By: Iyabo Onipede: Confluence Daily is your daily news source for women in the know
Dear Black woman who works in a predominantly white institution and has been asked to head a focus group on diversity and inclusion even though that has nothing to do with your job description,
Phew! I am so sorry. I decided to write this open letter to you because, over the past few weeks, many of you have reached out to me because you literally needed advice as to how to create such a focus group or how to gracefully decline. Turns out that in our time together, we laid down this task and focused on your well-being as a full and complete human being. Folks seem to forget that you are a human “being” too and not a melanated human diversity “doing.”
My intention in writing this open letter is that you will point your bosses to this open letter instead of speaking about this and arguing for the right to breathe freely in your workspace.
1. I acknowledge you as a full human being, Black woman (or man). Generally, it is a woman that is asked because women are the ones who are asked to do “emotional” work in the workspace. And, now that it comes to race, this is a performative way of being “inclusive” and making sure the leadership of such a group is led by a Black body. I see you, Black woman, being objectified by your gender and skin color and I ask you to please take care of yourself and set up boundaries around this occurrence. Please feel free to say, “no” to your employer and ask that there be no repercussions to your job because you said, “no.” You do not owe anyone an explanation. Your skin color does not make you a diversity, inclusion and equity expert. Permission granted to say, “no.”
2. The fact that you are asked to create a focus group means that your organization actually does not take this seriously. If the organization understands that racism is a concern for every single layer of the organization, they would not create a focus group. Instead, they would huddle together as leadership, hire a consultant and come up with a plan. A focus group is the bare minimum that they can do to say that they are addressing the issue. Your company is reacting to the recent social phenomena of the killing of George Floyd on video for 8 minutes and 46 seconds, the vigilante killing of Ahmaud Aubery and the police killing of Rayshard Brooks. Racism is not cured by “reacting” to what is in the news. Racism is addressed by assessment, evaluation and cultural changes in the organization.
3. All those feelings you are feeling and not even knowing how to feel or what to feel or when to feel is normal. You are literally in a war zone that does not look like a war zone and bullets are coming after you. They are invisible and your guard is up, and your instinct is telling you to run but the “niceness” of white spaces is confusing to your brain. Yes, you are not crazy. All is well. This is normal. Some of it is your heightened reaction to things going on out there in the world and your brain deeply knowing that you still have to get up to go to work because you have obligations. You cannot afford to shut down “so-called strong” Black woman. I know. I am sorry we do not live in a time and space where you are allowed to go through normal life cycles like everyone else.
So please, Black woman, take care of yourself. Protect yourself. Tend to your emotional health. You have more going on than most people realize, and I just want to say, “I see you. I recognize you. I want to support you.”
Now the rest of this letter is for your boss/supervisor/peer/HR person who asked you to put the group together:
Dear well-intentioned white people who work with phenomenal Black women and try to give them more to do because they are so “awesome:”
Hello and thanks for reading this. I am interjecting myself into your life right now because many women like your co-worker that you asked to lead the focus group, diversity initiative, or any such thing, have reached out to me. You may not realize it. In fact, I am sure you do not NOT realize it, but your request is actually causing harm. Here are some guidelines that I offer you as a framework as you attempt to shift the culture of your organization so you can handle the issue of racism in America, or Canada or wherever, in a humane way.
1. First, commit to doing no harm to anyone involved in your organization including yourself and that precious Black woman and all the Brown and Black bodies in your organization. You have to figure out what harm means.
2. Understand that this is a cultural issue. If you want to make sure you never see another cop kill a Black man on the streets, you start with where you have the largest influence and control to change the dominant culture. You have to figure out the implicit and explicit culture of your organization.
3. It is a discernment process. This means it take time. All the answers are not readily available. It is not a formulaic process. That means you have to deal with the fact that you want something done NOW and that cannot happen.
