Discomfort, Anxiety, and Grief: Confronting Racism with Colleagues

Talking about Self-Awareness and Anxiety (with Hello Monday’s Jessi Hempel)


BENISH SHAH: What the black community in America and minority communities around the world, really, have dealt with is generational trauma. For as long as people can remember, they have been going through experiences that are highly stressful, highly traumatic without any release. They have had to live their lives in trauma. What’s happening right now, it’s a re-traumatization.

MORRA AARONS-MELE: I’m Morra Aarons-Mele and this is The Anxious Achiever. We look at stories from business leaders who’ve dealt with anxiety, depression, or other mental health challenges. How they fell down, how they picked themselves back up, and how they help workplaces can change in the future.

Today, we zoom in on the mental health impact of this moment, this excruciating moment in the aftermath of the murders of George Floyd, Ahmaud Arbery and Breonna Taylor, where the trauma of 400 years has exploded with new urgency and power into all our lives even if many of us had the privilege to ignore it before. We will talk with two wise leaders how the pain plays out at work for people of color and how white people need to think about having discussions around police brutality and race in the workplace right now.

I speak with Amelia Ransom, senior director for engagement and diversity at Avalara and Benish Shah who is the chief growth strategist at Loop & Tie and also a lawyer and writer.

You will hear me ask questions that, I as a white manager, who wants to support black people feel anxious asking, because talking about race, confronting the everyday impact of racism is something many of us avoid, but we cannot. I hope this episode is helpful to all listeners and I would love to hear your feedback.

Amelia, you work in diversity and employee engagement at a big company. I wanted to ask you, I mean, we are, the cliché is unprecedented times, but really unprecedented times right now. In your job, how much have you sort of thought through a scenario like this? This cannot be business as usual with what’s happening in our streets and with the recent murders. I would imagine as part of your role as someone who leads diversity initiatives that you have to think about a situation like this, a massive sort of reckoning moment about race.

AMELIA RANSOM: Yeah. It’s true. I do think a lot about that. In some way, these are quite precedent at times though. We’ve seen this time and time again from Emmett Till to Rodney King to you know I could name a lot of names. That doesn’t feel new or different. You’re right in that helping companies think about how do you want to respond? How do you want to show up now? That is something that many companies Avalara included spend a good amount of time thinking about in terms of who we are? What is our culture? What do we stand for?

It makes a response like this easier in that way. Not that the situation is easy, but if you know who you are and you know what you stand for, then it’s just about crafting the right thing and putting the right thing out. It’s not about the back and forth of do we say something? Do we not say something? What do we need to? You don’t have to spend all the mental gymnastics doing that work. You can just figure out, okay, what’s the step we take because we already have figured out who we are.

That part, I’m grateful that we’ve done that work and that it isn’t about, gosh, we have no idea what we would ever say here. Our CEO was quite clear about that.

MORRA AARONS-MELE: I think in this conversation, I want to zoom in on the mental health impact of what’s happening, how it plays out in … I was going to say in the workplace, but the workplace is a weird thing right now.

AMELIA RANSOM: Yes.

MORRA AARONS-MELE: For people of color. Actually, an interesting element I remember from talking to you before is that you work with teams globally. You’re working with many different racial and ethnic backgrounds globally. Also, how white people need to think about having discussions about police brutality and race in the workplace right now. I also want to zoom in not on the corporate statement and the corporate position, but on the personal conversations that we may all be having with the people we work with every day.

AMELIA RANSOM: It’s interesting over the weekend, a lot of the black people that I know were hearing from a lot of folks that they either have some sort of professional or tertiary professional relationship within some way about how can I help? I don’t know what to say, what can I do? What I say to people is, you should definitely be reaching out to your friends. If you have if you have people of color and black friends specifically in your network, please be reaching out to them. Imagine if you know someone, a friend of yours had a friend or family member pass away and you didn’t reach out of course you would reach out that’s your friend.

If you’re reaching out, it should be to support their mourning and support their grief. Not so that you can crawl up on their lap and cry, right? Imagine going to your friend’s house who’s lost a family member and you walk in the door and center everything on yourself and start crying. That would be awkward, ill-advised at best. We should really be thinking about how do we center that person and help them create space for their grief. In many cases, to be frank, white people are grieving people they barely even know. There was a study in 2014 that says 75% of white people have no friends that are people of color.

