Racial Trauma at Work — Here’s What It Looks Like and How to Navigate It

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Racial Trauma is a form of race-based stress that affects Black people and people of color when they experience and witness dangerous events and perceived experiences of racial discrimination. For many, racial trauma appears as threats of harm and injury, humiliation, and often witnessing people of color being harmed, which can negatively impact one’s mental health.

As the Black Lives Matter movement continues to grow in the wake of the recent deaths of Breonna Taylor, George Floyd, and Ahmaud Arbery, people all around the world and in the U.S. are demanding justice for them and, as a result, sparking conservations surrounding social and racial justice in all aspects of life — especially in corporate America.

People are breaking NDAs and speaking out against former employers, sharing stories of the mistreatment and racial trauma they experienced over the years. Though some who have moved on have been able to successfully pursue other opportunities — leaving behind a toxic environment — due to the COVID-19 pandemic and the collapsing economy, not everyone has been lucky enough to simply walk away from a toxic workplace.

What Is Workplace Racial Trauma?

“When we’re thinking about workplace racial trauma, we’re really talking about microaggressions and macroaggressions that perpetuate racism and stereotypes and oppression,” Shaakira Haywood Stewart, PhD, a psychologist based in New York City, told Talkspace. These micro and macroaggressions can happen over email; they can be nonverbal or verbal; they can manifest in the form of harassment, a lack of career advancement opportunities, such as promotions; and more Dr. Haywood Stewart explained.

Essentially, “It’s the microaggressions that occur and often sometimes blatant racism — the slights, the snubs, the slurs —that have a racial undertone and that are derogatory and oppressive,” Dr. Haywood Stewart explained.

Communication is a part of everyday life but at times it can be hard to interpret someone’s intent and tone — especially when you’re not communicating with coworkers face to face —and you may even find yourself unsure as to whether or not you’ve experienced workplace trauma. If you’re thinking “Maybe they didn’t mean to speak to me with that tone, maybe I misinterpreted their message, or maybe I’m just being hypersensitive,” chances are, you’re not and you’ve experienced some form of workplace trauma.

According to Dr. Haywood Stewart, if something feels off and “you have an inkling about it” and say to yourself “That kind of felt weird,” or hesitate in your reaction, these are indicators that you’re experiencing workplace racial trauma.

As Black people and people of color begin to speak openly about the racism and trauma they’ve experienced in the workplace, Dr. Haywood Stewart believes people are becoming more aware of how racial trauma in the workplace can manifest. We’re better able to put a name to our experiences and are feeling empowered to openly share these experiences with others.

How to Manage Workplace Trauma

With a better understanding of what workplace racial trauma looks like, you may be wondering how to navigate your work environment, especially if quitting your job is not a viable option but your mental health and well-being are being negatively impacted. In Dr. Haywood Stewart’s opinion, focusing on two things can help you get by until you are able to move on to a new opportunity or feel prepared to simply walk away.

First, she recommends therapy. “That’s the number one thing. I think it gives people a unique opportunity, especially seeing a therapist of color, to process these things and be in a space where you feel seen and heard,” she said. “Having a space to talk about some of these things [in a way] that feels safe is so therapeutic in itself, especially if you can’t find an immediate way out or if you need this as a stepping stone to get to X, Y, and Z,” she continued.

Working with a therapist who understands the current state of corporate America, oppression, and systemic racism is an outlet that will make your experience easier until you’re comfortable moving on, she explained. Second, Dr. Haywood Stewart says it’s important to have a community of people you’re able to vent to and share your experiences with. Feeling seen by other people is vital.

In addition to working with a therapist and having a community to share your feelings with, Dr. Haywood Stewart says, “Being able to take action is also very therapeutic and important.” This will look different for everyone, with some opting to write an open letter, whereas others choose to be firm and unapologetic in their communication with colleagues.

Signs Your Workplace Has Become Toxic

Deciding when it’s time to walk away from a toxic workplace is incredibly difficult, especially if you are supporting others, need health insurance, or financially cannot afford to be without your livelihood. However, experiencing emotions — pervasive anxiety that’s impacting your daily life and ability to get through work without needing to escape — is a telltale sign that you may need to begin creating an exit plan.

If you can’t function in a normal way and the anxiety, depression, or both, is flowing into your everyday life — affecting your eating and sleep habits, motivation, and desire to socialize with friends — Dr. Haywood Stewart recommends taking a step back and to consider whether your job is worth your emotional well-being. Specifically, she recommends asking yourself if your value as a person is more important than your role, a potential promotion, or career advancement.

When is it time to leave?

We don’t recommend making hasty decisions when it comes to your career and livelihood. It’s important to consult and solicit the advice of those you trust, whose opinions you value, and if possible, speaking with a licensed professional therapist or career coach to figure out your next steps.

Regardless of what you decide, we highly recommend implementing self-care practices such as journaling, mindfulness, spending quality time with loved ones, and physical activity such as going on walks to help manage and ease any stress you may be feeling. Remember that these micro and macroaggression are real and they take a toll. Leaving a job is no small thing, but neither is your mental health. If you’re looking to speak with a licensed therapist, online therapy is a convenient and affordable option that can help you sort through these thorny issues today.

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