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Why Checking In On Your Coworker Often Falls Flat

The George Floyd Rebellion confronted many people with the extent of American racism as never before. Some felt compelled to urgently check in with Black coworkers to offer their newfound sympathies for white supremacy, an often jarring experience for the recipients of their well wishes. Although the brief “racial reckoning” of 2020 may have been eclipsed by campaign promises and media manipulation, racial oppression and terror are still going strong in 2022. The past year has seen a neo-Nazi supermarket shooting in Buffalo (NBC), the Texas National Guard mobilizing against an immigrant “invasion” (MSN), Alaska Airlines forcing two passengers to deplane for writing in Arabic (MSN), and the executions of Koreantown hair salon workers (Chron). But after a major attack against a marginalized community, is checking in with a friend or colleague to offer support ever appropriate? If so, how? And how could anyone possibly be offended by such a well-intentioned sentiment? 

TAKE ACTION

• Reflect and respond to these questions before reaching out to a marginalized friend/colleague:

What prompted me to reach out to this person? What do I know about this person’s emotional state right now? What assumptions am I making?* What burden am I putting on this friend I care about?* Would I normally ask this question?* Did I, say, wish this person a happy birthday?* What would I do if they really aren’t okay?*

*These prompts are from Priska Neely’s article Please Stop ‘Checking In to See If I’m Okay in The Cut.

Understanding the difference between intent and impact is a practice of decoupling our words and actions from how they impact other people. Oftentimes when addressing race, our words and actions don’t land the way we intend, especially in times of deep emotional pain and trauma. And regardless of what we think we’re doing, there’s still harm in what we do. As Rebekah from the Only Black Girl blog aptly said in a 2018 post, “If I punch you in the face on accident—you still got punched in the face” (Only Black Girl).

We must understand that we might harm people already in pain, though our intention is to acknowledge that pain without causing more.

The questions in today’s action should help you do two things. The first is to clarify your intention in reaching out. Are you willing and able to support your marginalized colleagues? Or are you looking to alleviate your own guilt? The second is to consider the impact of your outreach. Does your outreach add a burden or feel disingenuous? Are you in a position to actually support this person?


Read these perspectives on how or if to reach out.

“So please, stop sending #love. Stop sending positive vibes. Stop sending your thoughts. Here are three suggestions on more immediately impactful things to offer instead.”

Chad Sanders, I Don’t Need ‘Love’ Texts From My White Friends in the NYTimes


“So if this is the first time you’re asking me how I am, if this is the first time we’ve talked about my existence as a black person in America, you are definitely not the person I’m going to call if I’m not okay. And that is okay! It’s also the reason I don’t need you to check on me now.”

Priska Neely, Please Stop ‘Checking In to See If I’m Okay in The Cut


“If you’re a white person, you want to try to understand how you might be feeling if you were in the kind of crisis that your black colleague or friend is in right now,” she explains. “What would I want to hear?” Dr. Breland-Noble also points out that if they were really our friends — if they were really coworkers that we valued — we would always be coming from a space of trying to understand, whether in a crisis or not.”

Elizabeth Gulio, Before You Check In On Your Black Friend in Refinery29


“She wanted to make sure she was not creating an emotional burden for her friends, she said, but also that she was not missing an important moment to help if they needed anything. She settled on a simple rule: She would only check in with people of color she already interacted with on a daily basis before the protests, those who she felt would receive her message with a sense of relief and not as an additional burden.”

Jose A. Del Real, White people are pouring out their hearts – and sending money – to their black friends in the Washington Post



“So what should I do?! Reach out or not?!”

You may start to notice that there’s no easy answer. And that’s because this work isn’t easy. Reflect on a traumatic experience in your life and consider: how would you want your friends to help you? How about your coworker? A person you haven’t talked to in four years? How would that change if you were on holiday? If they reached out a day after it just happened? Or 10 years later because something popped up in the news? What if your trauma didn’t happen in a moment but throughout a lifetime?

Is there a simple response that fits all the nuances above?

Navigating these questions requires discernment, consideration, and connection. After a traumatic experience, you likely valued support from people you could depend on and trust. But three-quarters of white people have only white friends. Building relationships across differences takes intention and care. Assuaging your guilt by shooting a glib message to an acquaintance in the wake of a tragedy is a poor way to start. 


KEY TAKEAWAYS

• Good intentions don’t always create positive impacts.

• A message of sympathy to a marginalized acquaintance without a real relationship or support may be more of a burden than a benefit.

• Though the “racial reckoning” may have ended, the marginalized communities continue living under the U.S. racial reality.

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