Breaking the Silence at Work | Opinion

When we are denied the right to anger, rage finds a way to seep through and reveal the breakages in society. Over time, fear and grief become fault lines, hastening an eruption and a collective outcry for justice. We have seen it before, and we see it now as flames spread across our nation from Minneapolis to Atlanta, New York City to Los Angeles.

I woke up this morning with the deaths of George Floyd, Ahmaud Arbery and Breonna Taylor on my mind. It is a singular grief—and it is a familiar one. Some people can surely view the news, then choose whether to feel or disengage. Choose whether to opt in or opt out. Black people in this country do not have that luxury.

Our communities are tired, angry, grieving and bringing trauma into the workplace. We bring this pain into the office, into virtual meetings and we are expected to shove it down. For this reason, our leadership team agreed it was time to hold a candid conversation on race.

Earlier this year, I became president of the Center for Talent Innovation, a think tank that conducts research and advises companies on diversity and inclusion. This is an organization staffed with passionate individuals dedicated to building a more equitable world. Yet not once had the staff gathered to hold a candid conversation on race. It was time.

Our weekly all-team meeting started as normal—the Zoom screen filled with smiling faces. When our head of human resources opened the discussion, there was an uncomfortable silence. We made it clear to all: Participate at your own level of comfort. But try your best to listen. To hear. One by one, voices emerged.

Our black and Latino employees spoke first. A colleague expressed her exhaustion, how tired she is of seeing black men and women murdered, time and again, engaging in normal activities—jogging, shopping, swimming, sleeping in their own homes. Another told the team she's been witnessing this her entire life. She spoke the name of a black boy from her youth, Raymond Brewer, shot dead by a policeman who mistook him for a robber. He was 15 years old, walking home with two friends. A "tragic mistake," it was called. With each new shooting, she sees his face. Another colleague spoke of the tens of thousands of brown and black people who are disproportionately killed by COVID-19. One was her grandfather. Two apartment towers near her home have been nicknamed "Towers of Death." "It's not okay," she said. "It's not okay."

Our white colleagues heard us, and many of them shared, too. They responded with a variety of emotions—embarrassment, shame, anger, frustration. They asked what actions they could take as allies, and revealed a desire to channel their feelings to do more.

After the discussion, a colleague asked me, "What is a Karen?" I reflected on the best way to articulate a meme. Karen. Her claims can be lethal. Her performance rooted in entitlement. Her superiority digested in victimhood. She is a reflection of a nation that may never deliver on a promise of equity. Fourteen-year-old Emmett Till had a Karen.

Daily, each of us—white, brown, black—receives messages that reinforce white bodies have power over black and brown bodies. That black and brown lives are worth less. Even the "Karens" of the world who pride themselves on not being racist—they too absorb these messages of superiority. For this reason, when a black man in Central Park asks Amy Cooper to follow the rules and leash her dog, her privilege to do harm suddenly emerges. She weaponizes that privilege and threatens to call the police, which she knows to be a potentially harmful act.

When I addressed our team, to close out the discussion, I experienced an unplanned moment of vulnerability. Sharing was difficult, but it was necessary. I explained that I know first-hand what it means to be policed and criminalized. I have never committed a crime, of any kind, but I have been wrongfully placed in handcuffs—more than once. Twenty-five years later, it still sits with me. The weight of the metal across your wrists, it takes something from you—strips you of dignity and fractures all connection to nation-state.

George Floyd protests in London
George Floyd protests in London Hollie Adams/Getty Images

Since our conversation, I've received a flurry of phone calls and emails. One colleague told me: "In 22 years of working, I've never had a conversation like that." It was "healing," said another. It brought us closer together as a team.

Business leaders must be visible, vocal and willing to use our power and platform to drive change. Hosting these kinds of courageous conversations in the workplace is one way to ensure employees are heard and seen. It's a way to ensure human connection endures. It's a way to drive belonging.

At the very least, it's critical to check in with your teams and colleagues and offer up safe space for dialogue. At best, we must work to dismantle the bias that underpins the fabric of our institutions—bias that fuels irrational fear and violence and endangers people in our society.

We cannot experience this pain in isolation. White allies too must collectively sit in the pain and own their privilege. Feelings of guilt, sadness and embarrassment must be channeled into something more productive. Because these feelings do not bring anyone safety. They do not save lives.

Our colleagues, neighbors and policymakers need to hear statements of unity now more than ever. During this pandemic, communities of color are already facing tremendous burdens on their physical and mental health. The way our nation responds during these moments of tragedy will reveal the quality of our leadership and shape our future.

After our meeting ended, I put my head in my hands and felt the weight of what had happened. We brought in the outside world. In that moment, I felt even more connected to my leadership, as I knew we'd done something right. Then, I took a deep breath, exhaled and once again shoved it down before hopping on to my next call.

Lanaya Irvin is president of the Center for Talent Innovation, a nonprofit think tank that helps leaders design workplaces where every person belongs. Her background includes more than ten years on Wall Street, where she worked in global finance. She is a longtime leader in advocating for LGBTQ rights and equity in the workplace.

The views expressed in this article are the writer's own.