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  • Writer's pictureLinda Calvin

Tips for Engaging Black Colleagues

Tips for Engaging Black Colleagues


Consider these tips as you engage with colleagues about issues of racism. This is not an exhaustive list. There are other voices to be heard and I hope black thought leaders, colleagues and connections who read this will offer more thoughts. This is my way of helping those who are truly interested in dialogue. There are books, resource guides and websites that provide counsel. Let's jump in!


1. Empathize, Do not Compare and Contrast. Even though you mean well when sharing how you were bullied for being red-haired and freckled, nerdy, glasses, chubby, it's not the same as living, working in black skin. Listen, lean in and learn. Do not say, "I was bullied because I was a gamer in school, so I know how it feels." You don't. I have friends who are red-haired and freckled. They are awesome, but their experience being bullied for being red-haired and freckled is not the same. In the end, they get to walk their dog in their neighborhood without fear of having the cops called on them or supposed as a dog walker. It's not the same. Please, please, don't use it or the person you are engaging with will likely not hear you after you share how you "get it." You don't. And it's okay not to get it.


2. People of Color = Black? This is controversial in nature and I think you ask your black colleagues their opinion. The term people of color or the acronym, POC, has been adopted and I'm not sure when or why. It's not a bad term. I started using it of late because I saw others use it, but I wasn't sure why. But some organizations have adopted this term to be more inclusive of other categories of individuals, which also helps with EEOC hiring and retention numbers. Ah-ha, yes. All black people, Latin people, Indian people and Asian people together in a bucket called "of color" makes for a much more powerful diversity profile. This is especially the case if you can say, "We have many leaders of color in our organization." In many cases in corporate America, this new label of "leaders of color" or "people of color" doesn't mean they have black leaders or a density of black employees. It means they've found a loophole in diversity-speak. If you aggregate all non-white people into one bucket for "diversity", you're missing the point of diversity. Take care on the use of this term. If you do use it, make sure you define it up front. Does POC mean black people and/or latina/o ? Asian? People who are Native American? All?


3. I Have Black Friends. This is very common for people to cite to prove they have no bias or that they are "woke" or "get it". Having a black friend, working with a black colleague, or your son's black girlfriend does not indicate you do not have bias. It means you know someone. I know many people who have tulips in their garden. It doesn't mean I like tulips or like those people, it just means I know people. That's it. That's all. I have four white siblings and they have a sister who is black (that's me). They may know of what I've been through because I've shared and they lived with me, but they do not know what it's like to be black nor can they speak about how it indicates their lack of bias. George Wallace, former Alabama governor and segregationist had a black friend, so..like there's that. Certainly I think you can say "I have a close friend who is black who has shared with me x, y or z." But don't use that relationship to suggest you get anything or know anything. Personally, I find it insulting when people start a conversation with me by saying, "My colleague is black so I understand..." Normally, I won't hear anything else you say.


4. On being colorblind. Many believe, with the best of intentions, that being colorblind is good. If we don't see color, we treat people only as humans. It's a beautiful idea and perhaps some day we will achieve such a nirvana. But it's not reality. Not seeing color enables blindness to issues that affect black people. It's okay to see color, to discuss issues facing black people. It's okay to recognize and celebrate black people. If we continue with this idea there is no color, then we don't change anything in our society.


5. Black people as ambassadors. For many black people, the idea of answering more questions and providing insights is tiring. Many are just so exhausted because we've been here before. Be cognizant of this before you engage and ask for dialogue. I personally get tired of telling people why they shouldn't be racist. Why do you need lessons on treating people with respect, dignity and without bias? That said, I'm personally happy if you reach out and want to talk, but that's me.


6. But All Lives Matter to me. This is similar to the colorblind thing. All Lives Matter suggests that there's equity in the treatment of black people, thus we're all valued the same. Again, nirvana is that every life matters equally. I hope we get there, but we're not there, so don't make the statement if you truly want to have dialogue. Black Lives Matter isn't a statement to the exclusion of any others. It's the expression that our lives should matter. Until Black Lives Matter, then all lives do not.


7. "Look at Me!". On social media, we are always posing with each other, at events, charities. I do it. My colleagues do it. We're celebrating and we're promoting our engagements. But if you are engaging with black colleagues, friends, panelists, community, on issues of racism at an event, don't put the hand on your hip and use it as a photo op to "prove anything." Certainly, you may ask for a photo and maybe you will be asked to join a photo. Photos aren't bad, don't get me wrong. But a photo is only indicative that you were present. It doesn't mean you've done the work, you've internalized conversations and done your own journey into your biases. It doesn't mean the black person endorses you as woke. It doesn't mean you "get" anything. It just means you posed for a photo. Simple as that.


