Advice for White Managers in the Wake of Another Police Shooting

I’m writing this in the wake of the shootings of Tyre King (13 years old, shot in the back while running away from police), Terence Crutcher (shot while seeking help for his broken car), and Keith Scott (shot while waiting for his kid). I could have written this in the wake of the the shootings of Philando Castile (shot while reaching for his wallet) and Alton Sterling (shot face-down with his hands in the air). I could have written it after the death of way too many Black people. The deaths are so constant, so public, auto-playing on Facebook, that they’re causing trauma and PTSD in Black communities.

As managers, we hold power at work. Whether we want to admit it or not, we have considerable control over people’s work assignments, pay, promotion, and happiness at work. And given that workplaces remain largely culturally white, Black staff and other staff of color may not feel safe talking about their unique pain today for fear of stepping out of line and getting blow-back. More insidiously, they may sense that people, especially white people, are oblivious to their considerable pain — reinforcing a sense of alienation, that their whole selves aren’t welcome.

Don’t believe me? Here’s EricaJoy’s powerful piece on her experience at work after Philando and Alton were killed.

I got to work and made a beeline for the Library. Headphones on, so I could pretend not to hear the cheerful greetings. Head down, so I would not make eye contact. I did not want to invite a discussion that would almost certainly include the sort of banter wherein I would be expected to be pleasant and smiling and say “Fine, how are you,” in response to a query about how I’m doing.

It would be equally helpful to be shielded from the smiling, happy, faces of those oblivious of what it is like to watch someone who could easily be your brother, cousin, auntie, or nephew be murdered in cold blood. To not have to force a smile when a coworker greets you with anything but grim remorse. To not have to think about the what it must be like to be so shielded, so protected, so blissfully unaware that you are able to utter the words “good morning” when the morning is anything but.

In the hopes that it helps, here are a couple things I’ve found I can do, as a white manager, to help support Black staff today:

  1. State clearly, firmly, and publicly that as an organization, you support #BlackLivesMatter. If you can’t (because you don’t have that power, or your organization won’t do it), then make clear that you support #BlackLivesMatter. Post it on your Slack channel, share an article from your organization’s Facebook page. Find a way to show your support publicly. As the basest level, you’re helping white staff who may not have noticed a tragedy has happened realize that something significant has happened that they need to take note of.
  2. Reach out to staff of color, and especially Black staff, and offer them the option of time off to cope and heal. Say something like “The past few days have been hard with the repeated killing of Black men, I’m sure for you much more than me. If you need anything, let me know. If you want to take a day off because working is too much, let’s make that happen. If you want me to leave you be to work, that’s fine too. But I want you to know I value you so much, and if you need space to heal I want to help make that happen.” The important thing here is that you’re not waiting for someone to come to you and ask for time off. You are being proactive and recognizing that someone might need something they don’t feel like they can ask for.
  3. If you are having meetings with people today, begin those meetings by noting the killings and recognizing that people may be feeling all kinds of feelings, and those feelings are OK and welcome. Give people space to share openly. Don’t expect just staff of color to speak either — speak from your own heart about why this hurts you, or how you’re feeling. Be vulnerable publicly, to create space for others to bring their vulnerability. (A word of caution: I’m writing this piece with progressive organizations in mind, where it’s common to assume that people are largely on the same page regarding support for #BlackLivesMatter — even if actual in-practice support may not be happening. If you suspect that people aren’t broadly in agreement, I would be very careful opening up space for people to share their feelings. Instead, I’d just stick to the first half of this point.)

This may feel awkward or uncomfortable. That’s not surprising. As white people, we’ve been taught not to notice or see race, which means we have a hard time talking about it when one particular race is experiencing so much pain. You might worry you’ll make a mistake if you speak up, that you’ll make things worse for the person or you’ll assume something about them that isn’t true.

What if I told you that it was better to risk making a mistake speaking up, rather than know you’re making a mistake by staying silent?

And then finally,

4. Consider ways you can subtly or dramatically shift the work your organization is doing to support #BlackLivesMatter in your program work. Where can you add new policy demands? How can you make sure in your outreach to Black communities sits within the context of repeated violence against Black people, and an ongoing movement for Black lives? What ally relationships can you cultivate that will push you to grapple with racial justice? There are lots of policy changes needed to bring about racial justice — and we white people must fight for those changes if there’s any hope to stop the killing and create real racial justice.

But while we work for those changes, we can help create equitable organizations where people of color, and especially Black people, feel welcome and included, by taking these few steps to recognize their unique hurt on days like today.

What other ways can white managers help support staff of color in the wake of police shootings? Please share in the comments!

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I help organizations build muscles around culture, to be strong enough to handle challenges.

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