On standing still, and moving forward

This post is not about the heartbreaking deaths of George Floyd/Breonna Taylor/Ahmaud Arbery/Philando Castile/Michael Brown/so many other black people at the hands of police officers and white supremacists, and it’s not about the wave of anguish and rage, that’s being expressed through protests and activism. It’s not not about that, but it’s not directly about the killings of black people. Most of what I write in this space has to do with how personal and world matters affect work matters, and vice versa. This is another offering in that same vein. This is about what happens when the anguish and the pain and the stress of people’s lives reach such a crescendo, those feelings then inevitably clump together with other feelings of stress and pain and then it all boils over in the workplace.

I am very grateful to not be working full-time for one organization right now. Honestly, I’ve struggled in processing all of the terrible news that’s going on in the world, and in focusing on what I will do and say to get our country to a better place, and I am keenly aware of how privileged I am to work from home, and fight for change from a distance. If I were to add in all of the processing that’s happening inside organizations right now, regardless of whether people are physically there or not because of COVID, I think I’d be having an emotional breakdown.

When I worked full-time inside actual organizational walls, we sometimes pretended that work was separate from real life. We were asked to maintain the tension—some would call it a false dichotomy—between what was appropriate for the workplace versus what was best confined to our personal lives. The simplest example of this had to do with social media policies: we had to be careful about how we used our individual Twitter handles and Facebook page, and clearly delineate that when we used those channels, we were speaking only on behalf of ourselves, not for the organizations where we worked.

With these norms in place, organizations, as recently as a few years ago, tended to push aside or compartmentalize work that they were doing on diversity, equity, and inclusion (DEI). That is, if they were doing any DEI work at all. In many places, they weren’t even having the conversations—or if they were, they confined them to to-do activities like “training” or “cultural awareness” type of activities. As you’ve probably guessed, making DEI concepts and principles real, and meaningful, goes far beyond a to-do list. These concepts only become real once you think about and act on how everything in your organization—the leadership and compensation structures, the policies and practices, the building of cultures, and the communications you implement internally and externally—represents and speaks to the people inside your organization and the people your organization serves, especially people who have been historically oppressed and marginalized in countless ways in society.

Recent events have brought the worst manifestations of racial injustice to the forefront of our attention spans. While the killing of black people at the hands of white supremacists may feel like extreme examples of racial injustice, not only have these killings been going on for a long time, they also feel like the inevitable consequence of how hardwired racial injustice has become in the systems and institutions of this country–especially at the highest levels of our national government.

What it feels like is that we go through stages of reckoning with racial injustice, with one end of the continuum being, how much can we ignore this or pretend that we are making sufficient progress, versus taking the action steps that will result in true change. And when I say “we,” I mean, those of us who have self-described as moderate politically, and ideologically, and who have found extremes on the left almost as distasteful as extremes on the right. Trump has left us no choice in the matter, however; he has shown us not only the hateful violence that has always characterized the extreme right, he has also demonstrated to us how far left those attitudes—or apathy to those attitudes—have crept. His rhetoric on and enabling of white supremacists—with the full support of Congressional Republicans—has had the effect of rubbing our noses in the steaming pile of shit that makes up part of America. It has always been a part of America; we just can’t pretend it doesn’t exist, anymore.

I’ve been taking note of not just what is happening with the protests and the progress of reforms, but also of how these events have spilled over into the workplace. Facebook, Bon Appetit, and other companies are being torn apart at the moment. At these workplaces, I am guessing that black employees, who likely had very real grievances with how their companies were dealing with diversity, equity, and inclusion issues all along, are facing the trauma of absorbing just how disposable their lives are at the hands of white supremacists. Other employees of color, or those marginalized by society in other ways, while wanting to be respectful and supportive of this necessary focus on black people, are also processing their own history of hurts and trauma. Everything’s clumping together.

In short: Organizations everywhere are dealing with giant, messy, complicated situations at the moment. And all of these feelings have bloomed on the heels of one of the biggest disruptions of work I’ve ever seen, courtesy of the COVID-19 pandemic.

Having removed myself from full-time work a few years ago, and having lived through some pretty messy DEI stuff during my last job, I am now viewing what’s happening at workplaces with the rear-mirror clarity I’ve gained hindsight I gained from years being out of the game. I feel for the leaders of those organizations, even though I do not absolve them—or myself—of the many mistakes they/we have been made in the past. So I offer some advice to organizations—especially to the leadership of organizations—on what can be done now, versus what might take more time.

