What White People Need To Know About Racial Trauma In The Workplace

By Rebecca Zucker
Partner, Next Step Partners

Originally published by Forbes.

We all struggle with getting overwhelmed at work—long days, difficult bosses, outside-of-work influences all weigh on us and can add up. But some people have to deal with an additional tax—racial bias and workplace inequity in addition to all of these other factors—and it can be hard for those not experiencing it firsthand to know what it’s like, or how to help others who are struggling through inequitable or hostile environments.

Minda Harts is the author of Right Within: How to Heal from Racial Trauma in the Workplace, selected by TIME as one of the eight new books of October 2021 you should read. I spoke to her about this incredibly important topic—what is it like to be a Black person in today’s workplace, and what does that mean for your experience at work and your mental workload?

Workplace racial discrimination and inequity is common—but it shouldn’t be thought of as “normal”

“When I started my career, I thought that this is just normal for Black women in the workplace, that I’m going to have to deal with everything outside of the job description, the emotional part. But I was not prepared for how much emotional labor would be required of me to be the only one in the workplace.” Harts said.

For example, Harts says Black people often find themselves spending a tremendous amount of time and energy code-switching and taking pains to present in a certain way to their colleagues and managers.

“I was on high alert to make sure I was never being ‘too Black’ at work—being too ‘ethnic.’ I knew entering corporate America that I could never wear my hair in braids or a protective hairstyle. When I did see others who leaned into their more authentic self, they were penalized for that.”

Harts also modified her name from Yasminda to Minda to preempt the assumptions people would make about her when seeing her name on a resume or in their inbox. “I chose to use Minda, because it sounded like Linda, and I thought it would make my white colleagues and clients more comfortable. Everything I did was seeing myself through the eyes of someone else—that’s how a dominant culture works. I didn’t realize how taxing, and how much of a sacrifice that would be for me, until I was able to step back from the situation and say, wait a second, people are saying to bring your authentic self to work, but I’ve never been able to bring that, right? What they’re really saying is, bring the most authentic version of yourself that I’m comfortable with.”

We need to practice courageous listening

“Companies still have to acknowledge that racism, any ‘ism,’ still exists,” Harts told me. “There are a lot of companies last year that said racial justice is important—but they haven’t actually demonstrated how it’s important. We can no longer let people opt into equity. It has to be mandatory. I hear so many managers will say, ‘Well, I’m not comfortable talking about race, so we’re not going to talk about it.’ Well, why would you be managing diverse teams, then?”

In recent years, conversations about race that have been long overdue are finally happening—formerly, Harts points out, if we called out something as being racist, or pointing out an injustice, Black people were told not to “play the race card,” or “don’t make it about race.” When these pleas for understanding were met with dismissal, they often stopped being brought up—and the victims of this discrimination were left to shoulder the burden on their own.

Now, Harts is asking leaders and colleagues in workplaces across the country to be courageous listeners.

“If we’re being courageous and telling you what’s causing harm,” she says, we owe it to our Black colleagues to be courageous in return and take a hard look at our behaviors—not simply dismiss their concerns. “You might not have intended it, but the impact was harmful. So, what are we going to do to get to a solution? I would hope that most people don’t want to continue re-traumatizing their colleagues. It’s really important that women of color feel safe to bring those experiences to the forefront, so that we can expose them and weed out those behaviors. And it’s important for our leaders to be courageous listeners so that we can move toward demonstrating more equity.”

What white colleagues can do to be better workplace allies

It’s almost a cliched question at this point, but many white people still wonder how they can take their good intentions and transform them into meaningful, helpful acts that will support their Black colleagues. Harts says it’s everyday actions, not a grand sweeping gesture, that will be the most impactful. For example, if you see a colleague being aggressed in a meeting, call it out.

“It may not mean that you call it out when it’s happening in the moment, but what would it look like if you went to HR and let them know?” Harts says.

Mistakes are also opportunities to take ownership and step up, she adds. “If there’s someone who fails to intervene in that kind of situation and comes up to me after and says, ‘Hey Minda, I’m sorry I failed you in the last meeting—I didn’t say anything. But I’m acknowledging that that behavior wasn’t okay, and the next time it happens, I will do better.’ That’s moving from allyship into action and committing to everyday acts of equity.”

Minda Harts’ Right Within: How to Heal from Racial Trauma in the Workplace, is called “a powerful, necessary read” by Barbara Whye, Apple’s VP of diversity and inclusion, is available from Seal Press and everywhere you shop for books. Watch her on MSNBC’s American Voices, speaking about racism and the workplace.



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