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Dear Beloved Black People Working to Make it Through in an Environment That May Not Understand You

Dear Beloved Black People Working to Make it Through in an Environment That May Not Understand You

On top of personally processing the horrific events rooted in racism over the last couple of weeks, showing up to engage in our daily work can be another source of stress on top of COVID-19 and participating in a challenging, high performing work environment.

Most people at work do not know how to talk about race generally in a productive way, let alone race in the workplace. In particular, law firms are environments where there is baked-in an assumption of a meritocracy. It can be challenging when you are trying to both cope with racial crises that pervade our society and impact you personally and psychically, while fighting the parallel bias that is visible to you and yours but may not be visible to others.

[Related: Become and Find Allies for Women of Color]

As one of a few Black people in your organization, others may not know how to approach you in a way that validates your feelings and supports you in this moment. Similarly, people are likely asking you at this time to give the little energy that you have to support their learning, help them manage their emotions, and direct their engagement around recent events.

Here are some overarching tips in thinking about how to engage right now (yes, it is understood that thinking about this is an unfair, additional burden):

Engage in self-care first. 

Whatever your level of engagement is should turn on what you need and not the needs of others. If you will find it traumatizing to engage with someone on diversity at this time, find a succinct way to exit the conversation. It is not your job to assuage the guilt of others at this time.

Know your goal in any interaction. 

Is your goal to educate (and if it is, then you have to be able to withstand contrary views and not let it erode your relationship with the person)? to preserve your own sanity? to make it through the day? Your goal (which can change at any time) should drive the response that you choose to make. Some feel energized and cared for by helping others understand the current environment and its impact; others do not want that responsibility. All of these feelings are valid, and there is no right or wrong approach. The only wrong approach is the one that drives you to despair or makes you feel further disempowered. Know that you cannot control what others do or how they respond: let your benchmark for success at this time be whether you are being the person that you have the capacity to be at this moment. Speaking up or not speaking up both have potential costs.

Pre-plan, if you have the energy.

It may be helpful to know how you will respond in certain typical circumstances before they arise. For instance, you may decide that when speaking with clients you will remain silent, managers or leaders you will raise or respond outside of the moment, and with other colleagues you will engage in the moment. You are not required to follow this, but it may help avoid the added stress in the moment of having to decide whether and how you will respond.

Know your boiling point.

If financial viability is important to you, you will want to live to work another day. It is helpful to know what your boiling point is (that point when you are going to say something that can permanently harm a work relationship). Understand your physical and physiological cues for getting angry, upset, or outside of yourself. For some, it is feeling hot or starting to sweat. For others, it could be tension in certain parts of your body. When you get to that point, bow out gracefully. After leaving, you may want to send a note to the meeting leader or engage an ally, diversity professional, or affinity group leader to help smooth things over.

Identify allies up front. 

Whether it is a leader on your team, a longstanding colleague, or someone else, tell them that it has been a challenging time for you given everything happening and that you would like them to provide affirmative support by raising these issues if they are not raised and ensuring that you don’t have to be the spokesperson (unless you want to be the spokesperson). Many of us have gotten supportive messages from colleagues – ask them to be visible and active by  showing up for you at this time. Engaging allies isn’t a silver bullet – maybe you do not know who is an ally, or if you do have an ally, they may not act or they may not act in a way that you would want.

Know the resources your organization has to offer. 

Many organizations have Employee Assistance Programs (don’t knock it, until you try it), and some others also have onsite counselors, meditation and mindfulness apps, play and recreation opportunities and other wellbeing initiatives. This is the time to take full advantage of these.

[Related: Four Things to Consider When Hiring an Implicit Bias Trainer]

To help prepare you, below are some frequently asked questions you may encounter. How you are able to effectively navigate these challenging interpersonal interactions at this time will depend on a variety of factors, including what your personal capacity is at that moment for answering others’ inquiries, how much power you hold in the relationship, and what your personal tolerance or philosophy is in how interracial dialogue should occur in these circumstances. While these answers may not work for everyone and for every circumstance, the hope is that these at least will provide a starting point to think about how you might respond.

How do I respond if someone asks me if I am ok?

Suggestion 1: Tell them how you are directly. Avoid oversharing, but be direct. If you are not ok, say that. A statement that worked for me in a conversation earlier this week: “I am exhausted, frustrated and afraid for myself, my family and our society. It is a challenging time as a Black person to show up to work. I am deeply impacted by what is happening in our society and hope this is a moment for change.”

