If you’re a leader or business owner working in the US and you think that coming back to work today was just another normal day, it wasn’t—at least for some folks.
On May 14th, a white supremacist committed yet another mass shooting in Buffalo, killing 10 people. Like many other mass shooters with a racist agenda, he was young—only 18 years old. He traveled several hours to get to the location which was carefully selected for its proximity to communities of color, ensuring there would be plenty of unarmed, unprotected, un-expecting victims. Like many of the shooters before him, this mass shooter referenced the idea of replacement theory, a made-up piece of pure fiction designed to stoke white fear and racism based on the myth that “white genocide” is being used to replace white people in the US with people of color. In spite of the attention replacement theory is getting on one conservative news channel, it carries about the same level of credibility and proof as the flat-earth theory.
It’s gaslighting at its most toxic and deadly.
Just because you may not feel afraid at work doesn’t
mean everyone shares your sense of safety.
Now more than ever, every business leader needs to think about the physical and emotional safety of their employees. All of us should pay attention to and work to alleviate the disproportionate impact, stress, and trauma that men and women of color are experiencing because of the devastation and volume of events like the shootings in Buffalo.
At the risk of explaining the obvious but in the spirit that it is better to be empathetic than unaware, here a few suggestions for those of you who are people leaders in businesses today:
Don’t assume that because nobody’s talking about the mass shooting, people aren’t impacted by it or aware of it. More than likely, someone in your group, team, or organization is watching to see if you notice what happened on Saturday and if you’re willing to speak about it. And by “speaking about it,” I mean, are you willing to go first by being vulnerable and sharing how the Buffalo shooting impacted you? Describe the fears that this kind of event engenders in you and your loved ones. After all, there is enough gun violence in this country to make all of us afraid.
If you are going to talk and share, talk to everyone, not just people of color. People who are on the outside because of their race or ethnicity may feel they are “othered” all the time—singled out as if they are the only ones impacted. Be inclusive.Talk about how you are feeling about what happened and invite others to share, or not share.
Do your best to stay away from cerebral conversations about politics or gun legislation, or survey and polling data that show how violent 2022 is compared to previous years. Folks who are afraid need to hear and feel your empathy, not your mastery of the data or facts. What fears do events like what happened in Buffalo this weekend bring up in you?
While you’re at it, now would be a good time to think about what “being safe” might look and feel like to a member of an underrepresented group working in your organization. Does your workplace have security protocols in place to ensure that whoever comes in your workplace is there to conduct business with you? Is the parking lot well-lit and are there security precautions in place for people who fear for their safety at night or after work hours? Ask yourself this question: how is your place of business unsafe? Use your answers to help develop a plan for making your workplace safer.
If you don’t actually understand what it might feel like to be a black or brown person coping with the trauma, grief, and terror associated with a racially-motivated mass shooting, don’t pretend you do understand. It’s okay to say, “I can only imagine what it might feel like to be you given what’s just happened. How can I support you?” Some may look at you quizzically as if they don’t understand what you’re talking about. Others may feel like you’re calling them out just because of their race or ethnicity. These are all valid observations; there is no one way to be inclusive and understanding. Be ready to apologize (especially to yourself) if someone takes offense. But keep in mind that there will always be people who will appreciate your honesty and gesture of support, regardless of whether they need it or not.
Don’t make generalizations about how black people feel based on what you hear from one or even several persons. I can remember a black colleague of mine who was brave enough to tell me that asking him if “All of you feel the same way…” was not only racist, but downright insulting, as if each person can’t have their own, unique perspective and response.
Connected to the point above, be ready for a variety of reactions when you initiate a conversation with people at work about the shooting. Some may feel indifferent, while others may be relieved you’ve created space to talk about it. Some may feel uncomfortable sharing anything. Suspending judgment about what is being said is also a really important step towards making work safer for everyone.