One of the biggest challenges with creating an atmosphere of belonging in the workplace is the unsettling truth that “it takes two to tango”, but no one wants to talk about it.
What do I mean by that? Buckle up!
The conversation about fostering belonging as I have heard it thus far is often lopsided and puts the burden of change and action on White people and organizational leadership only.
I understand how we got here—there’s a long-standing history of harm and exclusion perpetrated on minority groups by white
organizational leadership. No one should object to the need for intentional action to redress the harm caused by decades of racist, exclusionary, discriminatory, and apathetic practices.
While it’s still common to contend with people who
deny or challenge the need for pro-equity and antiracist actions, I have found that there is something else that often sabotages this important work. Let me be candid about what it truly takes to heal and build for belonging. It takes good faith and mutuality between the participants.
The truth about belonging is that a person could do all that is humanly possible for reconciliation and still fail if the individual for whom all this is being done is unable or unwilling to appreciate these efforts and keeps moving the goalpost.
There are many factors that can inhibit someone's ability or willingness to appreciate or value the efforts put forth by another. Here are three I have come across repeatedly:
1. unconscious and unhealed trauma
3. self-righteous wokeness
Time and time again, I have seen well-intentioned White people in power--even BIPOC people in power--burn out and consider giving up. Why? Because so many attempts to do the right thing only result in being dismissed or attacked by the woke police and/or biased and traumatized people who are unaware of their operative trauma.
Often, when interacting with these people, one cannot win. Blind spots which we all have are met with ridicule, shaming and dehumanization. Any action that does not go their way, or that is misunderstood is interpreted as being racist. I am sorry, but not everything has to do with race. Someone getting in trouble at work for being a jerk, or for a pattern of poor performance, or for being a self-absorbed narcissist who demands that the world walks on eggshells around them can’t still reduce everything to race. Playing the race card at every twist and turn harms the very people they claim they are advocating for.
In my experience, academic wokeness and dogmatic expectations have often been a cover for hiding psychological bitterness, White guilt or personal insecurity.. People who do this, and spend much of their energy calling people out for not doing enough create a toxic, demoralizing and unhelpful environment.
We are a broken family with an ugly past of abuse, and we are stuck with each other for
better or worse. Some family members have realized the harm and the dysfunction and others still do not. Each member of our dysfunctional family has a role to play if we are going to have a chance at creating something beautiful out of these ashes.
To build a restorative foundation, we need to recognize that co-creating a future of belonging requires:
1. Humility and learning for us all (with no exceptions). No community has a monopoly on how to love well. There is plenty of ethnocentrism and ‘othering’ within minority groups. They say learning takes courage to try and safety to fail. It means practicing humility and extending grace and patience towards ALL our human brothers and sisters.
2. Recognizing and owning our biases - White people aren’t the only ones needing bias awareness training. My first racist experience in the USA as an African immigrant was inflicted by an African American woman who asked me to go back to Africa because she did not like it when I informed her as a lab attendant that the lab was closing. White males being automatically dismissed in discussions in learning spaces because of their positionality is nonsensical. Yes, we must all do the hard work of becoming better aware of what we bring into a space given the historical and social dynamics of power, but no one gets a pass at boxing others into predetermined categories. We must learn from the harm caused by the past and be vigilant to not eat of its poisonous fruit.
3. Recognizing the intrinsic value in us all – Jewish philosopher Martin Buber called it the Thou in each one of us; white, brown, LGBTIA+, Muslim, Buddhists, white evangelical Christian, Republicans, Democrats etc.--we are all distorted image bearers of the sacred divine and as such, we have much to honor in each other and things to learn from one another. When we center the divine in each one of us, we can begin to see sacredness, caution and reverence which impacts how we interact with one another, whether in agreement or disagreement.
4. Trauma informed engagements i.e empathetic interactions – we need to normalize the conversation about trauma. We must reckon with the fact that people we interact with have experienced a wide range of trauma. About 6 of every 10 men (or 60%) and 5 of every 10 women (or 50%) experience at least one trauma in their lives. At least 1 in 7 childrenhave experienced child abuse and/or neglect in the past year, and this is likely an underestimation. Hence, there is a lot of healing that must take place. I believe that other people aren’t responsible for the triggers we develop from our trauma. We are... To build belonging, it is helpful when others recognize signs of our trauma, try to understand our story, and support us on our journey towards healing. However, we are critically responsible for understanding the cause of our triggers and taking the necessary steps towards our own healing so that we are not reactive, anxious presences.
Call to Action: Will you be a safe house?
Whether you have been wounded and have healed from those wounds or you are still wounded, there is always an opportunity to use your story as a connection point. Will you?