This is the podcast adaptation of the second episode of The Break Room! Part of the Living Corporate network, The Break Room is a live web show focused on mental health, wellness and healing for Black folks at work. You can expect real talk from real experts about the real ways Black folks can protect and heal themselves from racialized trauma at work. Led by four independent mental health clinicians and researchers, each host brings their unique style and perspective to the nuanced and complex visible and invisible forces that impact Black mental health and well-being in the workplace. Tune in every Thursday at 7PM Central!
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Dr. Hill: We’re talking about, it is levels to this – 2020 while Black. Now, everybody experienced 2020, and it was hard for everybody, but Black folks I think we can all collectively agree experienced 2020 in a very different way, in a very unique way, because we got levels on top of levels on top of levels on top of levels, and we’re going to pause to really talk about what those levels are and unpack them and the ways in which it impacted us as a collective. So today I’m going to kick it over to you. Give us a snapshot into what it was like for Black folks in 2020.
Dr. Jide: Thank you so much. So we’ve all been dealing with this pandemic all together, and as Dr. LaWanda said, 2020 was a year that was hard for everybody. I don’t want to take that away from anybody, but it definitely hit Black people differently. So right now I’m just going to run you through some stats just so you can kind of get an idea of what 2020 was like and actually what things are still kind of like, because this isn’t over yet. So as of today–I’ve just got this on the New York Times right before this–more than 470,000 Americans have died from the coronavirus. Okay? And there have been more than 27 million reported cases all across the country, and it has had a disproportionate impact on people. So in comparison to white folk, Black people [are] four times more likely to be hospitalized, three times more likely to die. Hispanic and native folk compared to white folks, four times more likely to be hospitalized, three times more likely to die, and that’s just–we’re talking strictly on health. We’re talking about getting hospitalized, dying. We’re not talking about the rest of the issues that COVID will impact your body with for the rest of your life for a lot of people. There are people who still don’t have their smell back, their sense of taste back after months. So this is just hospitalizations and deaths, and it’s impacted so many different facets of our life. So thinking about education, schools went virtual overnight. So a lot of us are educators at institutions. Some day in March we went to work and then they just said, “Don’t come back,” and we haven’t been back, and this has been especially hit for K-12. So students lost months of learning, I think it was, like, about three months of learning for students in K-12, about five for Black and Latino students, lost months of learning. Now, there’s a broader question about what that actually means and what we should care about for our children, but by these standards still Black and brown and low income children are hit worse. Healthcare; hospitals are overburdened. Doctors are stressed. Nurses are stressed. There’s not enough protective equipment to make sure that everybody’s safe. In LA County just in December there were 0% of ICU beds available. Think about that. Anything happens to you, you’re walking down the street and you fall, big deal, and the big, big one, and that’s what we’re talking about here in The Break Room, employment. So between February 2020 and December 2020, 5.4 million women lost jobs, 4.4 million men lost jobs, and the unemployment rate right now for Latinas [is its?] highest at 9% unemployment, Black women right next at 8%, and Black men always have the highest rates of unemployment. So this has really just impacted, once again, everybody in a certain way, but Black people the most. So right now we want to take this time to talk about that. So how has coronavirus and this pandemic impacted work expectations for you and for you as a Black person?
Dr. Hill: That’s good. That’s good, and we would love to hear from you all to really talk about that because I felt and still do feel very strongly about work expectations in light of being Black, as we’re living through COVID-19, because as you said, Dr. Jide, you just listed stats that, like, that’s not theory, y’all. I want you to take that from a theoretical perspective and make that practical, because as a clinician, I can’t tell you how many of my clients, parents, grandparents, aunts, uncles, cousins, sisters, brothers, were those people disproportionately laid off, unemployed, impacted by COVID, in ICU or, God forbid, they lost them to death, who had children, whose children were now automatically moved to virtual school. All of that shit is real, and then on top of that these people were working professionals still having to go to work and perform, many of which–don’t get me started–are in anti-Black, hostile work environments who have no idea the levels to the impact of COVID on Black folks specifically. I’m going to throw this one in just for a fun fact, that we forget that we’re also moving through this time where the world was coming to their racial reckoning. Everybody wanted to know how they could be an ally and how they could be supportive and “Oh, my God, I see you.” So it was stressful to say the least, it was anxiety provoking to say the least, it was impacting our motivation to say the least, and we still had to go to work.