In some ways, to be frank, I’m not sure who white people are grieving. I’m not sure what’s upsetting them. I really don’t know. I don’t know if it’s the violence that’s upsetting them. I don’t know if it’s seeing it on video that makes it hard. Black people live this experience every day whether white people are paying attention to it or not. They spend a little bit of their time and energy and emotional energy grieving nearly all the time.

MORRA AARONS-MELE: I can’t, of course, speak for all white people. I have been trying to ask a lot of questions in preparation. I think that obviously, there’s a huge element of wanting to help and not knowing what to say. There’s probably an element almost of guilt, of shame, of wanting to say, but this is not what I stand for. Please don’t think this is what I stand for. There’s a bit of defensiveness. I think there is human empathy. I think it’s a whole mix of things. There are so many different motivations.

How do you check in? I guess, how are you telling your people at your company if they’re asking these questions, if they’re saying, I want to check in. I want to be empathetic. I don’t know what to say if they’re a white person, or a person of color who’s not black. Where are you telling them to start?

AMELIA RANSOM: I’m telling them to start by creating the space to listen. Right? Just create a space. If you have a colleague or an employee and you think they’re impacted or affected, just say, I know that this is probably impacting you and I don’t necessarily have the right words, but I want you to know I see you. I know I need to do work on understanding how to see you better. I want to create space for you if you want that space here or wherever you want that space.

Because they may not want that space with you. Seeing it and acknowledging it is absolutely the right thing to do. Allyship and really being an advocate is a different thing. Pity isn’t purposeful in that regard. How do you move yourself forward to really be somebody’s ally? Is that I’ve taken the time to educate myself? Is that I don’t overly lean on my, in this case, black friends to educate me on all the things I need to know. It’s that I do my work and I come back with some way of asking educated questions or supporting in a more effective and educated way.

I start at first at a human to human level, I see you, I acknowledge you. How can I best support you? I had a colleague reach out to me and say, “Hey, can I take that agenda for Thursday’s meeting? Can I take it and own that for you this week?” That was really helpful. That’s a big meeting that I put on and to have my colleague who I absolutely trust say, “I can take that off your plate.”

MORRA AARONS-MELE: No questions asked. They just reached out and said…

AMELIA RANSOM: They just reached out. They reached out, but this is someone that I have trust with. I knew exactly that she saw me and understood like your week’s going to be slammed and or you might just need the emotional space to do something else with your time.

I remember immediately looking at her message and feeling my shoulders come down and say, oh, that would be terrific. I got it. Don’t worry about that agenda for Thursday. I’ve got it. I’m on it. Check. That’s what she can do for me. She can’t do a lot of other things to support me, but she can do that thing and she did it. Reached out proactive and did it. It’s what they say about grief, though. Don’t just say to someone, if you need me, call me. Say, can I bring meals by on Wednesday or Thursday? Can I babysit your kids on Monday?

Take an action. It’s okay if the person says no, that’s not what I need right now. That’s fine. You reach out to take an affirmative action to say, I want to support you, a person I see know and care about.

MORRA AARONS-MELE: A lot of what I’ve been observing among black professionals on Twitter, which has been amazing is a sense of, I have so much anger, I have so much grief. There was an incredible article that we shared by a woman named Shenequa Golding, she spoke about the challenge that she’s feeling about … The article is titled “Maintaining Professionalism in the Age of Black Death is a Lot”. She writes, “I just witnessed the lynching of a black man, but don’t worry, Ted, I’ll have those deliverables to you by end of the day.”

She talks about the conflict of grieving but still having to show up at work because she hasn’t technically lost her own family, right? She has to show up at work. She has to go through the emotions but she is grieving. She is angry. Amelia, how would you explain to her manager if her manager was a white man, for example? How to acknowledge and honor her grief and her anger and her feelings right now? What does she need?

AMELIA RANSOM: She needs that acknowledgement that her grief is real. That even if you don’t understand it, even if you’ve never lost a fill in the blank, that you understand that. Maybe the way that people can access that who don’t understand is, and this would be not necessarily germane just to women, but if you’ve ever had a miscarriage, and you can’t talk about it or you feel like you can’t talk about it, but you’re grieving but the world is still going on. It’s not the same thing. I’m just trying to give people something that they maybe could have access to in themselves.

Imagine, if you were in fear or in danger or in grief and you felt like you either couldn’t or shouldn’t talk about that to people. You lost a loved one, you lost a parent, you lost a friend and everyone’s like, yeah, I heard that. I heard your mom passed away. That’s, man. Anyway, so what do you think we should do about that? People just moved on. It would feel jolting and jarring.

