Please Stop ‘Just Checking In’ on Your Black Co-Workers

Sending open-ended messages asking how we’re doing puts emotional labor on Black folks when we’re already struggling

Photo: Luis Alvarez/Getty Images

We’re all figuring out how to navigate this world of multiple pandemics — Covid-19 and anti-Black racism. In the wake of the social unrest and insurrection that has engulfed our country with George Floyd’s murder, it feels like the world is standing witness to the collective grief and trauma we as Black folks are currently navigating.

I spent last week trying to function while also taking time to grieve and express my real ANGER. Anger that Black people are again met with a parade of Black death on TV and social media. It feels like we’ve had a decade of this same cycle and I am fed up.

At the same time, I’ve also gotten a lot of messages from co-workers who are “just checking on how I am doing.” While I do appreciate the sentiment and care of this action, I also want to say that it is not helpful right now.

Why “just checking in” isn’t helpful

You, in an effort to show kindness or awareness or maybe just to alleviate guilt, may feel inclined to ask: “How are you holding up? Are you okay?” The answer to your question is no. We are not okay. Who would be okay under these circumstances?

What is more, when Black folks are faced with this open-ended question, we are faced with two impossible choices: minimize our emotions for the sake of workplace civility or risk reopening an emotional wound we’ve been working hard to heal.

Private messages of support are nice but public messages of solidarity are better.

What you can do instead of “just checking in”

If you are someone who wants to do something and who cares about your Black co-workers, here is what I recommend instead:

1. Instead of an ask, make a statement

I suggest something like: “No need to respond, but I am here if you need to talk or want someone to listen.” A statement that someone can easily ignore is best because we are overwhelmed and just trying to cope.

2. Don’t just reach out to us privately; take a stand with real action

Private messages of support are nice but public messages of solidarity are better. And taking (independent) action to meaningfully help is best. What does meaningful help look like?

It looks like donating to Black-led movements that are on the ground organizing (I suggest orgs like: Black Visions Collective, Reclaim the Block, Black Youth Project (BYP) 100, National Bail Out fund, and North Star Health Collective) and getting your non-Black family and friends (who may be less engaged) to do the same.

It looks like speaking up about policies at your company that hurt Black people and other people of color.

It looks like figuring out how you can help within your realm of influence. You don’t have to take to the streets to help (but if you are willing and able to, that’s great). You also have a job and a set of skills. Ask yourself: How can I use my skills and influence to help? Donating is one way, but another is volunteering your skills. Offer to help an org improve their website with your engineering skills, expand their reach with your marketing skills, or deepen their impact with your strategy skills. Or better yet, start with the company you are already a part of and find a way to get them to help.

It looks like educating yourself on how to be actively anti-racist. Try asking Google instead of your Black colleagues.

3. Engage with us around more than this pain

Acknowledge that times are tough and then send a funny video, a meme, a song you love, a recipe, anything other than this sadness.

Let go of the desire to be seen as good (read: not racist) people. None of us can be good, so let’s focus on being effective.

A closing note: It’s okay to try and get it wrong.

Maybe you, like me, have sent people a bunch of notes asking how they are. And maybe you would be tempted to go into a shame spiral for having done the “wrong” thing and decide instead to not do anything (just to be safe). Don’t do that.

Instead, listen, learn, and commit to doing better once you know better.

I applaud the desire to do something. And I understand that non-Black folks are wondering what is the right thing to do. My hope is that we can all let go of the desire to be seen as good (read: not racist) people. We live in a racist society with coded messages of Black inferiority all around us. We all have internalized racism. None of us can be good, so let’s focus instead on being effective.

That means speaking up in the face of injustice. This means pointing that energy in a direction that will be meaningful and valuable for the most marginalized amongst us. Because the worst thing we can do is remain silent.

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