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Getting Back to Yourself in the Face of Anti-Blackness in the Workplace

By Pearis Jean, PhD, author of Strategically Navigating Anti-Black Racism in Professional Spaces

The COVID-19 pandemic caused many people to question their relationship with their job, and some people found working from home to be an asset to their mental health. For Black people, who often experienced microaggressions and other forms of anti-Black racism in the workplace, telework provided a respite from uncomfortable and harmful interactions. As many companies move toward hybrid or fully in-person schedules, it is important that we still find ways to navigate our workplaces so that we can be well.

Toni Morrison said, “The function, the very serious function of racism is distraction. It keeps you from doing your work. It keeps you explaining, over and over again, your reason for being.” Dealing with racism at your job can distract you from your work but can also make you a stranger to yourself. In my book, Strategically Navigating Anti-Black Racism in Professional Spaces, I share a model that I developed through my research about how Black people decide to respond to anti-Black racism in the workplace and other professional spaces. The core of the model is self-knowledge which aligns with the foundations of Black psychology. The demands of capitalism and the pain of racism often make it hard for us to know who we truly are. We either don’t have the time or our self-image is distorted by what others have told us about ourselves. It can be isolating when you just want to do your work but are experiencing microaggressions left and right, being excluded from the company culture, or expected to perform Blackness in a way that makes non-Black people “comfortable.” Strategically navigating anti-Black racism in professional spaces is about recentering yourself, connecting to your ancestral and communal knowledge, and making decisions about your wellness that make you proud.

I’ll leave you with three gems from my book that hopefully can support you as you get back to yourself in the face of anti-Blackness in the workplace:

1. Get to know yourself outside of what you do for others or who society has told you that you are.

2. Connect and build community with other Black people inside and outside of your workplace who you can trust, share your experiences with, and experience moments of joy as you decide how to respond to anti-Black racism in your workplace.

3. Continue to set personal and professional goals for yourself, and interrogate whether your workplace is moving you closer toward those goals. Sometimes we must leave harmful places to truly soar, sometimes our workplace may be a steppingstone into the next stage of our career, and sometimes we can’t afford to leave our job or take certain risks, and it will take time to develop an exit plan or plan for how to be well while remaining in a harmful workplace. You are also more than your work goals, so consider if your personal goals align with your current workplace.

We should not have to experience the anti-Black racism that so many of us experience, and we cannot control how other people treat us. However, in a society that treats Black people as less than and dehumanizes us, I encourage you to embrace your humanity and make decisions that prioritize your holistic well-being. You got this, and please know that you are not alone. We come from a long lineage of ancestors and elders who have strategically navigated anti-Black racism and given us a multitude of pathways to wellness—now it is your turn.

Pearis L. Jean, PhD, is a counseling psychologist, and an assistant professor at Towson University whose work focuses on culturally mindful interventions to support survivors of trauma. Pearis has expertise related to racial trauma, and, in 2020, she cofounded Academics for Black Survival and Wellness, a social justice initiative that provides antiracism trainings and Black wellness experiences. She has received several awards from the American Psychological Association (APA), as well as an award from the Organization for the Study of Communication, Language, and Gender for her social justice advocacy.

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