Updated: May 31, 2020
Mental health professionals and/or those who have experience seeking the support of a trusted mental health professional may be familiar with the signs of emotional abuse and the toll it takes on one’s social emotional well-being. Recently, I came across an Instagram post listing the characteristics of emotional abuse. The intention of this individual’s post was to highlight May as mental health awareness month. Upon reading the post, it made me wonder about the impact of racism in “work relationships.” In the time I have spent recognizing May as mental health awareness month, I never connected the awareness of mental health with racism and organizational culture. To be clear, I do understand the emotional impact of racism. But, until now it had not occurred to compare the “signs” of emotional abuse with racism, and more specifically, within the context of workplace relationships.
Instead of the term emotional abuse, think of it as emotional harm. In reality, the emotional harm attached to toxic, counter-productive relationships in one’s workplace can also be detrimental to one’s overall mental health. This blog post is written specifically for White people who have expressed in one way or another their commitment to anti-racism and the people of color who sometimes feel caught between their optimism for the pursuit of equity and emotional fatigue.
Let me paint an accurate picture. Micro-aggressions and micro-insults are often the result of on-going racial, gender, and class biases that are perpetuated on to others. They also reflect the imbalance of power and privilege within an organization that fuels inequity. These practices have a negative impact on organizational culture. And while “diversity trainings” may address bias, there is little acknowledgment of the emotionally harmful consequences associated with micro-aggressive behaviors. In reality, these behaviors are more that unfortunate displays of ignorance that create awkward interactions among peers. They cause harm and damage relationships, sometimes with no opportunity to repair.
Because we are conditioned to talking about emotional abuse in the context of intimate partnerships and parent-child dynamics, we may see it as a “stretch” to think about emotionally harmful workplace dynamics that result from racism. It also does not fit our paradigm of how we examine and determine what might be considered “racism.” Most of us still tend to think of racism as an insidious, heinous act of violence or discrimination of a few individuals- almost like an outlier. But, racist practices are connected to and supported through racist systems. One need not be a glaring racist or an obvious bigot to collude and benefit from such a system.
Here are just a few common characteristics of emotional abuse. These characteristics are often shared to help people assess whether they or a loved one are victims of emotional abuse, I thought it would be useful to address each as characteristics of emotional harm and present them within the context of racism in the workplace. This is not an exhaustive list as there are multiple signs of emotional abuse depending on the situation. To that end, each description provided is not the result of a research study (although that is a project of interest to me), but are anecdotal observations reflecting my work over the years with organizations. The overall intent is to be critical and push a deeper conversation about how organizational change work is more than an act of enlightenment or policy change. It also has to be about (1) re-building healthier connections with each. (2) learning ways that restore and repair broken connections, and (3) engaging in behavioral changes in ways that do not risk the emotional well-being of people of color in the process.
The silent treatment – In her book White Fragility, Robin DiAngelo speaks about the use of silence as a way White people use to avoid acknowledging the existence of racism. If we do not acknowledge it, we do not have to talk about it. “If I do not talk about it, I can avoid the risk of exposing my own racial biases.” The harm from silence can be even more profound when the organization as a whole has stated its commitment to equity. It leaves those who long for those discussions left feeling isolated or alone like they are on an island by themselves. It also leaves people feeling like they may violate an unspoken norm for attempting to address racism. Hint: unspoken norms that reinforce racism are real norms that that hurt the organization.
Refusing to accept responsibility – Resistance to change looks like attempts to make excuses for why you are “exempt” or why the topic of racism does not apply to you. This undermines the group from moving forward in any real and meaningful way. While it is possible to believe that we all lead with the best intentions of practicing equity, we still need to acknowledge our own privileges and power within the organization and society as whole. For example, it is harmful to suggest that your reading the latest books on anti-racism work absolves you from having to critically self-assess your day-to-day actions that impact your colleagues or team. This is also considered a deflection tactic. Instead of listening and engaging in the moment with the other person, more effort is put into offering other variables or intellectualizing in ways the minimize the other person’s experience.
Manipulating to get what you want – Manipulation in the workplace is sometimes about the fear over the threat to loss of power. There is fear and anxiety wrapped up in the idea that one may have to surrender or share their power. The “goal-post” continues to move away from equitable change. More energy is invested into finding ways to maintain current status quo power dynamics rather than being open to new processes that create equitable opportunities. Loss of control and the fear of not being seen as the person who “leads” the equity work is actually toxic. For the individual is fearful about losing power, they “display” their commitment to organizational change or equity, however, they find security in the culture remaining the same. This phenomenon leaves people feeling hopeless that real change will happen in their organization. This is also where many organizations get “stuck” in their equity work.