Suggestion 2: Some of us are uncomfortable letting others know we are “not ok” or how “not ok” we are. Alternatively, some of us feel that others should automatically understand that we are “not ok.” As Black professionals, many of us have spent a lot of time covering or positioning our personal brands such that others may not realize the impact on us, especially since many do not have the experience of being seen as representatives of their race. If you want to shift the focus, you might say: “Of course, I’m not ok. And none of us should be.”

Suggestion 3: If it is someone you trust and who may not weaponize your sharing against you in the future, share and feel the benefit of what is hopefully solid support.

How can I deal with leaders who are not acknowledging the current events and the additional stressors in the environment?

Suggestion 1: Find an ally you know who will be in a meeting and ask them to raise the subject if no one else does. Better yet, if you can, reach out to the meeting organizer individually to make sure it is on the agenda.

Suggestion 2: After the meeting, reach out to diversity professionals or affinity group leaders to share those views with the meeting leader.

Suggestion 3: You may call it out in the moment or at the end of a meeting, if you feel as if you have enough power to do so. Some language that could be helpful: “I am mindful that we have a lot to do in this meeting/as a committee/etc., but I want to acknowledge the events rooted in racism that are happening in our society. I hope everyone is taking some time to think specifically about how they can make change in their circles of influence inside and outside of the firm.” If you have specific ideas or things you want people to focus on, raise those. But don’t feel obligated.

[Related: Understanding Your Role in Unconscious Bias]

If someone asks me to educate them or point them to resources, what can I say?

Suggestion 1: “I appreciate your interest in this very important topic. I am using my mental space to care for myself and others, and am not in a position right now to educate; however, I hope you will take this opportunity to research resources to advance your learning.”

Suggestion 2: “There are a number of organizations that have put together resources for learning. Visit the What Can I Do Toolkit. While Black people are not a monolith and do not experience everything in exactly the same way, here are three articles that describe the Black professional experience:

What if someone asks me what they should do?

Suggestion 1: “I appreciate your interest in this very important topic. I am using my mental space to care for myself and others affected and am not in a position right now to direct your action. I do hope you will take the opportunity to research ways that you can make a difference at this time.”

Suggestion 2: “The best way to make a difference is within your spheres of influence inside and outside of the firm. Talk to your family, friends and colleagues about why it is important to support justice for people of color and take an action to interrupt comments and practices that are rooted in or reflect explicit and implicit bias. Here is a resource that might help. Doing nothing also speaks volumes.”

Suggestion 3: “Visit the What Can I Do Toolkit for ideas.”

What can I do if someone re-directs the conversation from racism to the protests, looting, and violence?

Suggestion 1: “I appreciate your interest in current events. I hope you are speaking out as loudly about the racial injustice that spurred this engagement and not just subsequent activity.”

Suggestion 2: “We all abhor violence and criminal activity. Right now, we should be focused on the racial injustice that spurred the event. Will you also speak up about that?”

Suggestion 3: “Your comments are noted. Your focus on the events that arose from the racial injustice and not the abhorrence of racial injustice itself further exacerbates the harm that I am feeling as a Black person right now.”

What can I do if a client speaks negatively or is dismissive about the racist events over the last few weeks?

Suggestion 1: If you are in a position of power or have a relationship with said client, address it with them offline.

Suggestion 2: Speak to the relationship manager or other involved leader about how the clients’ words impacted you. If you do not feel comfortable doing that, engage your diversity professionals, ERGs, affinity network leaders or other leaders with whom you feel comfortable to have the conversation on your behalf.

[Related: Change of Focus: From Diversity to Inclusion and Equality]

After the clamor following the George Floyd tragedy ends, we will need to be healthy, well and hopefully, strong. Take care of yourself – first – today.

You deserve it: you are your best thing [Morrison].


Bendita Cynthia Malakia is all about making sure all people thrive. She focuses her intellect, passion, and experience on working to integrate diversity, equity, inclusion and belonging into the DNA of our workplaces. She is a thought leader, coach, strategist, facilitator, initiative driver and advocate. Rooted in a legal background, Bendita has practiced finance law at two global, renowned financial institutions and a large law firm. She serves on the Board of Directors of the National LGBT Bar, as an inaugural member of the Institute for Inclusion in the Legal Profession’s Social Impact Incubator, and on the executive committees of many formal and informal networking organizations for womxn of color. Bendita is a proud graduate of Barnard College and Harvard Law School.

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