Dr. Hill: For me, I don’t know about you all, I want to hear your thoughts, but for me, I was like, “I have a Black card.” I’m pulling my Black card anytime some shit happened or went down. Breonna Taylor’s murderer got off? Not going to work. Oh, they killed somebody else in L.A.? Not going to work. Y’all paralyzed this man? Not going to work. The expectation that I have for myself, I don’t know if my employers had it, but the expectation I have for myself is like, “I can’t work under these conditions. I can’t meet my same level of functioning prior to all of this.”
Dr. Jide: How are we supposed to?
Dr. Dixon: Yes, I agree. Especially because of a stress reaction, a trauma reaction is a trauma reaction. So I mean, put your body into fight or flight, and you’re not going to be able to focus and concentrate on things, and yes, that includes work, and that includes being a functioning human being, and for me I kind of bridge both worlds because I teach part-time over at a medical school and yes, the work was still coming and I still had to jump on Zoom calls and be entertaining and shuck and jive and do what I needed to do to make sure the lecture went through, because Lord knows we don’t want any bad evaluations, which is a whole other podcast all by itself, but from the world of the entrepreneur… So as a Black entrepreneur, I had to try to stay five steps ahead of whatever was happening, not knowing what was going to be happening, because if I didn’t think of a policy, if I didn’t have enough hand sanitizer and my employees went to work and somebody got sick, that’s my ass on the line, but not only am I having to see patients and do what I do there, but I’m also having to try my best to support employees, keep them informed of everything going on. I mean, it was a shit show. It was a lot. I’m proud of my company that we were able to get through that and kind of grow from the experience, but I am tired. The compassion fatigue right now is real.
Dr. Hill: So real. So real. What about you, Dr. Jide? Do you feel like the expectations of your productivity was considered? Do you think it wasn’t considered, or did you do have it for yourself?
Dr. Jide: You know, I definitely–I mean, in general my personal feelings, which is nobody should be going to work right now. As far as I’m concerned we’re living in the world of the walking dead, and there are zombies around, and the zombie is coronavirus, and there are zombies around, and we need to be hunkering down and focusing on our family and our friends. That’s just me. That obviously didn’t happen.
Dr. Hill: Not in this capitalism.
Dr. Jide: Not in this country, but for me, I’m lucky, and I always acknowledge that I’m a man and I have certain privileges that that grants me. I take my space. If I can’t do it, sorry, I can’t do it. I’m not going to this meeting.
Dr. Hill: Even if I can. Listen, I acknowledge my privilege as well as a female professional, doctorate level educated, working as an entrepreneur and also at an Ivy [League school?] who goes above and beyond to accommodate people who are used to being accommodated and I have a privilege to be like, “Nah, I’m not going to be able to do that,” or I am overwhelmed or I can feel the anxiety in my body or I can feel the impact. Who can show up for work when you just watched one of your brothers and sisters being murdered, literally?
Dr. Jide: Over and over, and that’s the part, over and over and over and over, and it’s probably happening right now.
Dr. Dixon: It is happening right now. We just don’t see it.