I think what I took away from that article also, isn’t just I watched this thing that you also watched. It’s, I’m watching this all the time and you’re not paying attention to it. This is not what black people and, again, just as you said, you don’t speak for white people. I certainly can’t speak for all black people. The experience in the main, I believe is, it’s not just George Floyd. George Floyd is tragic and horrible. There are men and women, black men and women, whose names most white people will never know that have had a similar experience.

Maybe it wasn’t on videotape and maybe it was before the age of Twitter, but it existed. We’re living with that trauma on a regular basis. You’re living with that fear, am I the next hashtag? Is it me? Is it my husband? Is it my sister? Who is it? When you live with that and it can happen at any moment, it’s frightening. You live with that, I don’t know if it’s technically anxiety, but you’re living with that on a regular basis as part of your psyche.

It becomes magnified when other people are watching it also and then depending on you for their grief.

MORRA AARONS-MELE: Say more about that.

AMELIA RANSOM: There’s a lot of conversation now about protests and rioters and all this kind of stuff. Why are people protesting and having to answer the questions for people for many black Americans feel very obvious. Violence is what we listen to in this country. It is how we respond to things.

Let’s go to an example about somebody who we really like, like this country really likes, right now, Martin Luther King. In 1968, he was vilified, and nobody liked him. Now, we really like him. We got a Fair Housing Act after he was assassinated. We respond to violence. We have a 1964 Civil Rights Act because of the deaths of Kennedy. This is what we have, we have a Voting Rights Act, because John Lewis nearly got himself killed going across the Edmund Pettus Bridge.

This nation has trained people to be violent. When you say, I don’t understand why we do this, it’s because it’s the language we speak in this nation. Answering those questions again and again and supporting people who say, I don’t understand why this is happening, can be very tiring and exhausting and puts the blame and the shame on black people in a sense because it’s like, well, why would you do that? Why would you burn down your community?

A, that’s not what most black people do. Most black people are protesting not rioting. Those are two different terms. Two different things that are happening, looters are looting protesters are protesting. In many cases, those communities that you’re talking about don’t belong to us. Again, it’s that supporting the grief and the questions that in many cases feel very obvious about who we are as a nation.

Trying to help other people navigate them when it really, in some cases, doesn’t feel like we’re trying to solve the underlying problem of why we are a nation like this. It is that we’re trying to solve the problem of how can I get this off my newsfeed? How can I stop having to be inconvenienced by these, “protest riots” fill in the blank term and move to normal? Normal for black people would be more of the same.

MORRA AARONS-MELE: This does make everyone anxious of course, right. It compounds the fear that we’ve all been feeling about the economy and the pandemic. I mean, it’s not like we were in easy times before what’s happened erupted. I understand the anxiety. I do think you’re right that for many, many white people, it’s just a sense of, can we just move on?

AMELIA RANSOM: Yeah.

MORRA AARONS-MELE: The fear. Can I give you a hypothetical?

AMELIA RANSOM: Sure.

MORRA AARONS-MELE: Imagine you’re a young black woman and your older white boss says something like that, like, gosh, I was behind the protesters, but man, I mean, why do they have to resort to violence? This is blah, blah, blah, blah, blah. What do you say if you’re that young black woman?

AMELIA RANSOM: I might take a few different tacks. One is I’m very fond of handing people books. I would choose a book and hand it to that person and say, I’m going to put a time on your calendar in two weeks or whatever the timeframe is, depending on maybe the thickness of the book, to have that conversation with you again. Because it will tell me how curious you are about the answers.

How curious are you to really know? Information has never been more free. Now, again, I say that with some privilege attached to it WiFi is not free, lots of downloads are not free. I understand that. There’s a lot of free information out there and offer information at a nominal cost. If I have a manager, I can make some assumptions about my manager, they’re employed, they might have some disposable income so you could pick a book.

Let’s have a conversation about that book, which I’ve done with leaders. That demonstration of curiosity is interesting to me, because I find that people aren’t nearly as curious as they sometimes present to be. When you really ask them to go deep on a topic, do you really want to know? Because I can help you know. Do you just want to know that two and two is four? Or do you want to understand computational skills?

You got to pick one. Both of them, you can know. If I tell you that two and two is four, you don’t understand what to do if somebody says how many people are in that room. You don’t understand the skill to use to determine how many people are in that room because you don’t understand computational skills. You just know the factoid that I gave you. Two plus two is four.

