As people across the country rise up against the killings of Ahmaud Arbery, George Floyd, Breonna Taylor, Tony McDade, and an unbearably long string of others, corporations and organizations are announcing that they stand with Black people and against racism. Many of us work in the social-impact sector because we are committed to bettering the world and confronting social injustice. We expect our organizations to be ready to have difficult conversations and to do the challenging work integral to shifting society.
And yet, despite our convictions, we may still find ourselves at a loss for words when tragedy strikes, when racism endures, and when change doesn’t appear to be anywhere in sight. This article outlines practical ways you can show solidarity with your Black colleagues.
Acknowledge what has happened even if you’re uncomfortable
White supremacy and police brutality aren’t easy topics to talk about. This doesn’t mean the discussion should be avoided. When you don’t address the reality we live in, you risk isolating people even further. Instead of diving right into your weekly team meeting, you might open by saying, “Before we get started, I just want to acknowledge that what’s happening in our country is heartbreaking and repulsive. We stand with Black people and want our staff to know it.”
If you aren’t in a position to make such a statement during a meeting, reach out to someone who is, and ask, “I want to be sure we acknowledge that Black lives have been taken and people are mourning. Is it possible to do so via a written communication or in an upcoming meeting?” Encourage higher-ups to offer space for people to step away if they need to. Nothing happening right now is “normal,” and it’s important that employees have space to exist and to be seen as human beings, not just as workers.
Try not to only engage in dialogue right now, in the midst of national protests, but also in the weeks, months, and years ahead. Remember that, as Danielle Cadet writes, “Your Black colleagues may look like they’re okay — chances are they’re not.” If applicable, be prepared to refer folks to employee assistance programs and relevant employee resource groups. Recognize that the persistence of the pandemic, economic despair, and racial injustice are taking a toll on everyone, especially Black people, and that grief may impact performance.
Words and statements of solidarity may come from a place of good faith but can ring hollow and performative when they’re not accompanied by an ongoing commitment to anti-Black racism. Are there ways your organization is doing more than the bare minimum to fulfill its social responsibilities? What kinds of relationships does it have with Black communities? How about its own Black employees? Black candidates for positions? Start asking these questions. Ask if your colleagues have concrete ideas for ways the team or organization can demonstrate solidarity and proactively serve Black communities.
Don’t pretend it’s business as usual. As Ferene Paris Meyer shares often with her team, "This is toxic office culture that fuels white supremacy tenets. We must interrupt capitalist work production when our BIPOC staff are hurting.” It’s okay to admit that you wish you had something more positive to add or aren’t sure what to say but wanted to take time to honor the lives lost. No one is expecting you to have a cure for societal ills, but your Black colleagues are hoping to hear that you too are thinking about the realities Black communities face. Your Black colleagues are hoping to hear that you too will do your part.
Educate yourself and others
If you’re not sure you fully understand the protests, start with this op-ed from Kareem Abdul-Jabbar. Then learn more about how white supremacy manifests at work and the legacy of racism in the United States. Begin with this extensive compilation of anti-racism resources and this reading list. Learn about implicit bias at work. If there are children in your life, educate them, too. Instead of asking Black colleagues how you can help, do your own research, and study ways to advocate for change at work. Share what you learn. Understand that this is a life-long journey and prepare for continuous learning and development, rather than mastery or expertise.
Use your voice
Be an ally and advocate for racial justice. Start by talking to your community and correcting people who say harmful or misleading things. Challenge people to admit that there is a problem. When you notice that Black people aren’t being heard, call attention to it. Reach out to people in power, whether they be local officials in a position to change policies or higher-ups at your place of employment.
Prepare to have sensitive conversations. Ask how people are doing. Though it’s important to check in with Black co-workers, you don’t want to single anyone out. Remember that racism impacts everyone and people of all backgrounds deserve a space to process what’s happened. Again, if you are not in a position to foster such an environment, speak up and nudge others to do so.
Avoid making isolating remarks
Some of your Black co-workers are hurt by the workplace silence around racial violence. On the other hand, some are overwhelmed by the workplace noise, persistent processing, and frequent messages from colleagues who want to check-in and show solidarity. Such outreach can be particularly exhausting if some level of trust and human connection was not already established beforehand. If folks do want to talk, focus on listening and be mindful of the language you use and the demands you make. The below are examples of comments that do little to support or uplift Black communities.
- “I can’t believe it. I just don’t get it.” Disbelief about racism in the U.S. is the direct result of not having to acknowledge (and being able to deny) the legacy and continuance of hatred, violence, and prejudice. Even when heartfelt, shock is not helpful.
- “What does this have to do with the work we’re doing? We don’t bring other political issues into the office, so why is this any different?” Talking about racism is one way to humanize Black people and their experiences, while acknowledging that race issues touch every facet of U.S. society. Speaking against structural and casual racism is critical.
- “What can I do to help?” Keep in mind that while some people may welcome this question, others may find it exhausting and even demanding. Do your own homework instead.
- “I can’t imagine what this is like for Black people.” This could imply that you think Black people are alone in experiencing grief and outrage.
- “I know exactly how you must feel.” This is simply unlikely to be accurate.
If you want to take action there are many options.
- Consider supporting Campaign Zero, a police reform campaign that aims to eliminate the over-policing and police violence that disproportionately impact Black communities.
- Donate your time or money to Black Lives Matter or another organization that’s helping protestors.
- Develop your racial equity toolkit.
- Support the Fight for Breonna. Support the Tallahassee Community Action Committee in demanding justice for Tony McDade.
- See How to Help Demand Justice for George Floyd, which names donation-worthy organizations, and ways to help the Floyd, Arbery and Taylor families.
- Though addressed to white people, this article offers 75 actionable items for anyone looking to support racial justice. The Obama Foundation has plenty of resources, too.
- Don’t give up.
Have you experienced or witnessed racism in the workplace? Share your thoughts with us.
Sheena Daree Miller is based in Brooklyn and divides her time between working in faculty development at a university and managing a black heritage center at a library. She is committed to promoting equity, with an emphasis on supporting graduating students and career changers.