Dr. Hill: Which is called, by the way, vicarious trauma, and you talked about this earlier, Dr. Dixon, of the trauma response, like, yes, we are humans who are moving through the world, and when we perceive threats, which Black folks in 2020 perceived a whole lot of them, that fight or flight or freeze was activated often over and over again, because we experienced vicarious trauma, because we experienced some trauma reactions, and yes, Rashida, [?] go down a day where we say we had another, it didn’t stop. It didn’t stop when we started 2021, and so what I can say that I can truly appreciate about at least my supervisor and my boss [is] that she’s always been conscious of that, and my team really [is] like, “Take the time that you need, take a step back,” and that has given me time to attend to my mental health and wellness, but I just want to illuminate the fact that I don’t think that’s the reality for everybody and that that has had an impact.
Dr. Jide: There are people–once again, I’m lucky. I’m a professor. My job was easily moved virtually – just teach online. There are people who have never missed a day of work, and then since this whole thing started, well, it was just another day for them, and I just think about that a lot and how it must have must affect them.
Dr. Dixon: I know I speak also from a position of privilege. The thing that bothers me and kind of [?] though is that we have the ability to have every kid be virtual. We do have that ability. We have the money to do that and we chose not to, because the economic racism, economic inequalities, our kids are getting left behind even faster than other kids are. I saw this not only in in real time as I’m working with parents and they’re like, “I have to go to work, and I can’t sit and help so-and-so with their reading because I just don’t have time,” and we should be ashamed as a country that we don’t have basically universal internet access, and I think that one silver lining that comes out of this horrible COVID tragedy is that work from home is going to be the standard. I think that we should also cut down on how many damn days of work that we do work. A five-day work week is dumb, y’all.
Dr. Jide: Real dumb.
Dr. Hill: It’s hella dumb, and I completely agree with you because I was thinking about that, like, okay, so we know that it’s feasible, academia and telemedicine, we know that it’s feasible, and we know that it’s having some level of positive impact on people’s mental health, being able to engage with their family, being more present. So what are you all going to do on the other side of this?
Dr. Dixon: It blows my mind. I mean, it’s the most interesting, strange experiment, like, a real time experiment that’s going on. Unfortunately, again, we came into the pandemic with less money and less wealth, and so we’re playing catch up and paying our Black tax even more. But I am hopeful. I am so hopeful for Black folks. I’ve connected with you all on Twitter. Being able to connect like this all over the country, the Renaissance is coming and I can’t wait. It is going to be badass.
Dr. Hill: The Renaissance is here, and I think that that’s a good pivot to engage those of our followers who are listening. It’s like that Black tax, what has the Black tax been like for you all specifically in your work environment, in your home environment, having to move through 2020 while Black? I know that there are so many different levels. What has been that Black tax and what are the levels to it? I know for certain I can pop us off, and I would love for the co-hosts to follow and then we can all talk about it. The Black tax for me has been, as an extrovert whose mental health is maintained by social relationships, whose motivation and inspiration and vision comes from being inspired by the most brilliant minds, I love to be around people who [?] in me, because then I could feel inspired, and that having to come to a halt or being interrupted because of COVID and because of the administration failing to properly attend to it, that has had significant impact on just my well-being, because people are partnered, they have family, they are family. They move. We all move through this 2020 in very different ways. Then for me, not having that social engagement with the level of Black tax, that I probably felt the most. Despite my privileges, that Black tax, you couldn’t take away that Black tax. California was locked down, we were locked down, so I felt that Black tax, for sure.
Dr. Dixon: Well, I’m going to jump in here, because one Black tax that I felt–so we knew that PPP loans were coming out, so these are basically free money that everybody and their mama [got] except for Black folks, myself included, to the point where when I go to apply for a loan and I am talking to my banker and he’s like, “Yes, I don’t know why they’re asking for such and such form. Hopefully you have QuickBooks because in order to know what this form is, you need to know somebody who knows somebody who knows somebody.” I jumped, y’all. When I say I jumped through some damn hoops, I jumped through some hoops for that first one, and I thought to myself, “I have no idea how any other company, especially if you’re a solo agent, if you’re doing stuff by yourself, I have no idea how they’re ever going to get any money,” and then of course the research shows that Black folks didn’t get hardly anything out of the first round of loans. So my Black tax is number one, knowing that my fellow people who look like me are getting screwed over by a system that is supposed to be helping them again, and it failed again. So now for me my goal is to try to educate and support as many people as I can to go get free money while they can.