I like to give people a book. I like to ask the question, tell me why you want to know. Why are people doing this? Tell me why you’d like to understand that. Because it bothers you? Because you have to talk to your children about it? Tell me your reasoning for wanting to know. Because honestly, it tells me how deeply I’m going to engage in a conversation with you about it.

If you want to know because it’s disturbing your timeline or because you can’t go to your favorite market or do your favorite thing or you’re stuck in traffic, I’m likely to walk away. In the scenario that you pose, I’m this person’s employee.

MORRA AARONS-MELE: Right. There’s power dynamics applied too.

AMELIA RANSOM: I still think it’s a helpful question to understand. Tell me why you want to know because it actually can help me answer your question. It gives me information that helps me serve up information that could be helpful or the resources to you that might be helpful as well.

MORRA AARONS-MELE: Let’s flip this scenario. If you’re a manager and a person of color or a black person, I guess, what are you doing in terms of proactively either giving space for grief or trying to … are you trying to educate white people on your team? Are you letting them come to you? What does that flow of information look like?

AMELIA RANSOM: It’s a little different for me because I do the work of inclusion and anti-racism work.

MORRA AARONS-MELE: Right. That’s right. You’re a professional.

AMELIA RANSOM: Right. It’s my profession. Yes, I am engaging in those conversations. If you’re not a person whose role that is, then you’re likely having a different response. The black people that I know that do not have the same profession as me are really creating different boundaries in different ways for themselves. Some are really happy to have that conversation with people. Some are like, I don’t really want to have this conversation. I think all of those things are fine.

What I’m saying to people is, and I said this yesterday to a group of people, I don’t actually need you to talk to black people more. I need you to talk to each other more. The problem of racism will not be solved by you going to talk to black people. I think we’re clear about the experience of black people. I think Jane Elliot’s question that it’s gone viral on social media of her asking an audience of white people, please stand up. If you would like to have the experience that black people in this country are having right now, please stand up. If you trade places with them stand up. Nobody stands up. I think we’re clear.

Right? I don’t need you to talk to more black people, I need you to talk to more white people. I need you to talk to your children early and often. Not talking to your children about race isn’t the same thing as telling your children actively about how to not be racist. You would not leave to silence topics like sex or drugs or alcohol. Your position as a parent is clear on those things in your household if you have children and you say it often. We don’t have these conversations about race. Then, we say things like, oh, we don’t see color.

Your kids see color. You’re just not talking to them about it. The people that are going to influence them about that topic then if you don’t are the extremists.

MORRA AARONS-MELE: That’s right.

AMELIA RANSOM: We are talking about it often. I want my people to do more and more work like that.

MORRA AARONS-MELE: Why does talking about race make us so anxious?

AMELIA RANSOM: Which answer do you want here?

MORRA AARONS-MELE: I want your answer.

AMELIA RANSOM: Because I think white people are afraid that we want revenge and not justice. I think people know. I think white people know every time that they let an offensive comment slide because there was no black person in the room. I think they know every time that they’ve gotten a little nervous when they saw somebody they thought was “out of place” but they didn’t say anything and they acted normal. I think they know.

I think articulating that I think white people are afraid that your slip is going to show. I think the anxiety of the truth, it’s listen, it’s on some level, not the same level. I want to be clear. It’s on some level, the reason I don’t read always the back of packages of food that I like, because I don’t want to know that there’s too many calories in that for me. I don’t want to know. It’s good. I like it. I want to eat it.

If you have to be faced with it, then it’s an active decision. As long as I don’t know and I don’t understand that the way that I think and the way that I’m presenting myself is indeed racist that I don’t have to face that.

MORRA AARONS-MELE: This is what I talk about on the show all the time is that we don’t like to sit in uncomfortable feelings and we work very hard to make our lives as free of them as possible.

AMELIA RANSOM: It’s so true. We do that in lots of ways. I think you’re absolutely right. I’m very fond of saying, I’m a person that doesn’t like to work out. I don’t like it. I’m very fond of people. There are only two ways to make squats stop hurting, keep doing them or stop doing them. It’s up to you. Only one of them though, gets you to the goal of being more healthy and more fit or whatever your goals are. You could stop doing them too and they won’t hurt but you won’t get to the goal.

