Five ways to support your Black colleagues at work

Where to go from here.
Where to go from here.
Image: AP Photo/Maya Alleruzzo
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If you are a white or non-Black person who has been empathizing and even agonizing over racists’ anti-Black behavior, know that we—African Americans—really appreciate you. We appreciate your care; we appreciate your concern.

Please understand: What you have witnessed on phone recordings is only the tip of the iceberg. We have lived with these realities for years, and we will continue to live with them for a long time.

The weight of oppression is palpable and physical, each brick representing every individual and witnessed encounter with racism, the stories of what our parents, grandparents, and great-grandparents endured, each talk we have had to have with our daughters and sons. These bricks are countless, and add on regularly to our backs.

George Floyd’s murder made the bricks topple down in a way the entire world heard. And for many African Americans, we now lay amongst the bricks, struggling to get up—and struggling with the knowledge that we must return them to our backs. Remember, those bricks were there before George Floyd, and they will likely remain there for years to come. I hear you: You want to make them lighter. And many of you are taking some bold steps to do so.

It occurs to me this is all going on while many of us are beginning to return to work. A recent conversation with one of my sons made me think about how African Americans, especially males, will be treated upon returning. As a 30-plus-year educator, I must take this opportunity to help others learn. To that extent, I would like to offer some advice for engaging with your African American colleagues.

1. Remember: Relationships take time.

You may feel the need to get to know your Black colleagues better, to understand them better. Now is not the time to try to make them your best friends. Start by just saying hello and acknowledging their presence. Say thank you for work they are doing. Simply show some appreciation for who they are and what they bring to the table.

Don’t be put off by an initial cold response. It is not personal. Many African Americans fully believe they are not at work to make friends, and have rules about not making any at work. You see, historically it has not served them well to allow work into their personal life, as people who have learned information about them have used it against them at work. Negative messages about African Americans in the workplace often serve to legitimize negative stereotypes, resulting in their inability to progress.

2. Refrain from asking, “Are you OK?”

I know this is hard, because you genuinely want to check in on them. But if you don’t have their cell phone number, and prior to George Floyd’s murder didn’t use it to check on them, chances are that they will not see your outreach now as genuine.

And the reality is, they might have just experienced discrimination and/or racism prior to coming into the office today, or at some point in their day yesterday. It is ongoing for us. So, really we are never OK. We put on a good face and try our best not to think everyone is anti-Black while interacting and doing our jobs. Some of us are much more resilient than others, and thus are more OK. But you get the idea here.

3. Refrain from making African Americans lead the work.

As you seek to overcome issues of discrimination, bias, and racism in your workplace, you might assume the African Americans you work with might want to have voice or even lead this work. This may not be the case.

You might want to have a small meeting, hear the concerns they see, and then ask how they want to be involved in resolving the issues. But before you do this, have you checked your own biases? Your own unconscious behaviors? Are you ready to hear about them?

Sometimes we jump into this work without ascertaining readiness in the organization: the board, leadership, and culture of community (internal and external). It is important before you have someone leading this work to set up the discussions for success by ensuring the leaders, board, and community are ready to be uncomfortable, ready to have difficult conversations, and ready to heal and repair the hurt.

4. Embrace your privilege.

If you have privilege, don’t deny it and don’t disavow it. Own it, and use it to stop the harm to African Americans when you notice it, and to help repair the damage whenever you can. Use your privilege for something as simple as telling a colleague to stop making racist jokes. Tell them you are uncomfortable. When you see something, say something.

There is much to be said for speaking up when you see negative stereotypes being legitimized in the workplace. When you see this, give an example of when someone who is not Black who exhibited the same behavior but did not have the same consequence. Use your privilege to ensure African Americans are promoted to jobs they deserve in your workplace.

If you have positional authority, recruit and retain more African Americans. Part of retention is making sure there is more representation. A culturally relevant workplace means people can look around and see people like them.

5. Get involved.

Get involved in the African American community. This will allow you to let your African American co-worker off the hook about educating you on what is happening. This will allow your co-worker to see you as an ally, or even a co-conspirator. The more you are involved in the community, the more you will learn about your co-worker without the discomfort of it feeling insincere.

Being an ally involved in our community will give you a much broader picture of the Black experience in America. It will allow you to see the forest when you have really only seen the trees.

Being “woke” is an amazing accomplishment. So congratulations to you for this realization. Understand: African Americans have been walking around with this knowledge since they were toddlers. They indeed carry the weight of their ancestors.

So, as you embark on your journey to assist in making the weight lighter, remember sincerity and relationships are key. Use your privilege to combat racism wherever you see it. Get involved; get to know genuinely the community you so desperately want to support.

And lastly, take a deep breath. This is a long journey, and we need you to be able to go the distance.

Alicia Montgomery is executive director of the Center for Powerful Public Schools in Los Angeles. She previously was a principal network facilitator for the San Juan Unified School District.