Dr. Jide: Thank you. Thank you for sharing. I always think about how this year has affected us, just for how it’s affected my kids mostly. Like I said, I have two kids, and I feel like they have suffered the most, they have suffered the most. All the time, you have kids and you’re taking care of them and you do everything for them. You do their laundry, you clean for them, you cook for them, you XYZ, and you’re just like, “They have it so easy,” but I was driving with my wife the other day and I was like, “Man, they have it so easy,” and she was like, “When you were a kid, did you have a pandemic and you weren’t allowed to see your friends for a year?” And I was like, “Let me shut my ass up.” So I definitely feel like they’ve suffered the most.
Dr. Hill: They have. My brother often—and he talks about, like, “I don’t have children, so I don’t get a chance to bear witness to it up front and close, and then the students that I do work with, I can see the remnants of it because some of them are, like, first year students, first year graduate students, and they’re super excited, but that’s been put on hold.” So I think it’s important to kind of really pause and understand the impact that is being experienced by the children right now.
Dr. Jide: Absolutely, and one of our listeners put what their Black tax was, which I think was really well-written. Rashada said “My Black tax was knowing that my feelings of anger, frustration and exhaustion were valid, but still feeling the need to police my expression of those feelings. That’s the Black experience.”
Dr. Hill: That is the Black experience, and there’s a question too that I want to get to, but I think that that policing, even that has layers to it, feeling like we cannot express ourselves and our anger because we are in these spaces that are anti-Black or not understanding. They have pathologized our anger, or they have become fearful of our anger, wanting to make it become more comfortable for them, not even experiencing the things that are infuriating us, and I think that that is definitely, Rashada, a Black tax, and I definitely understand. So let’s take this question. I’m going to pose it to Dr. Jide and Dr. Dixon, see if we can weigh in. It says “Dr. LaWanda mentioned having a great relationship with her boss, which helped, I do as well, but understand that this is not the norm. What tips do you have for fostering that type of relationship, and also any tips for how to cope with managers who aren’t supportive?” And I think that’s a very, very good question.
Dr. Jide: That is a really good question.
Dr. Dixon: That is a really good question. Kind of a hard question.
Dr. Jide: My first thought is that I hate playing games. You know what I’m saying? I like to just be direct, XYZ, but I live in the real world and I live here. You have a boss. Just a little bit, just a little bit, play the nice game. Play the sweet game. Bring some chocolates if they like chocolates. [Buy them?] a beer at happy hour. That stuff is silly, but it makes a difference. It’s just true. It makes a difference. You want your boss to like you, so my first thought would be play the game a little bit. Don’t sell your soul, but play the game. Be nice. Stay in contact with them. I’d say that’s probably the most important thing. Don’t be the kind of person who’s detached from your boss. Be somebody who is attached to your boss so they know where you are, know where you stand. That’s my advice.
Dr. Dixon: I would throw out–I’m not sure how nice I can be, so this is why I work for myself, let me give that disclaimer, most of my salary comes from my direct whatever I’m doing, but I do currently have kind of a partial boss–I guess what I’d throw out to you is what we tell kids all the time, “If you want to have a friend, be a friend.” So be friendly, but like Dr. Jide said, don’t sell yourself short and don’t be inauthentic because that’ll just wear your ass out. You’ll just burn out even faster, and one of the tips that I use, my mom always said “Be nice to people even if you don’t agree with them, even if you don’t like them. Just be nice,” and so that’s my general tactic, and then your job is not you. So at the end of the day, make sure that you know where you end and your job begins. Don’t lose yourself, because if you lose yourself all sorts of stuff will happen. So that’s kind of how I keep my sanity.
Dr. Jide: Might not be able to get yourself back if you lose yourself.
