Exit Interviews No One Should Have to Ignore Their Grief, Yet It’s Long Been Expected of People of Color
For our communities, those missing and murdered, caged and dying, are not distant examples, invisible, or forgotten. They are our family and friends.
This is Exit Interviews, a column by Nadia Owusu on the experiences of women of color in the workplace.
Despite living in New York—the epicenter of the Covid-19 outbreak in the US—much of my weekday morning routine is the same as it was before: I wake to an alarm, snooze for fifteen minutes, exercise, meditate, read a poem, shower, and dress. I eat eggs on toast and drink coffee. But instead of a ten-minute walk to the subway and forty minutes or so on the A and F trains, my commute has been reduced to just nine steps—from my kitchen table to my home office.
When asked how I’m doing, I usually say that I’m lucky, and in so many ways I am. I still have a job. I’m able to work from home. I’m healthy. I work for a nonprofit, and so far, our funding is stable. Twice a month, pay is deposited into my checking account.
This is no longer true for the thirty million people in this country who, in the last six weeks, have filed for unemployment—many of my loved ones among them. Other family and friends are among the many who, despite the risk to their health and safety, must continue to work outside their homes: stocking shelves, preparing and delivering meals, caring for the sick and elderly.
I am lucky, yes. I am also filled with fear and grief. And my fear and grief are compounded because I am a black woman.
The mission of the organization I work for is to advance racial equity in US cities. And the data concerning this mission are grim: Around the country, Native American , Latinx , and black people are disproportionately dying from Covid-19 due to systemic racism. Hate crimes against Asian Americans are surging . Black and Latinx people are at greater risk of losing their livelihoods because they are less likely to have jobs that can be done from home and have fewer financial resources to draw upon in the case of lost income or illness. Black people are also being blocked from accessing some forms of economic relief.
Each week, I join several webinars and calls hosted by my organization and other nonprofits and foundations in which we discuss the current moment. We talk about what we’re doing individually, and what we could and should be doing together. This crisis, at least one person says at least once a day, is laying bare inequities. Often, someone else points out that the work of social justice organizations is more urgent than ever .
These sentiments, I believe, contain partial truths. In saying as much, I remind myself to watch my tone; to be kind. People just want to feel useful and hopeful. I do, too. But there are days when I cannot contain my fear and grief; when it comes out sounding like frustration and anger. Many of the leaders on these calls and webinars are white, because the leadership of nonprofit organizations—despite our stated missions and values ; despite America’s diversity—is overwhelmingly white . The inequities, I say, have always been evident to the communities of color that disproportionately experience housing instability, high unemployment, food insecurity, air and water poisoning, and substandard healthcare. If we mean that these ills are now being laid bare to more middle-class and wealthy white people, we should not be afraid to say so.
“It seems like many of my white colleagues are just realizing how terrible everything is, and that is infuriating,” an African American friend I’ll call Sarita, who works for another social justice nonprofit, recently told me over Facetime. Then she reconsidered: “Well, maybe some of them realized it when Trump was elected president, but they forgot again.”
I am not so sure that people who seemed unconcerned by inequity before the pandemic were actually unaware of it. These issues have been well-covered, due in part to the Occupy movement , the Fight for $15 , the Movement for Black Lives , Bernie Sanders’s two presidential campaigns, and more. Not paying attention, an Asian American colleague recently argued in a meeting, was, in large part, a choice—one facilitated by a bubble of privilege that has, for some at least, burst due to the pandemic.
On our call, I told Sarita about how, in the days after the 2016 election, I confessed to a colleague and friend—a white man—that I was terrified about the next four years; that I felt like I was drowning in my fear. I wanted to talk with him about what our organization might do to protect poor communities of color whose livelihoods, rights, and health would be made even more precarious by the Trump administration’s policy agenda. “It’s not going to be as bad as you think,” my colleague told me, sounding so certain. “There are many checks and balances in our systems.”
“I had so many of those conversations,” Sarita said. “I want to call up this one guy who called me ‘hysterical’ and say, ‘I told you so.’”
I am not so sure that people who seemed unconcerned by inequity before the pandemic were actually unaware of it.
We talked about how expressing our emotions, our fear and grief, in the workplace has largely been deemed inappropriate and unprofessional. How this fear and grief is shared by so many people of color in the United States, for distinct as well as overlapping reasons. How black people and other people of color understand this country in ways that many white people do not, or choose not to. And we talked about how little that understanding—and the analysis and ideas that are shaped by it—seems to be respected or valued, even in many self-professed progressive organizations like the ones we work for.
This is a country in which there is a crisis of missing Native American women ; in which black men are routinely killed by police for traffic violations ; in which black trans women are murdered at alarming rates; in which black women are at a higher risk of dying during childbirth; in which children fleeing violence in South America are separated from their parents and locked in cages . For our communities, those missing and murdered, caged and dying, are not distant examples, invisible, or forgotten. They are people like our family and friends. They are our family and friends. And while employees of all backgrounds at many progressive institutions do discuss these issues at work, we are often expected to do so in an impersonal or depoliticized way.
