When protests initially started spreading across the United States following the death of George Floyd, the resounding sentiment was please don’t forget about this a week from now. We’ve seen protests before, several rounds in fact within the past eight years, following the deaths of Trayvon Martin, Tamir Rice, Sandra Bland, Eric Garner, Philando Castille, and countless others that fizzled out just as quickly as they spread. In contrast to the moments of protests that coincided with each of those incidences of murder at the hands of police, something immediately felt different this time around as, for the first time in history, we saw demonstrations occur in all 50 states. The details of Floyd’s death, unfortunately, weren’t particularly unique, but the social climate under which his murder occurred was.
“Without question, this is about race, but I believe there is an element of a desire for equality, period,” explained Margaret Seide, PhD, a board-certified psychiatrist in New York City. “People of all colors who are buried under student debt or struggling with financial strain from the Covid crisis were also feeling exasperated with the status quo and police are a representation of that. It feels like this is the moment to push back on all of those frustrations. You don’t have to be Black to feel downtrodden right now and that allows everyone to sympathize with and recognize the Black Lives Movement.”
According to the Bureau of Labor Statistics, the unemployment rate in May was 13.3%. That translates to 21 million Americans being out of work, which was actually a decline compared to figures seen in March and April. Nevertheless, to put it colloquially, when the opportunity to lash out against inequality came, people had time.
“Due to social distancing and things being shut down people did have more time on their hands to partake in the current movement. They had more time to engage in watching social media and news coverage, including the horrific video of George Floyd’s death,” Dr. Seide explained. “They also had more time to participate with things such as attending or organizing protests. Mr. Floyd’s death set in motion a powerful social movement wherein people were single-minded in their goal of seeking justice and holding police accountable. It was this once in a lifetime moment of connectedness, solidarity, and unity that just so happened to come on the heels of months of isolation and separateness from others. I really think that may have played a part in galvanizing the movement. I am not intending to minimize what his death meant as a stand-alone inflection point in history. I am saying it was a perfect storm.”
And it’s a storm that hasn’t let up in three weeks. Police brutality may be the main focus of the movement, but we’ve seen a slew of offshoot efforts, from beauty brands being forced to #PullUporShutUp when it comes to the diversity of their workforce, to academics discussing the perils of being #BlackintheIvory, and Juneteenth becoming a recognized company holiday within many organizations. For once, Black people are not just being heard but listened to as we express the breadth of our experiences in America, including the burden of maintaining professionalism in the age of Black death for those of us who are still employed, as Shenequa Golding’s viral essay so poignantly explained.
“The world is changing but let’s face it, some companies will be late to the party. If your company is not being sensitive to what’s happening right now or are not receptive to your requests to bring this issue to the forefront, you may have to practice acceptance. It’s an ugly and unfortunate truth but worth saying for anyone who is in that position and feels badly about it,” said Dr. Seide. “You are not a coward or a traitor to the movement if you are not in the position of being able to put your livelihood at risk for the sake of speaking out against your company’s practices. No one else gets to decide how much risk you can take. This may also be your time to plot and plan on your next job or starting your own company.”
This may also be the time to spearhead change within your organization even if, historically, you didn’t find it necessary for your place of business to take a stand.
“Many people of color have no expectation that their workplace will be understanding or supportive. They may have low expectations of their company and coworkers with regard to cultural competence. However, it could also be that it is up to you to create awareness that an official statement of acknowledgment from your company could contribute to healing for everyone,” Dr. Seide said.
“There is such a powerful precedent of silence around these issues in the workplace that a Black person may likely still be leery of engaging coworkers from other backgrounds. I do believe a cultural shift is happening. If a coworker approaches to respectfully create space for meaningful dialogue about this issue, I’d say go for it. Communication is how we come to understand each other’s point of view. It’s understandable that in times of emotional vulnerability such as these we want to have conversations with like-minded people where we feel understood, embraced, and safe. However, we have to be willing to be uncomfortable and break out of our silos for the sake of progress.
“That person who is not of color may be truly wanting to hear your story because the Black experience is hard to understand from the outside looking in,” she added. “We need to be honest about that. If you are just passively watching news and ingesting media, you will absorb a specific narrative about what it means to be Black. That part is not your fault, but it is everyone’s responsibility to educate themselves and rise above the noise and that may include asking POC about their lived experiences. It should not be assumed that any conversation on race relations in America with coworkers is taboo or unprofessional. “
Ultimately, the decision to speak up at work or seek new employment lies with you; however, Dr. Seide noted, “If you are in a hostile environment, make sure you are taking good care of yourself and getting the support you need outside of work from friends or a good therapist.”