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02 Jun 2020

Step Your Game Up! How To Support Black Employees During This Time Featured

The alarm goes off, and the first thing I grab is my phone, a habit that I’ve tried to break so many times. These last few weeks, I often sift through Twitter and Instagram, looking for new developments about COVID-19 -- there is always something in the back of my mind that knows social media isn’t a safe place, as it’s often the place where I gain information about yet another Black person whose life was taken due to police brutality.

Yet another hashtag: #JusticeForRegis, #JusticeforTonyMcDade #JusticeforD’AndreCampbell. And to realize that the violence doesn’t even stop there for Black trans women and men who are killed. Even in death, the media misgenders them, afflicting another level of violence. We are tired. 

And then I have to get up, get ready and go to work and pretend like everything's okay, but the truth is: I’m not okay, we are not okay. 

I now wake up panicked and with a heavy heart due to grieving yet another Black death. I have done practice runs in front of my mirror before I log onto Zoom, worrying about how to navigate (read: dodge) conversations with the Amy Coopers of my office asking about my weekend sprinkled with shock and awe of what’s happening in the U.S., but silent around what’s happening here in Canada. I’m exhausted by having to support white folx in my DM’s as they "discover" that anti-Black racism exists here too while also carrying my own grief and trauma.

Note: this is all happening on top of the anxieties we’re already experiencing due to COVID-19. Because of the pandemic, working conditions have made a dramatic shift and it’s likely that we will be dealing with these realities for a while. But changes in how we work have not been equal for everyone. 

While most workplaces have shifted to digital platforms like Zoom for workplace meetings and check-ins, the fear of Zoombombing is real. As it turns out, Black people are the primary target. In our experience, 8 out of 10 Zoom-bombed calls used a racial slur or misogynistic comment. Surprise? Not really! COVID-19 has illuminated many flaws in workplace policies, demonstrating that issues like racism and sexism have taken on different forms online that need to be addressed via workplace policies. 

Internal workplace policy changes have been slow and lax at best, or silent at worst. Silence would be the most accurate way to describe the analysis, or lack thereof, on COVID-19 and its impact on the working conditions of Black communities. 

Sara, an HR Specialist describes how before moving online she would be mistaken for her Black co-worker, “Now people need to know my name in order to find me in the company directory”. While that is one form of microaggression, online it is reflected in the ways in which white colleagues have commented about her sexuality like, “Damn girl! I didn’t know you were gay, you sure don’t look it.” This is an example of how workplaces and employers need to recognize that online harassment of Black people is unique, and how the intersection of Sara’s race, gender and sexuality were directly targeted. Indeed when changes are not made to address these experiences, it is a form of “policy violence.”

So the question becomes, what are employers doing to support their teams/employees during these uncertain times? In what ways are employers giving space for Black employees to tune into supports that don’t solely rely on mental health professionals and state systems?

Black Mental Health, Black Death and Collective Black Grief

Now more than ever we are being “invited” into the homes of people in our lives blurring the lines between personal and private life. 

Over half of Canadians report having negative mental health impacts due to COVID-related realities. This of course looks different for Black communities, as we are in perpetual mourning. BLM-TO Co-Founder Pascale Diverlus reminds us, “In cases similar to D'Andre Campbell, even while in need and distress during this pandemic, we are still seen as moving targets and killed right in front of our loved ones. All the while, simultaneously dealing with waking up and seeing dehumanizing videos of Black people taken from us by white supremacists with little to no accountability.” 

And let’s not forget about Regis Korchinski-Paquet, Nina Pop, Monika Diamond and Layleen Cubilette-Polanco. On top of COVID-19 we are dealing with the psychological impacts of continuous Black death. 

Instagram and Twitter feeds are encouraging people that it’s normal to be less productive but this isn’t our reality. Tanya Turton, founder of Adornment Stories shares “I’ve seen posts like “If all you can do is shower today, then that is fine” which I couldn’t relate to because well, I still had to work.”

There need to be more concrete solutions, since capitalism is still alive and well! 

Employers, check in on your Black employees. Suggest that we take a mental health day or week (if you even offer benefits). It’s really not hard to do. For example, after a really hard morning of reading yet another story about a Black person dying at the hands of the police, a coworker reached out via email that read, “I can’t imagine what you are going through because I'm not Black, but please let me know if there is anything I can do to take off the workload.” See that wasn’t super hard, right? Ask us what support looks like for us at this moment. 

