painful history that not all of us share in equally. 

The emotional and mental health impacts of the events taking place in the wake of the killing of George Floyd are profound - and some of us are affected more deeply than others. If you are not Black, or a member of another marginalized group, you may wish to respond but struggle to find ways to do so that are both helpful and appropriate. Here are some dos and don’ts. 

The suggestions in this posting come from Amelia Ransom, Senior Director of Engagement and Diversity at Avalara, interviewed on HBR’s The Anxious Achiever podcast, and Benish Shaw, lawyer and writer on medium.com. Please visit the embedded links to learn more. 

  • Do reach out. If you are wondering if you should say something to a Black co-worker or friend, even though you aren’t super close and it might be awkward or uncomfortable, the answer, unequivocally, is yes. Let them know that you know they’re dealing with a lot, in whatever words feel authentic to you. It can be as simple as asking “are you okay?” 
  • Don’t make it about you. Don’t focus the attention on your emotions, guilt or distress about the situation. Don’t be defensive. Consider that your role is to support them, make space to listen and be helpful. 
  • Don’t try to solve the problem, analyze it from a philosophical or economic lens or otherwise bring in your own perspective on the matter. Benish Shaw points out that what Black people are experiencing is trauma and should be treated like trauma, not like a political or ideological debate: “Think about how you would want someone to support you; what would you not want them to say.“
  • Do look for ways to relieve the pressure. Recognize that grief and trauma require space and time to process. Ransom suggests that specific, practical support is better than “call me if you need me” and gives an example of a colleague offering to take over a meeting to give her emotional space. Shaw suggests that, if you are a leader, enabling Black or POC (“people of colour”) employees to skip the meeting or take a day off can be welcome. Both Shaw and Ransom emphasize that the impacted person be the one to decide which offers of support to accept. 
  • Do take the initiative to educate yourself. The internet is overflowing with resources and lists of podcasts, articles and books. It’s not easy content, but it is both easy to find and crucial to understand. 
  • Don’t ask the person who is suffering to educate you about the historical context, answer questions about why protests are happening or explain people’s experience of anger or fear. The pressure of having to explain and justify, often repeatedly, can be exhausting and frustrating even if the intentions behind the questions are good. 
  • Do accept discomfort. Racism, violence, exploitation and injustice are difficult topics but ignoring them in favor of focusing on what is neutral and comfortable will not lead to progress: as Ransom puts it, “if we never exercise the muscle of being uncomfortable, we will never have the society that we say we want.” 

There are thousands of online resources where you can continue your education and hear the voices of Black, Indigenous and People of Colour speak on the impact of racism. Start with these but, most importantly, keep looking for more.  

 

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