That’s the same thing as talking about race. If we never exercise the muscle of being uncomfortable, we will never have the society that we say we want, the daylight between who we say we are and who we really are is going to get more bright.

MORRA AARONS-MELE: My last question for you is about filling space with talking. I think that a lot of us, no matter what color you are, we get anxious, feelings get uncomfortable and we talk. We build space. We try to solve problems instead of sitting in someone’s feelings and acknowledging them. Do you have any advice especially if you’re a manager and theoretically your job is to solve problems about practicing listening and letting space be uncomfortable for you?

AMELIA RANSOM: I love this because I think, as leaders, it’s really important to understand that sometimes problems are best solved by listening, not by talking. By just sort of letting the free flow of thoughts or ideas or just space and silence fill the space. On a practical note, what I’ll say to leaders is if you reach out to someone and say, I see you, I acknowledge you, I want to support you. Please, help me understand how to support you or something like that. Whatever feels authentic for you, don’t let that be … and the person says, no, nothing. Don’t let that be the last time you ask. Ask again.

When someone talks and they share with you, do not try to find the example in your life that fits what they’re saying. I listened to a leader, this is some time ago, and someone was sharing really authentically this interaction with police. The other person in the room said, “Yeah, because I got pulled over one time,” and you should have seen the look.

MORRA AARONS-MELE: I can imagine.

AMELIA RANSOM: You really think you getting pulled over is the same thing as her getting pulled? You do see the difference between you two. You are a white cisgender male, she was a black woman. These are not the same thing. Don’t try to find the equivalence. When that person shares it, ask this question. Would you mind sharing more? Letting them go deeper. It’s, what is it that you learned in college, the five why’s. It’s tell me more and then letting them go deeper and tell me more.

You’re not trying to solve like the five why’s for a root cause, you’re just trying to understand more. Every time you let someone go deeper with you, they’re testing you, right? They’re saying, can you handle it? If you ask someone, how are you doing? They say, I’m fine. You say, hey, no, really talk to me, how are you doing? They say, oh, my kid working on their Zoom homework, it’s kind of hard. You go, gosh, tell me more. You say, gosh, they’ve really been acting out. Right? They go deeper every time. They tell you a little bit more if you make the space for it.

That’s what I recommend leaders do. Just make the space and know that trust me, I promise you, black employees are not looking for you to solve their individual problems because again, racism is institutional and structural and individual. The challenges that lead us to George Floyd will not be solved by a mid-level manager in your company. It will not at all.

MORRA AARONS-MELE: I’m sorry to laugh.

AMELIA RANSOM: Right?

MORRA AARONS-MELE: When you say it like, yes, of course.

AMELIA RANSOM: Yeah. We are not looking for you. Ted, as the woman in the microcosm, we’re not looking for you individually to solve it. I am looking for you to take it away and have a deeper conversation with some other white people.

MORRA AARONS-MELE: Ted.

AMELIA RANSOM: Ted, right?

MORRA AARONS-MELE: Thank you so much for your time. I’m grateful you took the time with me. I hope we can reach a lot of folks.

AMELIA RANSOM: I’m very grateful for you using your platform for this.

MORRA AARONS-MELE: Howard Stevenson, a professor at the University of Pennsylvania tells us that racial literacy is the ability to negotiate and navigate racial conflict. I must admit, I’m not terribly racially literate. I have said racist things in my own life many times. I’ve shut up when I should have stood up and want to do better.

Stevenson says, “When we think of conflict, people may have to make decisions about what to say and how to respond in less than two minutes. They can get very anxious, tongue tied and stutter.” I think this is probably happening a lot in workplaces all over the world right now. Benish’s work has been very helpful to me as a guidepost and I think too many white people, especially in the past week. Here’s my interview with Benish Shah.

BENISH SHAH: I think that the best way to understand what’s happening right now is through the lens of trauma. Trauma is not necessarily one individual incident that happened to you where, for example, you were walking down the street and you saw someone you love get hit by a car. Trauma can include a series of events that happened to you over the course of time or happen around you to a community through a long period of time.

What the black community, in America, and minority communities around the world, really, have dealt with is generational trauma. Which means that for decades, for centuries, for as long as people can remember, they have been going through experiences that are highly stressful, highly traumatic, without any release and they have had to live their lives in trauma. What’s happening right now, it’s a re-traumatization of that trauma.

I think that we may not be able to understand each other’s experiences from a race perspective. I think that there’s so much literature out there on just trauma that if you start there, it’ll be easier to relate to.