Here are some quick tips that can shift dynamics and lend support to employees:

#1 When offering stipends to set up workplaces, one size does not fit all. “If workplaces are offering stipends, use human resource information systems to strategically examine salary disparities so that stipends are “equity-based” rather than just the same payment for all,” says Sara.

#2 When folks are on a virtual call, do not demand that they have the camera on. As people who have rolled out of bed because our mental health has been yo-yoing and jumped on a call, the last thing we need is a demand to have our video on. CONSENT MATTERS! While we completely understand the need/desire to see folks in order to have a connection, practices of consent are imperative. Accordingly, phone options are a great alternative for connecting with folks outside of online tools, and at the same time may also address the issue of internet access because believe it or not, we do not all have access to the internet. 

We spoke to Janine, a Black queer femme human rights lawyer who built on this point. Because she is now having meetings with clients from home via video call, her bosses have asked to view her surroundings to ensure they are “suitable” for the meeting.  

“I've been forced to turn my camera outward-facing and show my apartment, essentially giving a tour of my space thereby revealing socioeconomic disparities and private information about how I live. I actually have to STAGE my condo because I'm on camera in front of 40-year-old white people, so I literally construct a socially acceptable space but then have my Angela Davis books in the background.”

#3 Do not expect your employees’ homes to “model” that of a “professional” workplace and be mindful of unnecessary commentary that leaves employees feeling uncertain or surveilled. This virtual invitation into our homes is more complex than a “simple” midday video check-in with our boss. It’s also about having to stage our home for the white gaze in order to protect ourselves from possible harassment and microaggressions. It also is, again, about having to be a “Strong Black Woman” and not talk about the disproportionate impact of COVID-19 on our families, communities and ourselves with the heightened fear of having reduced hours of work, which means reduced pay. It’s about us getting angry about having to constantly put #SayHerName on our social media while others are protesting at Queen’s Park and worrying about when they can go to their cottage, the neighbourhood pub or get a haircut. 

#4 Create resources that are culturally relevant! Employee Assistance Programs are great, but more often than not, you get a white straight person on the other side of the call. Explore culturally relevant mental health supports. For example, hire independent Black consultants that are creating healing spaces like Tanya who hosted a Black Queer Femme Healing Circle. She shared that experience with us and its impact, “I hosted a healing circle for Black queer femmes this past Saturday and [while] we mentioned the current pandemic, it was never the focus of discussion. We focused on personal intentions, gratitude and manifestations of love in our life, [and] this allowed us to be hopeful and also remember what love is.”

#5 Many of us are engaging in community care via mutual aid, grocery drop-offs and sometimes even resorting back to practices like “susu” in order to keep financially afloat. Labour and Human Rights organizer Kimalee Phillip suggests that employers need to take leadership so that employees do not need to split their time between their work/job and their communities. Help your employees organize food drives for their communities and offer financial support to community organizations that are directly supporting Black communities like the Black Creek Community Farm Emergency Food Box Program in Toronto. 

In turn, this could potentially build trust between employees, employers and communities.

And for the final tip, recognize that systemic oppression existed long before the pandemic, and it sure as hell will exist after, so:

#6 Recognize how deeply entrenched misogynoir (misogyny toward Black women and femmes) is in laws, policies and our workplaces. Thereafter, it is about giving space (without consequences) for us to name it, and for us to be part of creating solutions, if we so choose (and being paid to do it). If we are to bring our whole selves to work, then that means that we should be able to safely bring our satin-bonnet wearing, sad, tired selves. Now, more than ever, Black people deserve compassion. 

Showing compassion and recognizing the unique needs of Black people is vital to foster more equitable spaces, and if this article felt hard to read, we know. Imagine living those realities.

Finally, to our beloved Black folks, let us revel in the words of Candace Bond-Theriault: “I believe in us. I believe in you. I believe in myself. While, I don’t know how, and I don’t know when; I know—just like my ancestors knew—that we will find a way through: as long as we remember who we are and what we are capable of.”  

Samantha Peters graduated from the University of Ottawa Faculty of Law with specializations in public law and dispute resolution & professionalism. She most often engages in work at the intersection of law, education and policy ranging from law reform to legal education to legislative research. Twitter: @SamPetersTO

yami msosa is a Malawian born organizer, educator and yoga teacher based in Tkaronto, their work focuses on ending sexual violence, racial justice and queer liberation. yami currently hosts yoga classes to support black folks through grief, anti-black racism and collective healing. Twitter: @YamiJMsosa

20200413 ByBlacks Patreon

Read 484 times Last modified on Friday, 12 June 2020 14:06
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