Surviving Workplace Whiteness: A Guide

Working in America as a Black person on a typical day could be categorized as it’s own résumé-worthy skill. Navigating microaggressions, asserting meaningful opinions in meetings in just the right tone and balancing our personal identity alongside the confines of conservative professionalism. We code-switch to survive the workplace and that was all before COVID-19 drove us indoors, forced many of us to become essential and had its way with our communities.

Post-COVID-19 life is ripe with new challenges to keep ourselves safe, to protect our families and communities and for those of us not impacted by furloughs and layoffs, to keep our jobs. The thing is, it is different now because piled atop the myriad of troubling pandemic statistics impacting the Black community, is a string of racist murders, many of which were committed (again) at the hands of police. So an already challenging 2020, has become a pressure-cooker of lost loved ones, lost members of our tribe, anger, protests, and economic impacts.

Black people are exhausted.

Yet, we are filing into workplaces, or logging onto virtual meetings and largely feeling like we have to pretend like there is nothing going on and it is business as usual. It is not business as usual. Our mental health is at stake each time we smile our way through the day and push the challenges down for the sake of maintaining sanity in environments where white culture is constantly elevated.

For the sake of our well-being, let’s stop shoving our frustrations down and instead find techniques to help us feel better in the workplace.

Below are five tips and techniques to help us to keep our sanity as we head into or log onto, our jobs.

1. Use Your Allies

If you are lucky enough to have a White friend at work, let them know when things are tough.  Many allies already know when their Black and Brown friends are facing a hard time, but don’t assume. Lean on your workplace support system and provide them guidance on how they can help you. Depending on your workplace culture, it could be as simple as them letting colleagues know that you aren’t up for video meetings. Use ally relationships if you’ve got them because, in addition to offering you some reprieve, their behavior teaches others how they should behave during times of national and global upset.

2. Use Simple Course-correcting Language

“How was your weekend?” “Oh, I see you’ve changed your hair!” “There is so much going on in the news, you must be so heartbroken.” During periods of major global unrest, remarks like this are tone-deaf and often rage-inducing. They force Black folks into discussions they shouldn’t be required to have. I recommend keeping a few easy replies that redirect or terminate the discussion, respectfully. When said with the right tone, everyone understands and it cuts down on the opportunity to be seen as the offensive Black person and you can also deliver these messages virtually. Here are two statements I often use:

  • “Thank you for noticing.”  This simple statement says, I see you have made an observation without inviting additional discussion. Most people will gather from this response that you aren’t up for engaging, but you don’t want to be rude. There is also something about using “thank you” that tells people to say “you’re welcome,” and end the discussion or change the topic.
  • “Say more about that.”  Redirects the conversation. When saying this in person, I make a point to look inquisitive and directly at the other party.  “Say more about that,” turns a rogue “how was your weekend” into an awkward self-realization for the asker and often results in an apology.

3. Take Your Breaks

Working through meals and breaks seems like it just comes with the territory in some companies. Stop doing that, even if you are at home. Take your breaks and mealtimes to recharge.  Maybe you download a quick meditation guide or you go outside for a safe socially distanced walk. You might go to the car and listen to your favorite station for a while.  Use your time to center yourself and recharge for the rest of your day. If you are working remotely, it is easy to skip meals and breaks. Make a point to treat yourself at breaks and mealtimes how you would treat an invited guest. Take your time, use the good plates and silverware instead of eating out of at box at your desk.

4. Take a Day Off

It seems obvious, but many of us feel like we can’t do this. If you have the time or can afford to take the break, take a day off when you need to. When you do decide to take an off day, break from everything: no news, no social media, no emotionally charged conversations. Step away from those parts of life that feel exhausting and use the time instead to do things that recharge you or make you feel loved.

5. Prioritize Executing Over Meeting

Can’t take the day off? Make it an “execution day.” After a particularly troubling series of events, having to talk in meetings can leave you completely zapped. When possible, move your meetings and give yourself a day to work on doing the actual work. Meetings are great for connecting and sharing ideas, but typically to get the job done, you will need concerted and uninterrupted time. Let leaders and colleagues know you need to focus on execution when you know you aren’t up for meetings.  This way, you can reduce the emotional distraction that can come with engaging with others after emotionally charged national events. 

This year is shaping up to be one for the history books and we are living and working through challenges in real-time. As we all want to survive and thrive through this tough period, try to remember that it is important to find and use coping and survival tactics that do not require our silence. Use these tips to practice self-care and boundaries in environments where there will otherwise seem like there are none.