Dear White People (Who Want to Support BIPOC Colleagues at Work)

By Sapna Sopori, Founder & Owner of Sapna Strategies, LLC

Acronyms used: BIPOC – Black, Indigenous, and/or People of Color

There is so much pain and suffering in our country right now, especially in BIPOC communities. It pervades all aspects of our daily lives, including work. For those of us fortunate to still be employed, we spend most of our waking hours doing our jobs. And, there is an unspoken and unrealistic expectation that we draw a curtain between the work that we are doing and the lives we are living. The pervasiveness of racism can make this separation harder to maintain for BIPOC than white folks. Many BIPOC colleagues of mine report feeling feeling tired, overwhelmed, exhausted, scared, frustrated…and this can impact focus and productivity at work. I hear from many concerned white professionals that they see this struggle and want to support their BIPOC colleagues in the workplace, but they are unsure how. So, this blog is for you, white colleagues. Here are some actions you can take to share the unfair burden your BIPOC colleagues are forced to carry. 

***Important point of clarification: The suggestions below are NOT about white people “coming to the rescue of poor BIPOC folks.” That is white saviorism, an insidious tool of white supremacy. This blog is meant to give white people ideas on how they can and should take on some of the heavy load forced onto BIPOC by white dominant systems. White ally support should never unintentionally become white saviorism! Do NOT get the two confused. Keep checking back with yourself to make sure you don’t slip into this mentality.*** 

Caveats to my suggestions below: 

  • I do not speak for all BIPOC folks. Everyone has different feelings and needs. Some BIPOC want your support; others don’t. Start with a conversation so you don’t assume. 
  • The suggestions below are not magic solutions that will work in every setting. Many of these suggestions rely on a certain level of pre-existing trust in the group to succeed. 
  • The suggestions below also rely on authenticity (i.e. don’t offer help if you don’t want to be taken up on it).
  • Offers of support should not publicly “call out” the person you are offering them to. Again, conversations should always precede any offer and should be built on trusting relationships. 
  • If you have questions, check with your HR department. I’m not an HR professional and the advice below is from my personal experience. 
  • Finally, as with any suggestion or piece of advice offered anywhere, use your best judgment to determine what will work with your colleagues on your team in your workplace.

Okay, that all said, the first recommendation I have for white colleagues is to take time to understand exactly how exhausting this is on many BIPOC folks and how much more energy this can require from us to remain our most productive selves. Personally, I’m seriously fatigued, distracted, scared, and emotionally drained right now, and I hear this from so many of my BIPOC friends. I will still work hard to get my tasks done on time, but it takes a LOT more of my energy to do so right now and my capacity is low. And, as a cis-hetero Asian American woman, my many privileges buffer me from the full impact of pain out there, so I know that if I’m tired, then my Black friends and colleagues are likely exhausted. In fact, critical race theory has a term for the impacts of accumulated racism in Black American communities: racial battle fatigue. Understanding and acknowledging that this exhaustion/fatigue/etc. is real and very different from what you are facing as a white person is the first step. 

In a small effort to normalize bringing the real world into the workplace, consider replacing the usual prompt at the start of a meeting (“so, how’s everybody doing today?”) with something more honest and vulnerable, like: “The world is really hard right now in so many ways (racism, violence, systemic injustice, COVID, isolation, etc.), and it is definitely harder for those of us who feel those impacts directly and daily. What is one word that describes how you are feeling right now? What is each of us doing to take care of ourselves? How can we take better care of each other on this team?” Again, choose your prompts wisely based on the level of trust and open communication already cultivated on your team. And expect that this will take more time than you may be used to. But, spending some time with your team discussing their realities can be an invitation to bring one’s whole-self into the workplace, which is actually beneficial to all staff, BIPOC and white alike. Note: take mental notes if people share concerns that you may want to follow up on later for more support, and be sure to set aside time to do so with them in private. This work is all about relationship- and trust-building. 

If there is trust already between you and your BIPOC colleague, and if your colleague has verbally expressed concerns around capacity, then consider offering to take appropriate tasks off their plate and/or offering flexibility with deadlines when possible. You may not be taken up on these offers, but they demonstrate tangible options that you put thought into, which is a significant step beyond the kind but generally useless offer of “let me know if I can help.” Note: pay special attention to those two “ifs.” Without those, you may offend rather than support (flip the roles: how would you feel if you didn’t express any bandwidth challenges and a colleague you didn’t have a trusting relationship with offered to take work off your plate??? That’d be weird at best, right?).

Does your sick leave policy cover mental health days? Does racial battle fatigue count as such? If so, share this information with your BIPOC staff so they know they can take a break without jeopardizing their jobs. And, go back to those offers of task-sharing and deadline flexibility so your colleagues not only know they can take leave with pay but they feel assured they won’t be seen as dropping the ball or “slacking” if they do. So many BIPOC have been trained by white dominant society to never let up, to always be on, be ready, be perfect. Sometimes we need to hear that it’s not only okay to take a break but it is supported to do so and it won’t be held against us later. If your sick leave does not cover racial battle fatigue or if you’d like to increase the days for equitable support of your BIPOC staff, talk with your HR department for options. That would be an opportunity for structural change.

Community is critical in times like these, so resourcing BIPOC staff to attend BIPOC-only affinity spaces on work time is incredibly helpful. This is a very tangible way that a white supervisor can value BIPOC staff health in the face of the disparate impacts that affect them. As a BIPOC in the environmental sector, I regularly attend Seattle EPOC gatherings and find them so helpful and rejuvenating. If you are not in the Seattle-area, there are EPOC chapters across the country, and if you’re not in the environmental sector there are many other online/virtual spaces, like the BIPOC Project. Often, resource allocation for experiences like these must be directly tied to work outcomes, so I encourage white supervisors to consider how these types of experiences are professional development and community engagement efforts that benefit the organization.

Finally (and most importantly), please hold other white staffers accountable for racism in the workplace. We don’t need to deal with more of that right now. If you see microagressions, address them when they happen. Don’t wait for a BIPOC staffer to do it, or send a note to the BIPOC staffer later exclaiming how appalled you were at that action. Do it yourself when it happens. Similarly, if a white staffer on your team has a record of microagressions (you know who these people are) and if you are in an authority position, please hand out real repercussions. Don’t make excuses for them or only focus on arranging healing conversations between them and the BIPOC staffer who received their aggression. Healing conversations are great, but they need to be paired with actual repercussions, not substituted for them. Again, talk to your HR to make a plan, but this is the exact opportunity where you can leverage your privilege as a white person and power as a manager to take action.  

There are many other ways white colleagues can demonstrate their support of their BIPOC colleagues, so please share them here and we can all learn. I’d also like to ask that those of us BIPOC who benefit more from white dominant systems and aren’t impacted as greatly by the greater world context, that we consider our roles in supporting our BIPOC colleagues who are taking bigger hits than we are right now. None of this is easy, none of it is one-size-fits-all, but all of it is critical in the fight to uproot racism. 

Side note: for my BIPOC readers, if you are feeling symptoms of racial battle fatigue, please check out this list of networks designed to support your mental health: https://www.self.com/story/bipoc-mental-health-coronavirus. Also check in with your HR department as you may have access to Employee Assistance Plans through your employer.

Know an equity leader in your community that we should highlight? Drop us a line!


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