• Parfait Bassale

It Takes Two to Tango

Updated: Aug 1

One of the biggest challenges with fostering belonging in the workplace is the unsettling truth that it takes two to Tango, but no one wants to talk about it.

Two Individuals Dancing the Tango
Two Individuals Dancing the Tango (courtesy

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 given the long-standing history of harm and exclusion perpetrated on minority groups by white organizational leadership. No one should object to the necessity of intentional actions to revert the harm caused by decades of racist, exclusionary, discriminatory, and apathetic practices.

However, while we must still contend with people who deny or challenge the need for pro-equity and antiracist actions, it is irresponsible and damaging to this important work when we fail to have a nuanced conversation about what it truly takes to heal and build for belonging.

The truth about belonging is that a person could do all that is humanly possible including walking on eggshells for the sake of an another 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

2. bias and

3. self-righteous wokeness

I have seen time and time again well-intentioned White people in power and even BIPOC people in power burn out after countless attempts to do the right thing only to be brought down 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 isn't about race.. Playing the race card at every twist and turn harms the very people they claim they are advocating for.

Additionally, hiding one’s psychological bitterness, White guilt or personal insecurities under the disguise of academic wokeness and dogmatic expectations while walking around beating people down for not doing enough is toxic, demoralizing and not helpful.

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 beauty out of these ashes.

To build on a restorative foundation, we need to recognize that the co-creation of a future of belonging requires:

People laying foundations on a construction site.
People laying foundations on a construction site (courtesy

1. Humility and learning for us all (with no exceptions). No community has a monopoly on how to do it. There is plenty of ethnocentrism and othering within minority groups as well. Who says learning says courage to try and safety to fail. It means humility, grace and patience towards ALL our human brothers and sisters.

2. Recognizing and owning our biases - White people aren’t the only one 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 off its poisonous fruit.

3. Centering the divine in us all - Martin Buber, the Jewish Rabbi 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 through both agreements and disagreements.

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 children have experienced child abuse and/or neglect in the past year, and this is likely an underestimate. 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?

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