The frequent response I get when asking people of color, “how are you doing?” is “I’m surviving.” It’s accompanied by a deep sigh, a head shake, and shoulders dropping down. I proceed to get more understanding of what is causing that response and never failing, it goes something like this:
“It’s crazy here. I’m overworked, underappreciated, and not paid enough to do what I’m being asked to do. I’m undermined and questioned about doing my job. White people are watching over me, making decisions that I don’t support, but love me when it makes them look good and woke. But I gotta do this until I can figure my way out. This comes with the work, everyone is dealing with a lot right now.”
Me: “How are you really doing then? How’s your health, how’s your family?”
“Oh, it’s not good. I’ve been actually dealing with some health issues that I need to take care of. I’m definitely not eating well or caring for my body like I need to. It definitely is contributing to me not feeling well overall. I’m stressed and not sleeping well.
Me: “What are you going to do about it?”
This may be a conversation you know too well. Maybe it’s your colleagues, friends, or family. For me, these are people that I love. I have seen them sparkle with laughter and joy. I have been in awe of their brilliance when they’ve single-handedly saved lives with their compassion and problem-solving skills. I have witnessed their genius gifts and the ripple effects it has left on those touched by them. I have heard their desire to change the world for their community. I know deeply their self-sacrifice for their families and those they serve.
And they suffer.
All the amazingness I see is shadowed over at their jobs. They are limited by those that are often intimidated by their brilliance or who believe them to be inferior. Because let’s face it - they’re often surrounded by racist, sexist individuals who’ve made it there by playing out white supremacy cultural characteristics.
I have suffered at the hands of multiple systems, but the one that wreaks havoc on many of us daily is our workplace. These systems are made up of people who run them. So when you visualize the common phrase fight the system - please envision an individual having to fight a fortress of people. It is interactions, behaviors, and decisions of people that cause suffering day in and day out.
Let that sink in.
Because when you hear the overwhelming symphony of people claiming they support racial equity and inclusion, it is these very same people that continue to benefit and sustain these exclusive systems of oppression -- by their interactions with people of color, behaviors, and decisions. However, they often get away with their performative allyship by blaming the system themselves for the lack of outcomes and actions.
Let me paint the picture of some of these workplace relationships that contribute to “the overwhelm”:
It’s the supervisor who will listen to your authentic sharing of your personal experience as a person of color but won’t advocate for your needs to be supported by leadership.
It’s the co-worker that continuously asks you for your review of their work for the equity lens, but doesn’t ask why you’re not in attendance in meetings that affect your projects.
It’s being invisible in a meeting that you’ve been invited to, but your colleagues seem to be totally okay carrying on conversations and planning without your input.
It’s participating in team meetings and voicing challenges and solutions, but never having the follow-up actions taken by the team lead.
It’s sitting in organization-wide conversations reporting on the failure to our Black and Brown communities and the solution being “let’s talk about it, but only if you don’t upset anyone.”
It’s the continuous attrition of colleagues of color you cared about that have had enough of being treated poorly and feeling isolated.
It’s being asked to take on the work of another without an increase in pay or support for other duties while watching white colleagues somehow stay protected from taking on more work or given promotional opportunities.
It’s being asked to lead conversations and training about race, but being told you don’t have enough experience to be promoted or you are not the right fit.
It’s your ideas being shut down but later being picked up and credited to someone else.
It’s being asked by your leadership about your work production and never asked “How can I do better to support you?”
It’s being the receiver of aggressive racist behavior and no one around doing anything to stand up for you.
I’m overwhelmed just writing this damn list, and it’s not comprehensive. It’s easily a list of what one person may experience in 1 workweek. I think at first glance, and definitely from the perspective of a person that is not racially conscious, one could just blame this on poor management. I know before I became racially conscious, that is exactly what I did. I didn’t understand that my very existence in systems of oppression was causing “the overwhelm” leading to me running out of the job and seeking greener pastures somewhere else (which don’t exist).
This overwhelming feeling of not being well in the job was something I could not express. I couldn’t put my finger on it. I was frustrated. I was exhausted. I was anxious on Sundays and counting down the hours to 5 pm each day. I would often get to points of being sickly with my health suffering from stomach problems, painful joints, headaches, and strained muscles. I was a stressed-out mommy and partner at home, too tired and emotionally drained, unable to really be present to my family.
I was suffering. I was unwell. My body, mind, and spirit were not okay.
This is “the overwhelm” and understanding the environmental factors that contribute to it vis-à-vis people is only part 1. We must do something to stop “the overwhelm”. We do not need to suffer, especially for the benefit of those already holding power. You do not need to suffer. Suffering is not a requirement to have a better life. Suffering is not required to be in service to the community. That’s a lie we’ve been fed. Our ancestors sacrificed for our survival, not for our continued suffering.
In Part 2 we’ll get into the power of rest and reflection as the beginning of the healing process to stop “the overwhelm” and how we stop the narrative and participation in working ourselves to death.
For now, I would check in with yourself and ask, “Am I okay with the overwhelm?”
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