MORRA AARONS-MELE: Your advice is that people can literally google trauma response or how to respond to a friend in trauma?

BENISH SHAH: Absolutely. I had an email come through from a friend asking, “Can you please explain that further?” I gave her examples of text messages. When you know your friend just went through something really badly, how would you text them to check on them? How would you check to see how they were doing? That’s the thought process you should be going through right now when you are trying to understand how to reach out to your black friends, colleagues, or even other people of color.

MORRA AARONS-MELE: You wrote some other guidelines in a piece on Medium. I’d love to walk through a few of them that I think are so clear and were instructive to me. The first one is you write, it’s your job to listen not debate.

BENISH SHAH: Yes. The reason that I bring that up is that often when we talk about something that feels political or where you feel like you have your own viewpoint, it is natural to say, well, have you thought about it from this perspective? Or is that X thing that’s really happened? This goes back to trauma yet again, which is that when a person is traumatized, debating with them on whether the thing that caused them trauma really should have cost trauma or not, is not the right way to approach any conversation.

What ends up happening in those situations is that person A, who is not affected is talking to Person B, who is deeply affected. Person B now has to relive their trauma in order to explain to you why their trauma happened, why it is so important, why it needs to be understood. That is a very deep toll that takes on a person’s psyche and their emotional resilience. While Person A is coming at it from an academic perspective and does not understand why the person in front of them is getting emotional.

It’s very easy to be calm and collected when you are not affected, when you are person A. It is very difficult to have to continuously have those conversations when you are person B. Then also, on top of it has someone tell you, wow, you’re being emotional and you’re not being rational. The idea that you would expect traumatized individuals to continuously have to be well spoken, intellectualized and calm and collected just shows that we’re incapable of empathizing with the person that’s in front of us.

That is what so many black people have dealt with constantly in the United States. It’s, honestly, until we can get to the point where you realize that this is about someone’s life and their ability to live and not about politics that conversation will never be equal.

MORRA AARONS-MELE: Right. I have found this over and over again myself, I make a comment that seems banal to me because I am not personally affected yesterday. I was interviewing Amelia Ransom for the show. I said, “It’s a cliche but we are living in unprecedented times.” She said, “Oh no, no, these times are very precedented.” I just threw out that line. Yet, I was wrong.

BENISH SHAH: I think that’s okay. I think it’s actually okay to be wrong, because you have to … as long as you’re open to being educated on that moment. There is no perfect response to trauma. There’s no perfect response to what is going on right now. I think it’s important to continuously educate ourselves so we are learning to say the right things that we are being empathetic.

I think it is very critical to remember that we’re going to make mistakes in what we say. All of us are. We have to own them when they happen and we have to learn from them. As opposed to shying away from the conversation because we’re scared that we’re going to do it wrong.

MORRA AARONS-MELE: Okay. Here’s another one of your guidelines. It’s funny because I listened to a coworker literally do this on a conference call. We had a debate about, he had felt actually it was the right thing to do for his team. I didn’t know. You say, do not open the floor to discussion. This might be a surprise to many managers who think I’m being empathetic. I want to hear people. How do you feel? Why do you say no?

BENISH SHAH: I think if you’re going to open the floor to discussion, you should first check with the black people who are on your team as to whether they’re comfortable with that or not. If that means you have to individually reach out to 100 people, you need to individually reach out to 100 people. Because the conversation around this and the desire to have a conversation around this in an open forum, especially in the workplace, is also difficult for people of color because, historically speaking, we’re penalized for it. Black people are definitely penalized for it.

If you show emotion, you become the angry black person in the room. If you show emotion, you become the person playing the race car in the room. If you aren’t willing to sit there and educate each individual calmly, then you’re not being productive. You’re not being a team player. You are opening the floor and you’re helping everybody else except for the black person in the room and except for the other people of color in the room because you’re putting them in a position where they have to deal with questions. They have to deal with discussions they may not want to deal with in that moment.

Unless you have their permission to do so, you’re only doing it because you want to feel comfortable. You want to feel like you did something. This goes back to our trauma conversation, which is often people when dealing with others who have faced trauma will do whatever they can to make themselves feel better that they did something. That’s never the right approach. The approach of being sensitive, again, it’s more difficult. It takes a little bit more time and requires thoughtfulness.

