When public trauma goes far beyond a leader’s lived experience, it can be easy to ignore it.
For white organizational leaders, that means the systemic racism that is a recognized part of American society. It also means during particularly public flareups of violence against Black Americans. It can also mean when peaceful protests are met with police violence and ugly behavior to descend into the most dramatic civil unrest in a half century.
Fellow organizational leaders who benefit from white privilege, during these moments of public trauma, it is a mistake to remain silent. Worse, silence is complicit in the injustice. White silence is violence.
As a leader of or within your organization, it is your responsibility to engage with these issues and these moments — regardless of how “irrelevant” you think it is from your organization’s work. I say this as a privileged white leader who has has struggled to know how to respond to past moments of public discourse about issues beyond my lived experience.
I understand that you can think engaging with the issues at work can feel like a mistake. As a beneficiary of white privilege, you might think it’s not your place. You might tell yourself that you’re waiting for someone more “directly affected” by the issue of the day — in this case, the state-sanctioned murder of a Black man or systemic oppression of Black people. You might think that you bringing it up could add to the trauma of your staff.
I once felt constrained by some messy combination of these feelings. I was wrong then. You will be wrong if you stay silent now. This is always true; it’s truer still after a weekend of once-in-a-lifetime level of social unrest.
Today you might be paralyzed by the fear of taking criticism for being performative or worse, tone deaf. But these are minor annoyances in contrast to the grotesque bargain necessary to ignore the world your coworkers (and you) are confronting.
Institutionalized racism is a white problem, not a “Black issue” or a “brown problem.” This is white people’s mess. These are not radical issues. These are central, mainstream, urgent human rights issues.
So what do you do?
I am not a trained expert — you can hire one — so instead I am writing from my experience of more than a decade of managing this moments with a team. I’ve been blessed to receive honest feedback from teammates through the years to develop my response strategy as a white leader.
It starts with this simple premise: Create the space, get out of the way and listen.
Everyone experiences trauma differently, but for those who are yearning to share with their coworkers, many will look to you to understand if this kind of dialogue is welcomed. You, the organizational leader, must set the tone.
This should be done consistently with your organizational culture. You could start with an all-staff email, or a message on Slack or an honest acknowledgement on an all-staff call.
If you are not expert in these topics, make sure to position yourself accurately with something like: “This weekend we saw a massive collective response to systemic racism; I am not an expert but I do want to acknowledge these events and make everyone know we can, and must, talk about these issues and what can do about them.”
Then you need to get out of the way. You can’t force this. You can’t control this. Your organizational culture has to take it from there. Dialogue, if built in your culture, will take place where it has been allowed to grow.
Build a culture of dialogue.
In these moments, we get a real, unvarnished picture of company culture. Where, when and how are these matters discussed? Are they acknowledged and encouraged by leadership or not? Important workplace dialogue will only take place in a healthy way because of long-established norms. Work on it today; continue focusing on this constantly, as it is a major part of the DNA of your organization.
Remember that some of your teammates will just not want to engage with these issues at work at all, and certainly not with you, their privileged white boss. That is OK. You still have to take the first step to address what’s happening and make it clear there is a space for it to be discussed.
From this dialogue of openness, you may find the ways your organization can contribute in a way that fits your team. It may include encouraging voting and voter registration. It may include making monetary donations to nonprofits that support Black communities or other underserved communities. It may include caring about how stories are told about these communities or amplifying messages or strategies for your own organization to be more representative. Whatever the case, you must create your organizational plan from within.
Do not ask for guidance or endorsement from your staff of color.
In this moment the focus in on racial equity particularly for Black Americans. But no matter what the crucial social issue, white leaders cannot expect staff members to give advice or thoughts or feelings. This is not in their job description — unless it is. You must hire experts, do the work on your own and build meaningful and long-lasting relationships with your staff.
If staff members do offer you their perspective, recognize what this is: a gift. It is extra emotional work and baggage. Be very careful when soliciting feedback.
Be thankful for private spaces for people of color.
It is a sign of organizational health if there are private spaces for Black staff, or people of color generally, or women or for any group that feels a dedicated space is helpful. It is a mistake to feel threatened by these; they are beautiful, important and dynamic spaces. They can offer healing that you just never will be able to.
White leaders need to stay out of the way. Offer encouragement when given the opportunity but otherwise they should be seen as spaces built by, for and with these communities at your organization.
Look for and share resources.
Many news organizations (including this one) and experts gather resources and share them. When done well, these are helpful tools for you to provide value without positioning yourself as an expert on something you are not. Here are a few examples of places to start:
- “On carrying on” (Technical.ly) — Dating from 2016, it is still a salient case study on how our own organization has responded in the past to the prominent murders of unarmed Black men.
- Racial equity stories (Generocity) — Last fall, we published a series on issues of racial equity, including this glossary of terms.
- “Maintaining Professionalism In The Age of Black Death Is….A Lot” (Medium) — This essay from New York writer Shenequa Golding shares the first-person perspective on the harm of business-as-usual.
- Vu Le, at the blog Nonprofit AF, writes frequently and forthrightly about race and equity concerns specifically in the context of nonprofits.
- Equity in the Center has a variety of resources on site that can be helpful, including “Awake to Woke to Work: Building a Race Equity Culture.”
- “How do I speak to my employees during a crisis without being a jerk?” (Technical.ly) — This early episode of The TWIJ Show is geared at the coronavirus pandemic, but widely applicable.
I, too, want to echo that though I have experience with these issues over the last decade, I am careful to not position myself as an expert. I am here to share my experience and what I have learned. I do feel confident in telling you that you must create this space for your team. It is hard, and you will feel uncomfortable.
Think deeply, speak openly. Make the space and get out of the way.-30-
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