“Everyone’s Scar Tissue Looks Different”: Discussing Racism at Work (Blog Post)July 7, 2020
When the pandemic hit, parts of my life that I’ve always kept at home became visible to work colleagues – and that made me uncomfortable. Then, with the global uprising against racism and police brutality, many folks started sharing with coworkers and managers intimate information about their experiences with racism that previously they may have kept to themselves.
As someone who is not used to integrating my home and work environments, I find that these huge shifts have challenged me to examine the value of openness. These shifts also have shown me that it is critical for managers to be aware that for some, especially people of color, being open about one’s personal life is especially complicated.
In a culture of systemic racism, many people of color have been conditioned to be wary of sharing personal information with colleagues who don’t look like them, and I am no exception.
In short, being open means respecting those who don’t wish to be open. I share my story to help managers understand what is at stake.
A Cultural Prohibition Against Sharing Feelings
As an Afro-Latina, I grew up in a culture in which discussion of feelings was deemed inappropriate and discouraged. At a young age, I learned from my family to be strong, not complain, and strive to perform well in everything I did without becoming emotionally involved. As a result of this upbringing, I am not comfortable expressing my feelings and sharing my personal circumstances in the workplace.
Until the current pandemic, I was able to keep my personal and professional lives largely separated. However, now my work meetings take place over video, enabling my colleagues and manager to see inside my home.
In addition, the content of my meetings has changed. Previously, meetings had been solely an opportunity to review agenda items and brainstorm with colleagues. Then, at the beginning of the pandemic, meetings shifted to checking in with one another, supporting each other with work and personal concerns, and creating a stronger foundation and area of comfort for all.
How the Pandemic Changed Workplace Dynamics
At first, I was taken aback by this blurring of the personal and professional. I did not participate because I simply did not know how to. I did not want my colleagues to hear the constant running back-and-forth footsteps of my upstairs neighbors or my mother talking on the phone with friends and family or, better yet, see the family portraits and baby pictures behind me.
All in all, at the beginning of the pandemic, I was too embarrassed to show my colleagues my personal space. Would they get the wrong idea of who I am? Might they question my level of professionalism? But as time went on, I began to appreciate the benefits of being open and vulnerable at work.
Yet at the same time, I also was aware that some people of color find it hard to be open. After the murder of George Floyd and the global fury over racism and police brutality, the need for boundaries became particularly important. People should understand: Talking about racism can be a burden. I should not have to feel that I must explain myself to validate that Black people should not be killed.
Knowing that many pairs of eyes are on me and my colleagues of color can be emotionally exhausting. At the same time, I do want other people to understand my experiences. When I open up, I’m trying to help others understand the depths and emotional pain of my experiences.
But it took me a few weeks to be at the point where I felt remotely comfortable doing so. For the first few weeks after George Floyd’s murder, I was silent because I was in too much pain to share.
Only recently did I feel ready to tell a colleague of color about some of my own experiences with racism: As a college student, I had lived in a predominantly white area of Long Island. White strangers routinely came up to me, assuming I was biracial, to ask me which of my parents is white and which is Black, or to say, “Who are you?” or “Where are you from?”
This is not something I had ever before shared with a colleague, but I felt that talking about this experience was a way to offer emotional support and increase connection during this time of distress. And it was.
If you are a manager, please keep in mind that, like me, some of your team members may be feeling vulnerable. I suggest that you:
- Realize that this is a very difficult time for people of color. We need all the support we can possibly get. Members of your team may have trouble sleeping at night because they are fearful about their son or younger brother or themselves being arrested—or worse. At the same time, Covid-19 is disproportionally affecting people of color—we are more likely to get sick, get laid off, and have trouble paying our bills. We need you to be here for us.
- Respect the fact that everyone should be able to establish their own boundary between their work life and personal life. Not everyone who has experienced racism wants to talk about it, and no one should ever feel pressured to do so. If someone on your team does not share personal information, please do not assume that they don’t care. I assure you that they do. Everyone’s scar tissue looks different.
- Be a role model by showing your team that you are actively engaged in difficult conversations about racism and that you are deepening your understanding about anti-racism.
- Remember that feeling comfortable sharing one’s personal life is a privilege. Many people, especially women and people of color, have had experiences in which disclosing elements of their personal lives backfired on them. We carry an emotional tax that makes us feel on-guard against potential acts of bias and discrimination. Inclusive leadership means both creating the space for your team to feel comfortable opening up—and also to feel comfortable not opening up.
Ironically, being open at work means being open to those who wish to not be open. The more we respect each other’s boundaries, the better we can collaborate and work together respectfully.
Before joining Catalyst in 2020, Tahiana was an administrator at Stony Brook University. As director of diversity affairs, Tahiana increased transparency, efficiency, and communication within the administrative staff and undergraduate student body through the creation of programs and services designed to increase diversity and inclusion on campus. Tahiana graduated from…