I think this is an example that I can use. Again, this is a perspective of a brown, Muslim female. This is not the perspective of a black person. We have to be very clear about that. They’re not comparative. I remember that post 911 if you were a Hajabi in a room and you were just continuously singled out and everyone felt like they could ask you whatever they wanted to, they could say whatever they wanted to, the types of things people said and asked … and the guys was, well, it’s a question but it was such a brutalizing question in those moments where we’re so colonized, we were all like, okay, well, we just have to be nice about it.

That’s a situation you’re putting people of color in when you open the floor. If you’re going to open the floor, you got to do it incredibly responsibly. Then, you, as a manager, also have to make sure that you are watching that room like a hawk from microaggressions, for subtle racism, for overt racism, and that you are in a position where you immediately squash that the second it happens. Unless you’re aware, that’s just not something I would do.

MORRA AARONS-MELE: The complicating factor now that you might even be on Zoom or a video call where you can’t, it’s much harder to read anything. I should say that you are right in these guidelines specifically for the perspective of a white manager. That’s the framework that we’re discussing in. Actually, in a minute, I want to ask you a question about a manager of another race but what should you do? Because if you want to acknowledge the weight of what’s happened, you want to affirm your feelings about it.

BENISH SHAH: I think that you can give a statement of support. I think that you can do a lot in, especially right now since we are all remote, a written Slack message that says, this is what is happening. This is how I feel about this and I am here, my door is open. If you want to have the day off, you take the day off. If you need to skip meetings, you just message me privately and we will make that happen. You create space. You constantly create space and then you constantly ensure that space is safe.

Because it’s very easy to do lip service and say, oh, I support everything that’s happening. I’m so sorry that America is going through this and Black Lives Matter. Then, when it comes down to it, you also say, oh, but that deadline still has to be met. Or, it’s okay. If someone said that to you, like, don’t take it seriously. If that’s what you’re going to say, then you might as well say nothing at all and just kind of own up to who you are. If you’re going to make those statements, if you’re going to show your support, then you have to show your support from end to end, there’s no 50% it here.

MORRA AARONS-MELE: What if you’re a manager, who’s a person of color, but not black? Are there different guidelines you think for …

BENISH SHAH: No, I think the same thing.

MORRA AARONS-MELE: Okay.

BENISH SHAH: I think the same thing applies. Because I think the issue that we run into is that we conflate the black experience with the people of color experience. You have to understand that so many minority communities have come to the United States, really, on the backs of the Civil Rights Movement. We benefited from that movement that Black Americans risked their lives in for decades. We never experienced that level of racism and that level of trauma in America for the amount of time that Black Americans have dealt with it.

Yes, Muslims have dealt with it a lot from 911 onwards. Prior to that, yes, there was racism, but it was not to the degree that Black Americans have faced it. Also, we fall into the world of being called a “model minority”, which just means that so many Asian and South Asian minorities are looked at as non-threatening, whereas the black Americans are looked at as threatening. That, by its nature, creates a difference between the experiences immediately.

People of color that are not black, if you’re a brown manager, it is still your job to be equally as sensitive. The only difference, I think, is you can take it upon yourself to make sure that you’re the first line of defense from people asking you black colleagues questions and you’re making yourself available.

MORRA AARONS-MELE: Almost like I came to you. I mean, we laughed about this the other day but, yes.

BENISH SHAH: Yeah. I think even then, right, like, if you’re a brown person having that conversation, I think you have the conversation, you educate as much as you can, but you still make it really clear that this moment is about black lives and black bodies and black liberty and the black experience. As a brown person, I can step in and try and create guidelines to help people not say the wrong things. I cannot speak for Black Americans. It’s just not the place that I can come from.

MORRA AARONS-MELE: Benish Shah, I want to thank you so much for your work. I want to wish you good health and safety and well-being.

BENISH SHAH: Thank you, you too. Thanks for chatting with me about this.

MORRA AARONS-MELE: That’s it for this week’s show. If you like what you’ve heard, tell a friend or rate us on iTunes or wherever you get your podcasts. If you have a question or a topic that you’d like to see featured on the show, you can email anxiousachiever@gmail.com or tweet me @morraam, that’s M-O-R-R-A-A-M. Many thanks to Mary Dooe, my amazing producer and the team at Harvard Business Review. Of course, to our advertisers who keep us going and my guests. If you like The Anxious Achiever music, it’s by Brian Campbell at Signal Sounds NYC.

From HBR Presents. This is The Anxious Achiever. I’m Morra Aarons-Mele.

 

 

 



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