Pushing someone to question their sanity – As a person of color, I have often expressed my views about race and/or anti-racism work and recall receiving stares from white people that made me feel like I was not making sense. I’ve been told to “tone down my language.” The coded language of racism combined with the commitment to silence is a very exhausting dynamic. For people of color specifically, there is the struggle between confronting observations of racism denial (aka: color blindness) and trying to find logical explanations for the differential behaviors they are constantly presented with. When your perspective is incongruent to the culture itself, you feel isolated and you dis-engage or ultimately leave the organization.
Using shame to make a person feel bad – I believe this can happen several ways. But, shame and silence go hand in hand as we sometimes project the shame we feel inside onto others in ways that undermine our efforts to move past the silence. The other person feels “bad” for bringing up a difficult topic or is made to feel bad for wanting to engage in conversations about racism in the workplace when others appear complicit in their collective silence. This can be particularly harmful for White allies who are pushing to have real conversations about race.
Ignoring someone when they express deep feelings – Organizational change work requires a level of connection between people where they share emotionally challenging experiences (past or present). When others fail to validate what is said it sends a clear message that said person does not matter. Feeling like you do not matter in your place of work is hurtful. Through her work on Relational Cultural Theory, Judith Jordan speaks to this idea that people desire to feel connected and valued in their relationships with others. This includes the workplace.
It is plausible that racism (intended or not) is a factor in some unhealthy workplace dynamics. For most people of color, these dynamics may not be new at all. Some of us have faced these dynamics in grade school and/or college spaces. But our familiarity with it does not mean we do not continue to feel pain, exhaustion, or worse internalize the harm that comes with working in a racist working environment.
The solution to undoing the emotional harm and building a healthy, inclusive organizational culture involves multiple approaches. Of course policies and norms have to change. But at a basic human level, individuals have to change their behaviors. This starts with being willing to have difficult but reflective discussions about race and racism in real time. They also have to be willing to acknowledge the biases they have been taught from an early age, as these biases follow all of us, beyond high school, through college, and into the workplace. Another approach involves leaders encouraging and modeling self-care. Organizational change work is a heavy lift for all involved. It is not unreasonable to suggest that mental health counseling be sought by employees within organizations working to undo oppressive structures. In fact, I highly recommend individuals seek therapy with a trusted professional who is also comfortable confronting and processing with clients their experiences relating to racism and other forms of oppression. Clinical psychologist, Dr. Kameelah Rashad actively tweets about the need for mental health professionals to include in their assessment, intentional conversations of racism, oppression, and its intersection with a client’s emotional well-being.
The emotional harm of racism deeply and critically underscores the need to better understand and expose the nuanced relationship between individual change and systemic change within an organization. The current COVID-19 pandemic has further exacerbated this issue. Organizations are overwhelming forced to virtual working conditions. On its face this may call for discussions relating to adjusting work-life balance, but it also brings attention to the inequities already present in our organizational structures. These inequities are deeply felt and can cause additional stressors particularly to people of color and women in the organization.
As this mental health awareness month ends, the topic of racism and its harm remains at the forefront of everyone's mind as we watch the inequitable responses to the COVID-19 pandemic unfold. It is a constant reminder of two points: the weight of racism takes an emotional (and sometimes life-threatening) toll on the individual, and secondly, that our past efforts to bring attention to racial inequities across all organizations have barely scratched the surfaces. As long as those of us in leadership positions hold to these existing structures, we are inadvertently communicating the lack of concern and priority with creating equitable, inclusive, and supportive work cultures.
Kenya Minott is author of this post and co-founder of Full Circles Strategies. Follow Kenya on Twitter at @krminott
DiAngelo, R. (2018). White Fragility. Why it’s so hard for white people to talk about racism. Beacon Press: Boston.
Jordan, J. (2017). Relational-Cultural Theory: The power of connection to transform our lives. Journal of Humanistic Counseling, 56, 228-243.
Rashad, K. https://www.muslimwellness.com/ Twitter source: @kameelahrashad.
Stosny, S. 2018 (August 1). Subtle Signs of Emotional Abuse. Psychology Today. https://www.psychologytoday.com/us/blog/anger-in-the-age-entitlement/201808/subtle-signs-emotional-abuse