How to Stand with Black Colleagues as an Informed Ally

In a Medium article entitled “Maintaining Professionalism in the Age of Black Death is…A Lot” the author, Shenequa Golding, quite simply enumerates: “Your Black employees are exhausted. Your Black employees are scared. Your Black employees are crying in between meetings.  Your Black employees have mentally checked out. Your Black employees are putting on a performance.”  Similarly, in a Huffington Post article, “This is What I Want to Tell My White Professors When They Ask ‘How Are You Today?’” Nolen describes her experience as a Black woman at Harvard Medical School where she feels she is forced to leave her personal experience at the door for the sake of “professionalism” and she often reminds herself to: “Smile; Sound articulate; Don’t intimidate; Don’t talk about race; Definitely don’t talk about racism.”

The recent murders of Floyd, Taylor, Arbery, and countless other named and unnamed victims are acute examples of a daily fear with which Black people in the United States live. For centuries, Black people have been victims of police brutality, inequalities, and systemic racism. And yet with all of this, Black people across the U.S. go to work and move about their day. Just with an added weight on their shoulders, minds, and souls.

Many allies (whether friends, colleagues, fellow trainees, PIs, bosses) question how they can best support at this time. Here are some ideas on how to show up for your Black colleagues right now:

Acknowledge/Speak About What’s Going On
It sounds like a simple step; however, during tragic times, many people fear they’ll say the wrong thing, so they end up saying nothing at all.  To acknowledge that you are aware of what is happening and are open to talking with your staff as a group or individually is helpful to all of your staff and colleagues.  Even simply checking in and asking how someone is doing is helpful. Silence is often viewed as being complicit with racism and keeping your mouth shut is worse, especially if you are in a leadership position. Your team is often looking to you for direction and guidance. If you go about the day with a “business as usual” attitude, it could feel callous, cruel, and dismissive of this trauma. Black staff and trainees, those of other cultures, and those who have African-American family members, are experiencing yet another collective trauma and need to be given permission to have time and space to process these events without worrying about maintaining composure at work or losing their jobs.

Check-in and Listen

Truly listen in a way that doesn’t make the conversation about you or a need you might have to validate your own worldview and experiences.  This can be difficult if you feel like these are being challenged or if you feel uncomfortable. Listening open-mindedly will be nearly impossible if there is a denial of White privilege and how you/others may have benefitted from the structural racism that undergirds American society.  
Empathizing, or recalling how you have felt when you have been disrespected, not heard or not helped about something important (even life-threatening) will be important to consider and remember. Especially at this moment, people are dealing with a lot of stressors and have multiple things going on at the same time like learning how to work from home, research, applying to grad/professional school, child/family care. All of this on top of the stressors of disturbing news coverage can be extremely overwhelming.   Part of truly listening would also mean not making any assumptions or sweeping generalizations about your colleague’s experiences with race and racial injustice. It is also important not to expect comfort from Black colleagues for your own distressing feeling about what is occurring.

Educate Yourself and Act in Solidarity
Don’t put the onus of responsibility on your Black colleagues or friends to educate you about the insidiousness of white supremacy and structural racism.  History taught in the American school system is often not a full (or accurate) representation. The Atlantic shared an “Anti-Racist Reading List” that could be a good starting point in addition to this Google document with anti-racist resources.

At this time, everybody needs to develop their own framework for action. Repeated tragedies like this are traumatizing, especially for members of marginalized groups. Each person needs to take time to process their own feelings while working to create a safe and inclusive work environment for everyone. Part of creating a safe environment at work is speaking up when you experience or witness intolerance, mistreatment, or bias in action. Microaggressions and discrimination need to be called out. Take some time to watch this video from an OITE event: Moving from bystander to updstander: take action to combat harassment and aggression.  This  OITE blog post also focuses on how to effectively stand up as a bystander.

Part of processing these events and taking action could mean acting in solidarity, such as posting about issues on social media as a means to amplify Black voices, but we encourage you to also focus on action steps “off-line” like calling local representatives to demand justice or donating to non-profits.

If you are a government or state employee, we encourage you to follow guidelines with regards to political actions as an employee.  Prior to taking any actions, consult with your human resources or diversity offices to be informed of such policies. However, please remember that checking in with a colleague as a human being and sharing that you care about how they are doing is not a political act. If for some reason, the discussion veers to politics, you can simply say, “Thanks for sharing your opinion; as a government employee, I am going to leave it at that.”

Reach Out and Seek Support

There are many resources available through your institution or school’s diversity and inclusion, human resources and staff training offices for you personally to speak confidentially.  You can also learn about where and how to refer staff for additional support.    With regards to working with the trainees at NIH, the OITE has hosted a virtual webinar for PIs and administrators working with trainees to provide information and a space to ask questions and develop resources. Another Town Hall focusing on trainees and training issues will be this Thursday, June 18th.  A workshop that could also be helpful is “Supporting Yourself and Your Trainees”.  We have listed a variety of resources here to help give you an overview of where to begin.  The OITE has career counseling and wellness staff who meet with trainees virtually in groups to discuss this and other issues as they develop their professional identities. Refer to Upcoming Events within OITE’s website to see a listing of event under the title: “Building Resilience Discussion Groups”.

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