  • Recognize the trauma that some of your employees may be experiencing, and give them the space to step back. When the first wave of #MeToo allegations broke, I witnessed many of my female colleagues get re-triggered on trauma—in essence, they had to re-live experiences of sexual assault and harassment that had happened to them. I wondered—not for the first time—why organizations are so slow to offer a benefit like mental health days. Why do we operate on an assumption that people must show up to work, unless there’s a medical event or a death in the family? Similarly, I wonder the same for black people who have witnessed the murder of black people on camera. Repeatedly. With no consequences. At the very least, it feels like our black colleagues should be supported in taking a break from work, if that’s what they need to do. And the offer needs to be made to them, proactively: don’t make them ask for it.
  • Some people may want to process their grief and pain and trauma about what’s happening in the world while at work. Some may not, but for those who do, it is possible to create spaces for people to show up for one another. It does not have to be an overly facilitated work discussion. It does not have to have desired outcomes attached to it. It can just be space.
  • Many employees at organizations will see clear thru-lines between the deaths of black people at the hands of white supremacists and the racial and gender inequalities that characterize many workplaces. My advice on how leaders respond: You absolutely should listen to what your employees want when it comes to creating fairer workplaces, and you should expend every ounce of energy in ensuring that they feel heard, and that they are fully engaged in the planning moving forward. However, you must also accept the reality that you will not be able to change things overnight. You will not be able to wave a magic wand and make unjust structures, systems, and policies magically re-balance themselves, immediately. Organizational transformation doesn’t happen like that. Please understand that when your employees come to you with lists of demands in hand, they are coming to you with valid demands AND they are also expressing their grief and their pain at what has gone on before. You cannot respond to everything they say (although you can listen) and you cannot fix it all in one day. You can only listen, and be clear that you’re listening, and that you are committed to change. If you can, be specific about the things you can change right away, versus the things that you can’t. A compensation review for equity pay, for example, takes time.

I end with a work memory: at one of my earliest jobs, just a few days into it, I was sitting at a lunch table with a group of my new colleagues. A woman at the table said, apropos of nothing, “Hey, you’re Asian, right? You might have that SARS virus that Asian people get! Or I forget, is it Asian bird flu I’m thinking about?”

There was a pause. And then one of the other people at the table said crisply and distinctly, “That’s a really offensive comment.” And the woman who made the comment blushed, and said, “I’m sorry,” and I said, “No problem,” and then we moved on.

Later on, I talked about that moment with one of my mentors at the organization, another woman of color, and she did not offer any direct commentary other than to give me a fuller picture of the woman who made the comment. She said she was very smart, and had she grown up in a culture where women were encouraged to pursue higher educational goals and careers, she might have had a far more interesting job that exposed her to many more learning opportunities than those afforded by an administrative support position. She also added that she had a good heart.

Working with that same woman over the next several years, I came to believe all of those things about this woman. She was smart, and very organized and good at her job. She was kindness personified, and would notice if you were in distress or having a bad day. She did, indeed, have a good heart, and I was grateful to know her and work with her.

Regarding the thing she said—which, by the way, was not the only racially offensive thing she said in my presence, which was always followed by the call-out and then the apology—I can see how many other people would accumulate the weight of comments and incidents over time, and add it to the stress and trauma they were already experiencing in their daily lives, like having police officers question and harass them for no good reason whatsoever.

I, on the other hand, have benefited from a great deal of privilege and support, all of which has allowed me to not upgrade any of those micro-aggressions beyond the level of “micro.”  I mean, sure: they were offensive and stung a bit, in the moment, but then in most cases, a path was somehow created for me to see beyond the comment to the person who made it. In many cases, I learned that the person had a good heart. (Okay, maybe in a few cases, I did not reach that conclusion.) And once I had the pathway to seeing the person more fully, that gave me the space for me or someone else to correct the behavior. A, “hey, that’s wrong,” leading to a, “I’m so sorry,” and if time and space allowed, “Here’s why that was so wrong.”

I can see how my thinking at that time—when I believed that offensive comments were the worst I had to deal with—contributed to a massive blind spot on my part, in that it allowed me to ignore the years of structural racism and inequities built into our society and our institutions. With 20/20 hindsight, I acknowledge these blind spots and ways in which I was complicit with the white supremacist structures that were easier to ignore when Trump was not president. But I can’t help but feel nostalgia for the days before social media and politics turned everything into a blood sport. When you had a minute to take in what was happening, and understand all of the nuances and complexities that went into the making of a moment. And yes: I miss the days when you had a minute to learn whether someone really did have a good heart.