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4 things your black employees and coworkers wish you knew —and how you should offer allyship and support

Business Insider logo Business Insider 6/5/2020 insider@insider.com (Khalil Smith)
a man standing on a stage: Khalil Smith is the vice president of research, practices, and consulting at the NeuroLeadership Institute. Courtesy of Khalil Smith © Courtesy of Khalil Smith Khalil Smith is the vice president of research, practices, and consulting at the NeuroLeadership Institute. Courtesy of Khalil Smith
  • Khalil Smith is the vice president of research, consulting, and practices at the NeuroLeadership Institute, a learning and consulting firm that has worked with Microsoft, IBM, and other large companies.
  • As a business leader who is black, he's getting a lot of questions about our moment in history.
  • During this time of uprising against police brutality toward black Americans, Smith says that black workers across the US are being met with unhelpful, if well-intentioned, messages of "I can't believe this is happening" from their non-black colleagues.
  • While many non-black Americans are having epiphanies about systemic injustice, racism is not "new," Smith says.
  • If you want to practice allyship, Smith says it's OK to reach out to offer support, but make it clear you don't need a response, and use actions (not words) to show that you're in this for the long haul.

I have the fortune of knowing and working with incredible people of all backgrounds and ethnicities. And as a black leader who has held senior-level positions, I am frequently being asked about this moment in history. Given what I'm being asked by my non-black friends and peers, and what I'm being told by my black friends and peers, it seems as if we could benefit from making a few things known.

1. Black people are not monolithic

If you want to understand my point of view on what has been brought into the public consciousness and how it affects me, I appreciate you asking. If you want me to speak about the experience all black people are having across all of America right now, that is going to be a much tougher request to process. Black people come in all shapes and sizes, and so do our experiences. Some managers, leaders, and executives have come from what might be considered a background of privilege, with emotional, educational, and financial support the likes of which would make most of us jealous. Others have clawed their way out of hardships and misfortune that would crush the average person.

Likewise, some have experienced the type of racism and overt bigotry that is being documented through Twitter and Facebook feeds right now, and others have experienced the undercurrent of bias and prejudice exemplified by phrases like "you talk like a white person" and "are you sure you're black?"

Regardless of the tone or tenor of the slights, I assure that your black leaders and coworkers have had their share of tough experiences, and yet those experiences are theirs and theirs alone. There are similarities, and we can speak to the general experience that is a cornerstone of growing up black in America, but don't assume that my experience is the same as the close to 44 million black people in America.

We all see the world through our own lens. Understanding the black experience in America means educating yourself beyond the handful of people most readily available to you.

2. This isn't 'new'

I've spoken with dozens of black workers who work primarily with non-black coworkers, and the refrain is the same: They are met with a chorus of "I can't believe this is happening right now," to which we respond (out loud or not), "This isn't new." Your black coworkers most likely got The Talk from their parents or grandparents. The talk about how to engage with the police, how to bury their dignity if the officer was disrespectful, mean, or abusive — because coming home with a bruised ego was better than not coming home at all. We've talked about this in the black community for as long as there has been a black community in America, and we tried to talk to others.

We told you about the times when we were shopping in a store while being followed by an employee. We told you about the times we were pulled over for no objectively good reason and the officer had a few too many questions. We told you about the way the level of customer service took a significant decline when we were next in line to pay or asked to see an expensive watch or pair of shoes. And you didn't believe us.

You may have explained away the perceived injustice by asking whether we heard what we think we heard or saw what we think we saw. And so we stopped bringing it up. The ubiquity of cellphones, and, along with them, video-recording capabilities, has shattered that illusion for you. But it didn't shatter it for us. The stench was always there, but now you're able to smell it too. So as you have your moment of epiphany, for which we are truly thrilled, remember that the racism, police brutality, and pain aren't new; they're new to you.

3. We may be having a tough time working

Several times over the past weeks I've been sent a thoughtful piece by Shenequa Golding, "Maintaining Professionalism In The Age of Black Death Is….A Lot." I recommend giving it a read.

The essence of the piece is that it's tough to work right now. In addition to dealing with the disproportionate rates of death in the black community as a result of COVID-19, we've been dealing with sudden societal awareness and associated shock.

Those two things, layering and amplifying each other, are making it tough to care about the quarterly updates, performance reviews, strategic plans, or a new software push that we're meant to be working on. We're preoccupied.

If they're like me, they've cried multiple times every day as they see more news, more protests, and more videos of the very brutality being protested against. They are contending with how to show up, get work done, be a resource to others, take care of themselves, be a "professional," and moderate how much it's OK to show emotion without being labeled emotional.

It's a lot to process, and some of the other aspects of our work, like filling out expense reports, just seem pretty trivial. And in that triviality we're asking ourselves whether what we do in our job right now is where our talents are best utilized. We've learned to navigate the complex and byzantine corporate world, so how should we use those skills? And that question has sprung to the forefront of our conscious thought, now more than ever, for many. It's a lot to process, so a bit of grace goes a long way.

4. We can't take care of you right now

We love that you want to be an ally. We appreciate that you're fired up and ready to help. We see it in the emails we receive, the texts of support, and the fact that, as of this writing, both "White Fragility: Why It's So Hard for White People to Talk About Racism" and "How to Be an Antiracist" are sold out on Amazon.

And yet we need you to offer your support in a way that isn't a burden on us. When you send an email of comfort that requires a response, that is putting work on me, and I've got enough of that. When you say you really want to talk right now, that creates a pressure to reply.

Let us know that you're here if we want to talk. Let us know that you're going to invest in your education, and that whenever the time is right, you'd like to connect. But don't assume that now is a good time to talk, because largely it's not.

One of my favorite quotes embodies this moment: "A failure to plan on your part does not constitute an emergency on mine." If you're really in this for the long haul, as we are, reach out with some words of support, and make it clear that you don't need a response. This will be a long journey; we've got time. A truly ally will be there 30, 60, 90, and 180 days from now.

Even with these things that we want you to know, the most important thing we want you to know is that we're happy you're in this with us. That this moment of insight has been hard, that we wish the tragedy didn't happen, and that we know you're dealing with a lot too. We want you to know that when we commit to real change, beyond the outrage and into real and substantive systemic and pervasive change, that we're OK with each possible misstep, because a stumble in the right direction is better than being sure-footed and silent. We want you to embrace the clumsy conversation, because it means you're leaning in, educating yourself, and using your position of power to push for real change. And know that's all we've been asking for.

Khalil Smith is the vice president of research, consulting, and practices at the NeuroLeadership Institute.

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