How to Talk Trauma & Protests at Work. The (very non-definitive) Guidelines.
P.S. if there are typos, I’ll fix them soon. I’m working on answering real-time questions as we go through this. Thank you!
Talking about race at work is uncomfortable for most people, but for Black people (and many POC) it comes with a very real fear that: (1) they will be labeled as “angry,” (2) they will have to listen to racist statements quietly; (3) they will lose their jobs.
This guide is not written for those that want to “have the uncomfortable conversation.” This guide is written for those that want to support Black people and other POC at work after this last week but don’t know how to.
Guideline #1: POC are experiencing trauma response. So, Google trauma response.
This week has traumatized and re-traumatized Black families. They’ve been living this reality in America since their ancestors were forced to the shores. Their lives here started with trauma and have continued in it. Here’s a great resource to understand trauma’s physical effects: The Body Keeps the Score.
For brown people, it has brought up images of police brutality and complete stripping of our rights since 9/11. It reminds us of how thoroughly colonized we are that we thought they were protecting us by stripping our rights. POC of color have been dealing with daily traumas, big and small, for decades. This is re-traumatization for many. It’s not new. It’s constant. You’re just aware of it now.
But make no mistake: this moment is about Black Lives in America. It is about Black People. Their histories, their todays, their experiences. Everything else is secondary. All other voices are here to support, not to take center stage.
Google “How to Talk to Someone About Their Trauma.” Read EVERYTHING you find. Think about you would want someone to support you; what would you not want them to say. Here’s a good starting point.
Remember: it is not the traumatized person’s job to teach you about their trauma. Do your research.
Guideline 2: It is your job to listen, not debate.
This is not a moment to share your philosophical ideology around the world and how economic systems are “the real issue.” This moment is about Black people in America. It is about a systematic devaluing of Black lives, bodies, and experiences.
Your job here is to listen if they want to talk to you about this. Talking, for any trauma survivor, is a key way to work through emotions, feelings, anger, and experience. Sometimes they may need to tell the same stories over and over again. Actively listen to them. Do not offer solutions to their experience or a “different perspective.” Listen.
Guideline 3: Do not “open the floor” to discussion
The decision to talk about what is going on is up to Black folks and POC individually. Creating a moment during a team or company meeting where “the floor is open” to discuss the protests and the Black Lives Matter movement is an invitation for: (1) everyone to stare at the Black person or other POC color in a likely short-on-diversity-room and expect to be educated; (2) the Black person or other POC to feel singled out and/or angry because they are yet again forced into a situation they may not want to be in. If you want to offer that, check with them first.
The decision to engage in a discussion or express an experience is up to them, not you.
Guideline #4: Create a safe space and then actually stand by it.
Instead: create space, send a company or team message that your door is open and that you are here to listen, support, and ensure that a safe space exists for your POC team members. That you are extending deadlines and moving meetings as necessary. Then stand by that statement. If your POC team member needs a day off, do it without questions asked this week. If they want to skip team meetings, let them. Reschedule the meeting. If they need space, give them space.
Do not assume they want a day off. Some people will use work as a place to channel anger, energy, experiences. But for those that need the day, don’t make it harder for them.
If you see your non-Black team members (including other POC) making statements that are racist, overtly or subtly, shut it down. Be aware of micro-aggressions and stand up in those moments. You’re in a position to create a safe space — take that position seriously.
Guideline #5: Do not list off everything you’ve done to support POC and then expect a high-five.
It is natural in difficult situations to want to feel like we’ve helped, like we’ve done something. We want to feel acknowledged for our efforts. This need for acknowledgment is also made worse with our participation-trophy culture where we feel that every small thing we do should come with accolades and cheering.
Avoid that need for acknowledgment. If you’re telling your team all the things you’ve done to support Black people and other POC, it should only be as an information exercise so they know where they can support as well. If you are doing it because your brain says “see, I’m not racist! I’m an ally!” then you are doing it for all the wrong reasons.
Guideline #6: Do not make it about your feelings.
I cannot emphasize this enough: do not tell Black folks and POC on your team how this has affected you. (Also — note to my Brown folks. This applies to you as well. Do not do this to Black people. As a brown person, your job is to act as the first line of defense in these situations so your Black friends and colleagues are not burdened.)
Do not put the burden of your emotions on Black folk right now. Steer clear of your need to talk about positivity, self-actualization, meditation, universal principals, and the desire for “things to go back to normal.” Normal may have been good for you, but it was never good for Black people and other POC.
Black (and brown) people are not here to coddle you and hold space for your feelings right now. If that makes you feel alienated, you’ve made it about yourself. That’s not support, that’s a desire to feel acknowledged.
Remember. You are better than a participation trophy.
Guideline #7: You may not know the perfect thing to say, but you know all the things NOT to say. So start there.
It is not easy being an ally right now because it’s not supposed to be easy. It’s not easy being a POC, definitely not easy being a Black person in America. Sit with that uncomfortable feeling. Recognize it for what it is: your privilege to feel discomfort because you have not been living with racism and fear day in and day out.
Realize that privilege does not make you bad. It gives you a choice. How you use that choice defines the person you choose to be.
If you’ve gotten this far in reading this, you have a desire to use your privilege to make a positive impact. Stay with that. Know it will be an imperfect effort but that’s what effort is.
Be kind. Be empathetic. Stay safe, even as you need to stay brave.