What do we say

I’ve been thinking a lot about a coaching conversation I had earlier this week with a long-time client about what she’s experiencing. Her stress level is higher than normal as she continues to do her best at work every day, as if nothing has happened.

But something has happened. And as the only black skinned person in her department, she feels like she’s living in two worlds: the reality of what’s happened and is happening in our country and the appearance of a lack of connection to it from her colleagues at work.

She’s a director at an international company in a southern state. After demonstrations were in full swing in many cities, she wondered what her boss and those who report to her might ask or say.

They said nothing.

She’s discouraged, filled with emotions she keeps lidded because she doesn’t want to upset her young family and feels she can’t show it to her colleagues.

She texted every black female she’s worked with over the years to let them know they’re not alone and received almost immediate response appreciating the connection, support. Many are experiencing the same.

A white male friend told “Micheline” white people don’t want to ask how a black person is doing in relation to George Floyd and everything that’s happened because they’re afraid of what they’ll hear. I added: and they’re afraid they won’t know what to say in response to what they hear.

The event that really rocked Micheline was the white woman in Central Park losing it because an African American male asked her to put her dog on its leash, the rule in that area. She threatened to call the police. When he told her to go ahead – while videoing her as they talked – she dialed 911 and reported an African American male is threatening me. She repeated African American and urged the police to respond quickly. As Micheline said, “Thank God he was calm, well dressed, a ‘birder,’ and captured the whole thing on video, or it could have turned out very differently.”

This knots her insides because she wonders who in her neighborhood, at work, at a store, is ready to snap at the least provocation.

If she had colleagues who openly expressed their concerns about what she’s experiencing, it might bring some comfort knowing where some of them stand. But silence leads to assumptions of what others are thinking.

We may have the best intentions. We may be disgusted. We may be hopeful. We may be a mixture of doubts and wonderings…. But if we say nothing, no one will know how we are feeling. What our values are.

As I process my responses to the events of the past two weeks, to what black people have experienced, expressed, complained about, pleaded over, mourned for a very long time, I find myself unsure how to best be an ally. How to be supportive. I imagine I will make mistakes. I will continue to look for new ways to live my values.

Micheline suggested to her friend who wondered what he could do, if you’re a white person in a room filled with similar faces, ask what it will take to diversify your team. Ask what you can do to help your company reach out to kids in schools to show them a potential future. Think about how you can support black owned businesses.

Maybe an immediate and important action we all can take is to send a sincere message, whether in person, by email, text or phone saying something like “I’m thinking of you and hoping you’re ok, although I can only imagine…” to our friends who might be affected by this.

Every one of us can say or do something if we want systemic change. Together we can write a much more positive future for everyone.

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