Addressing Racial Hyper-Sensitivity
Updated: Jul 8, 2021
I am a Black woman working for a large corporation on a regional sales team. Since I started with this company, I have been treated with respect and equality.
But recently things have changed. Everyone on my team is still respectful and kind, but they seem to be extra sensitive around me. Lately, our talks at lunch and on breaks have felt awkward and unusually vague – as if everyone is trying to tip-toe around current events so they don’t say something that might offend me.
I want to talk to them and let them know they don’t have to act differently around me just because racial inequalities are being heavily covered in today’s news and media.
I feel guilty complaining that my team is over-sensitive when so many other Black people are fighting for respect in the workplace. However, I feel left out of conversations and I want my “old team” back. But I don’t even know how to start that conversation. Any advice or suggestions you have would be much appreciated!
It’s lovely to hear that everyone on your team is respectful and kind. Nonetheless, I can appreciate how their tiptoeing could leave you feeling isolated. Given the general good will that you describe among team members, perhaps a direct approach might give you back your “old team” efficiently and effectively. Let them know that, as you said, they “don’t have to act differently around me just because racial inequalities are being heavily covered in today’s news and media.” In other words, let them know what you’d like them to do (e.g., talk about current events, of course respectfully.)
That said, it sounds as if your colleagues are aware that events in the news may impact you differently than the events impact them. Moreover, they may be concerned about inadvertently saying or doing the “wrong” thing and leave you feeling disrespected and thinking of them as insensitive or as racist. Thus, fear may lead them to say less rather than more.
It can be helpful for teams or colleagues to set ground rules to ensure a safe environment for wide-ranging conversations or for focused conversations about hot-button topics. Such norms include practicing respectful engagement, listening well to each other, and being constructive. If you are willing, invite them to ask questions of you and you can ask questions of them understand each other’s perspectives; based on how you describe your team, perhaps this is part of how the “old team” functioned. That said, it can be a burden to be the “explainer” frequently—having to explain or educate about your experience as a Black woman and issues about race more generally. If you agree with the suggestions in these articles, you may want to share them with people in your team, or find other articles that mesh with what you want your colleagues to know:
Sometimes each of us will, unintentionally, say or do something that has a negative impact, in spite of our good intentions. As Sandra Quince, SVP of Global Diversity and Inclusion at Bank of America has said, “we have to give each other space and grace. On one hand, I have to give you grace when you say things that may be offensive to me, because … everybody’s not going to get it right… The flip side of that coin is, don’t discount my experience. Just because it doesn’t happen to you, don’t tell me it’s not happening.”
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