8. Your experience working with black [insert name, event, organization]. Maybe you've worked with black attorneys, perhaps you've taught at a predominantly black school, you've attended a black church, you sit on a board for a black organization. This doesn't mean you're black. It's great that you want to be or are engaged and involved. But it doesn't mean you know first hand what it's like to be black. It means you're exposed. You believe and you want to be part of change. This is fantastic! But it's very common for people speaking with black colleagues, friends, neighbors to equate engagement with experience. Please, take care not to equate your community engagement with personal experience as being black.


9. Victimhood, Posterchild-ism. This is a tough one in my mind. Black people suffer inequity in education, healthcare, housing, employment and wealth. Institutional racism and the legacy of slavery has blighted some black communities and created a chasm in equality. Thus, there are many under-served in the black community who must consume resources of non-profit organizations. It's very common at events to see the white female leader speaker, the other white leader speaker and then...the black testimonial. Yes, unfortunately this is the case for many in the community. But not always the case. There are also many black men & women who are leaders, CEOs, doctors, founders, educators, CTOs. I'm always discouraged that this is the only picture of black people the audience of white men and women experience. This also speaks loudly to white savior complex, which I won't address now. But google it. If you are hosting an event, be cognizant of this. And also maybe you should consider having your black leaders speak, if you have any. If you don't, hmmm.

10. Messages of solidarity = the Lens. I have been impressed with messages of solidarity from the likes of Nordstrom, Estee Lauder, Ben & Jerry, universities, Hollywood etc. It's fantastic for organizations to come out against racism. It's bold in many cases because some organizations may experience backlash from fringe groups and organizations. But know this, it's not enough to talk it, you need to walk it. If we focus the lens on your organization, what do your boards look like? Let's take a look at that C-Suite, shall we? How many black leaders do you have? What do your hiring practices look like? What about the retention of BLACK people? (not people of color). Many organizations will name a black VP of HR or Chief Diversity Officer and then say, "See, diversity. We like black people." While it's fantastic that you have someone who can serve as the conscience of diversity in your organization and help you design diversity strategies, it doesn't mean you get it. Actually it might mean you did it for optics, because your executive leadership teams, boards, cabinets are devoid of black people. Every time we have a situation, the Starbucks situation, the balaclava situation with Gucci, you see organizations name black people to their boards. That's great, but a black diversity leader or a retired NFL or NBA coach or player doesn't mean you get diversity. It means your General Counsel probably said, "Umm, guys, look around the room. Probably should hire someone."


11. Surprise, I'm Educated. I have heard several times, "wow, I didn't know you were so educated." I do have a varied background of communications, law and tech, which to some is unique. I don't mind when someone is surprised by the diversity in my background. Tech people think, "Ugh, you were an attorney. The bane of disruption is an attorney." LOL - JUST KIDDING! But it's insulting when people say, "wow, I didn't know you have so much schooling." Or "wow, you went to Butler University." I'm very educated, smart, and experienced. Just like anyone else who is smart, educated and experienced. Take me for who I am. A leader of the School of IT at Ivy Tech. I was hired because of my extensive experience in IT, communications and demonstrated leadership. I'm good at my job because I'm...good. :-) When you speak with your colleagues, don't lean in like "WOW, you are so educated or so smart."


12. Work Hard. This is a no-no to me. Do not tell your colleague that they should "work harder" to facilitate change. Or "work hard" and you'll get to equality and promotions. That's what many black people are told when they ask why they have not received that promotion, recognition or why change is not happening. "Work hard" and it will come. Never say this. If you have a colleague or employee who does need to put in more work to get a result, then offer specific feedback on how to reach a result. But "work hard" or "work harder" is a no-no. I was told yesterday that if I want to have change, instead of getting into dialogue on Facebook, I should grab a mask, pick up a sign and work harder for change. There was no dialogue I was interested in having after that.


Bonus tip: The Black Voice. As I shared earlier, I'm one voice of many voices. I represent my experiences in these tips. I didn't sit in a circle with Dionne Warwick and the psychic friends network and channel all black people, everywhere. This is just Linda Calvin, talking to you, providing guidance based on my experience. Don't adopt one person as the black voice. Instead become engaged in community and hear from voices. Learn from voices. And enjoy learning, becoming more enlightened, recognizing and relinquishing your biases and making friends. Maybe you won't be "woke" but you'll wake up. And that friends, is a place to start.

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