Your Black Coworkers Are Still Not Okay—Here’s How to Support Them

This month, SELF interviewed nine Black Journalists about how they were coping while covering the news. Said another way: We spoke to Black people about how they managed to “go to work” when their jobs involve looking directly at Black suffering and death.

Tre’vell Anderson, a freelance journalist and film critic, shared what it means to be visible in a Black body during this particular moment. “I’m hoping self-care will start for me in July as I am able to breathe while the rest of the world goes back to ignoring Black people and ignoring LGBTQ folks,” Anderson, who is also cohost of the FANTI podcast, explained.

It’s almost August, and Anderson’s words feel slightly prophetic. Breonna Taylor’s killers haven’t been arrested (only one officer has been fired, and the other three are still working). Federal agents and Portland police officers are tear-gassing protesters in Portland, and NYPD officers forced Nikki Stone, an 18-year-old protester, into an unmarked van earlier this week. But company-sanctioned solidarity displays and town hall meetings have begun to fade en masse as many well-intentioned people have shuffled back to endless corporate deliverables. So it’s a good time to remind white and non-Black allies: The fight for justice is long. And many of your Black colleagues are still not okay.

“When we talk about allyship… it’s not just saying, ‘Hey, I support you’ quietly,’” Kimberly B. Cummings, a corporate diversity and inclusion professional and founder of Manifest Yourself, tells SELF. “Being an ally is about having a voice and standing up when you see injustice.”

Your company may have launched a diversity and inclusion initiative in the wake of these conversations about racial justice and anti-Blackness, or maybe it’s recommitting to one it already had before. If you work somewhere with this kind of group, that’s great, but that doesn’t let individuals off the hook. There are things you can do to fight racism at work no matter where you sit on the corporate ladder or what broader initiatives the powers that be have put into place. Below, we’ve compiled a list of ways you can continue to show up for your Black colleagues.

1. Educate yourself on how racism can present in the workplace.

“Non-Black people need to check in with themselves, and they need to do anti-racist work,” Deonna Q., 27, a social media strategist, tells SELF. She points out the larger problems that exist within a corporation (like the lack of promotions for Black employees) are often evident in daily interactions (like mixing up the only two Black people on staff). Educating yourself and committing to your own anti-racism work will allow you to see inequities more clearly, and it will give you the language and tools you need to articulate (and learn about) how systems might be reimagined. “[Change] has to come top-down and bottom-up, so we can meet in the middle and together have a plan,” Cummings says. “Because then, no one is silenced.”

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2. Don’t automatically expect your Black coworkers to talk to you about race.

It’s encouraging that you want to support your Black colleagues in the workplace, but that doesn’t necessarily mean you should expect they’ll want you to emotionally support them. If your Black colleague doesn’t regularly talk to you about personal problems (think: spat with their partner, issues with in-laws, or even a frustrating traffic jam), you might not be the person they’re going to turn to when it comes to racism, Cummings says. And that’s fine. Luckily, there are other ways to lend support that don’t require your Black colleague to do any emotional labor, which we’ll explore on this list. If you’re close with your coworker, it’s fine to broach the subject delicately, but remember that everyone is different, and the invitation to talk might not be well-received.

3. Find concrete ways to support Black colleagues.

Asking how someone is doing comes from a good place, right? And during the pandemic, it has been an opportunity for us all to be more honest. But, in this particular context, it doesn’t do much to help alleviate professional and personal burdens, does it? Instead of only asking how your colleagues are, think through actionable, concrete ways you can support Black coworkers. This is especially important if your colleague doesn’t want to talk to you about how they feel. It’s also very helpful if you’re a manager. Katie T.*, 33, a criminal defense attorney, tells SELF that while the recent string of police violence has brought increased ability to do more to protect the rights of her clients, this has had an adverse effect on her own personal welfare. “There are only a few Black attorneys,” she tells SELF. “And there was no individualized inquiry into our wellbeing from higher-ups.” She adds that while some coworkers reached out, management (who is in a position to provide additional resources) did not. If you’re a manager, you might be able to offer time off (without having to use PTO), mental health support, or other specific resources and tools to help make your employees’ workloads more manageable.

4. Allow your Black colleagues space to express themselves or be silent.

“My non-Black coworkers can continue to give me my space, and allow me to speak up or not depending on how I feel,” Rachel K., 36, who works in the entertainment industry, tells SELF. It can be hard to intuit what someone else needs, but giving your Black coworkers space to speak up or remain silent allows them to process their own feelings. If a Black coworker of yours clearly doesn’t want to talk about race or racial justice with you, leave it be. And if they do, don’t rush to change the subject out of your own discomfort.