In the week that George Zimmerman was found not guilty in the murder of Trayvon Martin, I remember I couldn’t focus at work. Several times, I left my desk to cry in the bathroom. I went for walks in the park with a colleague, a fellow black woman, and we talked and grieved together. Back in the office, meetings carried on as scheduled; deadlines remained in effect; mundanities were discussed at meetings. Nothing was formally said by white leadership about the life that had been taken, the injustice of the verdict.
“To many white Americans,” Nikole Hannah-Jones wrote in The New York Times , “the killings of black men and women at the hands of the state, are individual incidents, each with a unique set of circumstances. For white people, who have been trained since birth to see themselves as individuals, the collective fear and collective grief that black Americans feel can be hard to grasp.”
I continue to think about this now, in the midst of the Covid-19 pandemic—that the racism and realities experienced by people of color in this country are hard for many white people to understand. And as we work—whether at home, now, or out in the world—many workplaces and company cultures are designed and maintained in relation to a white-experienced reality: one that is highly individualistic and often rose-colored; one that has little to do with the reality I and countless others in this country experience. Maintaining that reality, working within it, often requires that people of color leave our fear and grief at the door. But that isn’t always possible, particularly in times of heightened crisis, and pretending to do so for most of our waking, working hours is both exhausting and dehumanizing.
Workplaces are professional communities, microcosms of our society. I’ve been thinking a lot about how society, and therefore its workplaces, are being forced to change now. Some of these changes are for the worse: for many frontline workers , the workplace has become profoundly dangerous . And while the challenges and risks they take on have increased, in many cases their pay, benefits, and protections have not .
But in the nonprofit world at least, I have seen some positive change. Over the past month, I have been in many video meetings in which people of all races and identities have wept, raged, and revealed parts of themselves that they usually keep hidden. I am grateful for the honesty of these colleagues and connections; for the sight of bare-faced coworkers in wrinkled T-shirts; for the sound of toddlers playing in the background; for the glimpse of someone else’s dirty dishes as my own pile up. I am grateful for the loosening of the standards we have come to accept as professional . I am grateful to have a break from acting as though everything is okay when it isn’t. I am grateful to be able to express my fear and grief—for once.
Yet I’m also conscious of another feeling within me, a ripple I don’t quite know how to identify. It is something like resentment, and also wariness—resentment, because it took many white people experiencing collective grief for this change to happen; wariness, because I wonder how long it will last.
Like my friend Sarita, I have found myself wanting to say unkind things in some of those meetings. Things like We tried to tell you and I am sorry you now know how this feels. Instead, I have said that frontline workers around the country are being forced to make impossible choices—between health and economic security; between life and livelihood. I have said that workers like us, even as we are impacted by the pandemic in other ways, are being spared that terrible dilemma.
And so we have an opportunity to imagine and create a different kind of workplace. We can choose to permanently change how we view each other, how we work together, validating each other’s experiences and fears and losses—not just in the current moment, but into and through whatever comes next. And the change that is possible within the microcosm of a workplace might also be possible in other workplaces, in a society, in the wider world.
We can choose to permanently change how we work together, validating each other’s experiences and fears and losses—not just in the current moment, but into and through whatever comes next.
On February 23, as Covid-19 slipped into and spread throughout the US, a twenty-five-year-old black man named Ahmaud Arbery was jogging outside Brunswick, Georgia when white former police officer Gregory McMichael and his son Travis chased him down and killed him. The McMichaels were not arrested, and as much of the country was soon placed on lockdown, Arbery’s family worried that no one would be held to account for his murder . In May, the family released a video showing the last few minutes of Arbery’s life. It sparked outrage across the country, and despite the virus, hundreds of people gathered to march in Georgia—a state in which 83 percent of people hospitalized with Covid-19 are black, while black people account for just 32 percent of the population.
The day after that video was released, I was in another virtual meeting. We opened with a check-in question: “What gives you hope?” Several white colleagues answered quickly, sharing stories of acts of kindness and policies enacted that were previously thought impossible. The people of color in the meeting were quieter. Many of us have lost family and friends to Covid-19. Then one of my white colleagues said, “The pandemic is unduly impacting communities of color; and with the news about Ahmaud Arbery, maybe some of our colleagues are feeling less hopeful than us white folks. And we need to acknowledge that and reckon with it.”
I was not feeling hopeful that day, not at all. But, with my colleague’s words, I felt a small shift. Rather than leave it at the door , I heard, I am trying to understand. What difference can that make in the face of such immense suffering? Perhaps very little. But to me, in that moment, it meant a great deal.