4. It is a complex relational process. You know how if you and your spouse are having marital issues and you go to “couples’ therapy?” Well, it is sort of like that. You need the outside expertise to break up the toxic dynamic between the two of you and give you new ways of seeing each other. It is exactly like that. Bring in someone from the outside do assess, evaluate and help you figure out what you actually want. That means you have to be accountable to an outsider to help you see your blind spots.
4. It is a process that requires an investment. If you wanted to hire the best and the brightest, what do you do? All the criteria you would ordinarily have for such a job are not put aside: Is the person qualified to do this task? Have they been trained? Do they have a proven track record in this specialty? Are they empowered to succeed? Not everyone is built for this work. Hire the professional. That means you must pay an outside professional to do this work.
5. Own the fact that you are a nickel in this dime. Don’t think that this is all on Black people and People of Color in your organization to figure out what is going on and come to you and tell you what they need. You play a role. If racism is the dime, whiteness is at least one nickel in the equation. That means that you also have to engage in dismantling the larger white culture’s oppression for your organization to be free from it.
6. Recognize that this is not a moment but that this is part of a larger movement. The world is changing. For your organization to thrive with the global changes around race, you have to do the hard work of unpacking internal aspects of racism that are alive and well in your organization. That means your future earnings depend on how you attend to the issue of racism in your organization today.
7. Align yourself with the end goal now. The end goal is not to stop racism. Racism is only one symptom, although a terrible one, of the trauma that the dominant culture inflicts in its pursuit of the almighty dollar. The entire system of how we make money by exploiting our employees and how we marginalize groups of people is toxic. We have to unpack race, gender and class and offer everyone around us opportunities. That means that we have to dismantle structures of oppression and recreate our organizational structures based on the liberation of all people.
Phew! If your brain, dear well-intentioned white person, just exploded, “that’s ok.” I promise you; you can do this. If you came up with so many excuses as to why what you just read is not what you need, just sit with it for a few moments. If you are in the mode of “doing” something, “discounting” something, feeling “defensive” about the hard work you have put into that business, just know, I get it. Yes. Your reactions are all normal and everything I wrote is still accurate.
Let the newness of what I wrote enter your body. Scan your body. Give yourself permission to have an entirely new experience.
I leave you with three invitations:
1. Say something to that “Black woman who works in your predominantly white institution and has been asked to head a focus group on diversity and inclusion even though that has nothing to do with her job description.” Tell her, “Hey, I am rethinking all that. If you have thoughts, I want to hear them and if you don’t want to do anything with that, please know, you do not have to. I am learning about a lot of things right now and I don’t have it all together (yes, admit to her you have a weakness.) Let me try and put some things together and only if you are interested, I would like to share them with you. I know we need to bring in some professional help. Let me know if you have a recommendation or preference. Thanks for all you do.”
2. Consider hiring a Black therapist that is qualified to work with the Black people in your organization as an affinity group undergoing trauma. Black people are traumatized right now as a collective and that is how you can help them as a group. When Black people watched George Floyd dying, it was not just something a bad cop was doing to a person. It was as if Black people were watching their brother, son, or father die at the hands of the police. Trauma!
3. Send me an email inviting me to walk alongside you in this process as a paid professional who knows what she is doing.
In the meantime, if you think that you are ready to do some personal individual work in this area, I am offering a learning opportunity for a small cohort of learners. You can find out more here.
Iyabo is a Leadership Development Coach whose work focuses on the soul of the leader. She moves leaders from thriving careers into discovering, crafting and living into their life work. By helping successful people integrate spirituality into their leadership roles, they become more engaged with their work, expand the connection of their work to social justice issues and experience more satisfaction in their life work. Using the power of narrative and reflection, she helps leaders fine-tune the sacred “work their souls must have” (Alice Walker).
Iyabo is located in Atlanta, Georgia and graduated from Goucher College (B.A.), Georgetown University Law School (J.D.) and Candler School of Theology at Emory University (M.Div.).
Iyabo’s home on the web is at http://www.coachiyabo.com
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