Does “likability” really matter?
How to be a good friend to your Black colleagues during traumatic times
By Toddre' Monier
From 2015 to 2017, I worked for a high-profile startup in Marina del Rey, Calif., that prided itself on its social justice credentials. During those two years, Freddie Gray was killed by police in Baltimore. Alton Sterling was killed in Baton Rouge. Texas jurors refused to indict jail staff for Sandra Bland’s death and a police officer shot Philando Castile seven times in Minneapolis. It seemed as if the news reported the killings of unarmed Black women and men daily. But in my workplace, there was silence.
Every morning, I dragged myself out of bed, stuffed down the sadness and wondered if another lynching would be broadcast that day. Once in the office, I felt asphyxiated by a cloud of grief. Sometimes I’d discreetly head to the bathroom, lock the stall and cry. I wish our company had even once talked directly about the events traumatizing Black employees like me — and offered guidance to our coworkers on how to be a good workmate and friend. What could the company and my coworkers have said? The more advice you read, the more confused you may end up. It’s not simple.
Fourhundred years of PTSD will not be undone with benevolence. We cannot heal from trauma until it ceases. But there’s a lot you can do to intercept it on behalf of your Black coworkers. The first step is simplest: Take action. Learn, vote, consider affiliating with a social justice group that can guide you through the issues. But what about the second step — supporting the people you see daily? How can you be a good friend to workmates doing everything they can to manage their grief while getting their jobs done?
To be Black in America, it’s been said, is to be African without memory and American without privilege. In particular, in many workplaces, African Americans are in a constant state of liminality — permanently suspended betwixt two cultural worlds. Former Rice Business professor Otilia Obodaru described the discomfort of this state in a paper, “Between and Betwixt Identities: Liminal Experience In Contemporary Careers.” Guiding figures and mentors can alleviate this stress of this ambiguous state, she noted. So can ride-or-die work friends. Unlike other peers, work friends have power to address structural and personal racism at the same time.
Politeness As A Survival Skill
While it may not always be obvious, African Americans constantly bend over backward to tame our Blackness to appear more “professional.” The effort can make the most mundane workdays grueling. Take everyday speech: While most of Black professionals would never use African American Vernacular English at work, we hear our white colleagues drop Black colloquialisms and be deemed “cool.” Most of us have heard or suffered disparagement or worse about Black hair worn naturally. So we subject our hair to harmful straightening treatments, wigs and weaves. Black colleagues, too, know from experience that if two or more of them congregate at the water cooler, some white coworkers will become extremely uncomfortable. So we keep our distance, sometimes not even acknowledging one another.
This workplace loneliness is sharpened by a racialized form of politeness many of us learned explicitly at home as a survival skill. Today, it’s part of modern interracial friendships that might seem to be intimate and relaxed. As Maryland opera singer Zyda Culpepper put it in this gentle, anguished video: “For a long time, I have been conditioned to believe that it is important not to make white people uncomfortable. Especially those who were white liberals or white progressives. … And so for years I held my tongue if I experienced a microagression.” Now, like many other Black people, Culpepper has resolved to speak up — even with good friends and our friendly colleagues. To be a true friend, take a deep breath — and listen.
But the truth is, there are no easy answers. Resources telling how to behave within a moment we’ve never experienced before are conflicting. Chad Sanders, for example, wrote in the New York Times that he doesn’t need non-Black friends to send “love” texts. He’d rather you fight anti-Blackness amongst yourselves. To avoid being drained of his time and energy, he avoids communicating with his well-meaning non-Black friends altogether.
My sister April sees it differently. She works in retail and is often the only Black person within her professional and social circles. Among friends, she says, her feelings are dismissed, making her liminality particularly acute. Her knee-jerk reaction is to act as if everything is fine. But what she wishes, she told me, is for coworkers to ask her how she is doing and if her family is OK. While this is the opposite of what Sanders’ New York Times piece advises, it resonates for me too.
One thing Sanders absolutely hit the mark on, however: Don’t make it about you. My friend works in the public transportation sector, where employees are not permitted to discuss current events at the office. But he does hang out with a couple of non-Black colleagues outside work and says he’s glad to talk about politics with them. “Just be respectful!” he advises. Most importantly, he says, listen carefully, and think first about what you say. Saying, “I wish my great-grandfather hadn’t owned slaves,” comes off more about your feelings than those of your listener.
Show Warmth – And Real Professional Support
Looking back on my experience in California, how would I have suggested my non-Black colleagues behave? In addition to kindness, would I have wanted them to broach the subject of police brutality at work? Honestly, no. To ask me about such a delicate subject would undo the glue of my mask and send its glitter scattering into shallow air.
Instead, I would have wanted them to show warmth and active professional support during the workday. While I don’t want to talk about the trauma of watching a murder in a staff meeting, I would’ve appreciated an after-work call or email, admitting ignorance about the perfect thing to say, and asking honest questions about how I’m doing.
Above all I would have wanted my company leadership to acknowledge the public tragedies wounding their own Black workers every day — and to foster a culture where friends knew how to support each other, or could learn how.
In most ways, being a good friend to your Black colleague during a time of trauma is no different than being a good friend, period. Even so, technology, scholarship and a changing national culture have shown many Americans not only the effects of structural racism — but of the racial aggressions that take place even between people who genuinely care about each other. From my own experience, as a high performer in a workplace where I was often weeping inside, I can tell you that if you work to be a reliable friend, and you listen actively even when you hear things that surprise you, your Black colleague will feel your genuineness. We are all learning what to say and how to behave in the new America attempting to rise from the ashes.
How To Be A Good Friend
So, how can you be a good friend to your Black colleague(s) during this unprecedented moment? As a Black woman who has worked in corporate and government spaces for over 20 years, from coast to coast, I offer these suggestions:
- Share a kind word, genuine smile and greeting. Warmth goes a long way.
- When you make a kitchen run for snacks and beverages, ask us if we’d like something too. Food and drink bond people and show love.
- When you hear someone make an inappropriate or inaccurate statement about your Black coworker, speak up. It’s what any friend would do. But for a Black colleague the practical results can be momentous.
- Invite us to lunch or share food from home.
- Give us the inside scoop on what’s happening in the company especially when it has the potential to affect our careers.
- Encourage us to apply for open positions we would be perfect for.
- Embolden us to take advantage of company sponsored mental health benefits.
- Pick up the slack when you see that we are overwhelmed with responsibility and/or grief.
- Send funny memes for a good laugh.
- Give us space when we need it.
- Commit to becoming a lifelong learner about the pernicious effects and causes of racism.
Toddre' Monier is a multi-hyphenate creative and freelance contributor to Rice Business Wisdom. You can discover more about her at https://beautyisuniversal.com/
A version of this article appeared in the Houston Chronicle.