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5. Listen to your Black coworkers.

Alexandria G., 34, a middle school teacher, tells SELF that the most important way non-Black colleagues can lend support is to “have our backs” when challenges arise. Yes, there have been town halls, panel discussions, touch bases, check-ins, team huddles, and cuddle puddles—but there’s a strong chance that your Black coworkers have a laundry list of moments where they’ve been professionally overlooked, underestimated, or mistreated. So, today, tomorrow, and on all of the days when systemic racism isn’t top of mind, listen and consider the perspectives of your Black coworkers. Most importantly, this isn’t limited to when they’re talking about racism. Listen when they’re doing the jobs they were hired to perform.

6. Elevate your Black coworkers in meetings and other professional settings.

When you agree with a Black colleague’s idea or appreciate their contributions, be vocal about it. Openly agree and openly acknowledge those contributions, especially if other colleagues regularly ignore or disregard what your Black coworkers have to say. You can also highlight accomplishments (as appropriate) to make sure that your colleagues are getting the credit and attention they deserve, but make sure you’re not patronizing—do it when it feels natural or when it’s clear that contributions are being misattributed or downright overlooked. “Allies can make sure they are going to bat for us … about the way we do our job,” Katie explains.

7. Be transparent about your pay.

Money conversations can be uncomfortable, but being open about salaries makes pay inequities harder to maintain. Suggesting an anonymous spreadsheet, or some other way of sharing salaries, breaks the culture of silence around money that hurts anyone who isn’t a white man, TBH. If you have a very close Black colleague, one of the kindest things you can do is offer to discuss salary if and when they’re ready. (Don’t push anyone, and don’t assume you’re making more. It’s entirely possible that salary transparency will benefit you as well.) FWIW, most employers cannot ban you from having a salary discussion (though there are some exceptions to this), according to the National Labor Relations Act.

8. If you’re a manager, examine your recruiting and hiring practices.

“If you are in the position to hire, actionable change includes more Black hires and more mentorship,” Cienne R., 36, a fashion designer, tells SELF. “If you look around your room and you realize that there are not different people, that’s also your call to action,” Cummings says. But creating real diversity and inclusion doesn’t stop at hiring and things like implicit bias training. Cummings asks: “What is the root issue at your organization that you’re not talking about?” According to Cummings, hiring managers should assess how comfortable they are discussing diversity, what their current recruitment practices entail, whether or not there’s any internal mobility among Black employees, and whether or not the company does a good job retaining the Black employees they have. “Most of the issues fall into one of those four categories,” she says.

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9. Remember that you can make an impact, even if you’re not a manager.

To figure out how you can impact change, Cummings suggests you “look at your day-to-day” responsibilities and interactions. She asks: “How does what’s going on in the world impact your work?” Cummings also suggests forming groups and coalitions with members at (and below) your level so that those with less power within the company have a unified pipeline to voice and address their concerns. “I believe everyone is a leader,” Cummings explains. “I do not care if you’re an executive assistant or if you are a CEO.” This is also a good time to refer back to our fifth tip—any changes or plans you institute should have buy-in from your Black colleagues. Make sure that you’re listening to the concerns they’ve voiced and that you’re not doing anything to make their lives harder.

10. Plan for a marathon, not a sprint.

Yes, allies need to prepare for a long slow fight, but this doesn’t mean they need to be complacent. If your employer hosted three town hall meetings, you can join committees, send follow up emails, and form working groups to keep the momentum going. Initiatives like town halls won’t be helpful if there’s no follow-up and no action plan, Cienne says. If you’d like to help your Black coworkers, push higher-ups to communicate ongoing changes, and show everyone that anti-racist workplaces are a priority that won’t be ignored.

11. Expect to make mistakes.

It can be very hard to find the right words to navigate the moment, Cummings admits. And, truthfully, when you’re trying to speak out against racism, you might say the wrong things. This can absolutely be scary (especially in a professional context), but it’s important to talk about the ways systemic racism and anti-Blackness impact your workplace. White supremacy thrives, in part, when people ignore its existence. “We have to give everyone grace as they’re figuring out how to have a lot of these conversations,” Cummings says. “I identify as a Black woman, and I’ve never talked about race in the way that I have now.” If you aren’t getting corrected or having uncomfortable conversations, there’s a strong chance you’re not taking many risks.

*Name has been changed.

Related:

https://www.self.com/story/black-coworkers-how-to-support, GO TO SAUBIO DIGITAL FOR MORE ANSWERS AND INFORMATION ON ANY TOPIC

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