Black History Month should be a celebratory time of year full of rich conversations about history and culture. Unfortunately, it can also lead to uncomfortable comments that create an unsafe work environment for Black employees.
Since George Floyd’s unjust death and the resurgence of the Black Lives Matter movement in 2020, organizations have increasingly committed to creating a psychologically safe workplace for Black employees and investing in diversity, equity, and inclusion. It’s what employees are demanding: In a 2021 CNBC/SurveyMonkey report, 78% of workers said they want to work for a company that values DEI, with women as well as Black, Asian, and Hispanic workers more likely to agree than men and white workers respectively. And yet, about a quarter of employees said their organizations weren't doing enough.
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Recognizing Black History Month is one way for organizations—and the people in them—to demonstrate their commitment to diversity, equity, and inclusion. But conversations around DEI can be uncomfortable for marginalized groups, especially during heritage months like Black History Month. In order to create psychological safety, whether in the office or in a virtual workplace setting, employees of all levels must reflect on their words and actions. Celebrating Black history at work requires accountability and self-education to make sure Black employees feel valued and supported.
As a career coach and talent development advisor, I’ve worked with hundreds of Black employees and heard what makes them feel unsafe at work. And as a Black woman myself, I’ve experienced firsthand how uncomfortable Black History Month can be when my coworkers and managers aren’t equipped to have conversations about systemic racism and unconscious bias.
If you want to be an ally and help create a work environment that uplifts and supports your Black coworkers, I’ve listed five things you definitely shouldn’t say to Black employees during Black History Month—or ever—and how you can be more supportive.
1. “What’s the point of Black History Month?”
Working in corporate America, I’ve heard white colleagues question why we have a Black History Month and not a White History Month, among other renditions of “All Lives Matter.” These comments are frustrating, not least because this country has already lived through centuries of white, male, straight, cisgender history and dominance. It’s hurtful to hear people question the notion that Black people should celebrate their culture and achievements. And it undermines the traumatic racism and marginalization Black people have endured in this country.
Instead of questioning the existence of Black History Month, try to participate. If your organization is holding Black History Month events, be sure to attend. You can also seek out panels, talks, conferences, and other events outside of work, and consider making a personal donation to a Black nonprofit.
2. “Can you speak at our next team meeting about the meaning of Black History Month?”
The Black American experience can be overwhelming and complex to understand. If you have questions, don’t rely on your Black coworkers to educate you and other team members. A Black person may not want to share a horrible incident they’ve experienced in order for you to grasp the severity of racial inequalities in this country.
Take the initiative to educate yourself on Black History Month through journals, articles, books, podcasts, or videos. Share recommendations with colleagues and allies to foster a culture of learning without burdening Black employees. You can create a Slack channel with shared resources (or make use of an existing one), start conversations around what your organization can do to create a safe work environment for your Black coworkers, ask your manager how you can get involved in DEI at your organization, hold company leaders accountable to the DEI initiatives they have planned, and encourage them to bring in DEI experts who truly know what they’re doing.
If you are a leader, you can put time and budget behind company-wide workshops that train team members to create a culture that supports employees’ mental health and professional development. My team at Perfeqta, a talent development agency, for example, has worked with dozens of organizations on building DEI strategies that reduce exclusionary practices and systemic inequalities.
3. “Let’s not talk about race or politics in the workplace.”
Black History Month presentations, workshops, or even casual conversations around race, bias, and American history (from slavery to the Civil Rights movement and beyond) can be uncomfortable to engage in. As an ally, it’s important to not shy away because you feel awkward having to confront your privilege or fear saying “the wrong thing.” Dismissing these conversations means you’re dismissing the trauma your Black coworkers and their ancestors have experienced.
Instead, recognize the privilege of being able to simply partake in a discussion rather than living through the trauma. Give your Black coworkers the space to talk about their culture or history if they choose to, and make sure you listen to understand the challenges Black people have faced—and continue to face—in our country. If you’re unsure how to respond, you can say, “How can I better support you here at work?” Create an action plan based on their feedback and continue to learn.
4. “Slavery is over. We’re all equal now.”
Any comment that denies or minimizes the existence of racism will only create unsafe experiences for Black people. Systemic racism is prevalent in the workplace (in every industry) and outside of it. It’s important to understand the lived experiences of Black people (hence why you shouldn’t shy away from the conversations above) and actively work to create change.
Whether you’re an entry-level employee or a seasoned manager, for example, you can amplify Black voices during meetings if you notice others talking over or ignoring them. And when a Black coworker shares their input or ideas, acknowledge their point, take note, and make sure they get credit for their great insights in the moment and down the line.
If you’re a leader, keep in mind that when you create or participate in workplace practices without taking into account how they impact marginalized employees, your efforts can feel very performative. So hold focus groups or 1:1 meetings to get a better understanding of how you can support your Black employees’ mental health and professional development.
Here are three questions you can ask:
- What are the biggest barriers to your success and what role can I play in helping to remove them?
- Whose voice or what perspective is missing from this conversation?
- How can I help amplify your voice and other underrepresented voices?
5. “When I look at you, I don’t see color.”
Telling a Black coworker you don’t see color as a way to show you aren’t prejudiced against their race or ethnicity is actually a microaggression—a subtle verbal or nonverbal behavior aimed at a member of a marginalized group that is damaging and derogatory.
Common microaggressions toward Black people at work also include phrases such as:
- “You’re so articulate!”
- “Your hair is so different every day.”
- “Your name is hard to pronounce.”
- “You should smile more and engage with the team.”
- “You remind me of [Black celebrity].”
I’ve personally heard every single one of these.
As an ally and bias disrupter, you must not only avoid ever saying these microaggressions yourself but also step in and call out the people who do. You can say: “That’s a microaggression and it’s very harmful to repeat phrases like that. Any workplace that tolerates this behavior is not a workplace that supports DEI.”
Cultivating a safe, healthy, equitable, and inclusive work environment requires effort and action. Black History Month is a great time to start. But in order to achieve true equity, you must continue these conversations beyond February and support your Black coworkers and employees all year round.