Dr. Dixon: Preach.
Dr. Hill: You all are probably going to see this for the whole show. I like to practice on the opposite end of the spectrum, which I think is a really good balance, because maybe you can find yourself somewhere in the middle. I am a proponent of–I love everything both you just said, but I also don’t know how nice I can be because it’s hard for me to mask my authentic reactions to people, mainly to my boss. So what I always say is that I am a proponent of radical honest communication, and that doesn’t have to be rude. That can be very kind, that could be very soft or it could be assertive, but I am a proponent of radical communication. Here’s why – if you’re trying to build a relationship with a boss, with someone, then I want to know that I can show up as my professional self in this relationship and not have to perform. It’s not sustainable [unless?] there’s general interest from both parties for us to be able to cultivate a working relationship. If I got to do too much buying you beers and being kind and all of that, then that tells me that that’s probably not the way I’m going to go. And I will acknowledge that I too am an entrepreneur, so in the back of my mind is “If this shit don’t work out, I can always [inaudible :34] at the end of the day,” but I do want to be very honest and forthcoming about how I’m feeling and share that with my boss, and there can be tactful ways in which you can do that and see if they’re open and amenable to being able to hear that feedback. That’s going to tell you all you need to know. That’s going to tell you how you need to pivot, if you do need to tiptoe, if you do need to be more open, if you can be transparent. But I just believe in giving people the opportunity to be honest with themselves and then giving that person who you need to be honest with the opportunity to receive it in a good way, in a way that they will give you information, you know what I mean? So that would be my tip to your question.
Dr. Jide: That’s a great point. Can I add to that? What you said just made me think of something. It’s also the boss’s responsibility to have a good relationship with you. They’re the boss. There’s an inherent power differential, right? Like, I’m a parent, I have kids. I can’t be mad at my kids for too long. I have to always be the one to be like, “All right, come on. Eat your dinner. Come on, let’s do X, Y, Z,” because I have the power. I‘m the older one. If you’re the boss, it’s your responsibility to have a good relationship with your workers and see how you can work with them and make them feel comfortable, make them feel supported.
Dr. Hill: So that’s important to assess, and I love that extra point because that’s important to assess if you do have the autonomy or if you are thinking about pivoting or moving out. I don’t want to promote any Black people being in a toxic environment that’s going to tear them down farther than they already are going to be torn down just by virtue of being Black in America. So I don’t want that to be the extra burden of like, “I need to make my boss like me,” or what have you. So I think that’s something that could at least be considered. We may not always have the means and the privileges and the opportunities to act on it, but I definitely think it’s something that we need to be considering. Once my boss [?], did they understand the expectations of me during COVID? Did they consider that? Are they trying to have a positive relationship with me? Are they mindful of my mental health or not? So I hope that answers for you, Rashada. That was a very layered answer, but we want it to be comprehensive.
Dr. Jide: Thank you, it was a great question.
Dr. Dixon: Absolutely.
Dr. Hill: I think this is a perfect pivot, as we’re talking about bosses, empowering differentials and owning that, often times this is our last segment, which I really like, The Last Nerve, where we talk about who or what got on our damn last nerve on the job. A lot of times they do come from your bosses, it can come from colleagues or both, but I think we want to spend some time tonight talking about what was the last nerve that got hit this week, and I think that Dr. Dixon’s got the last nerve.
Dr. Dixon: Yes, I do. So this is my opportunity. I’m going to vent a little bit, and my goal is to hopefully bring it back so that we have a productive conclusion, something that you all can take away from this message. My dad’s a preacher, I’m going to try not to [inaudible :42]. Well, then the other thing, because keeping preachers in mind, I’m also going to give myself a little timer. So I’m going to set a timer for 1 minute. I‘m going to try in one minute to get it all, in one minute, and then as we have more Last Nerves, as our podcast series goes along, we’ll get even better at it. So I’m going to set my alarm and let’s see what happens. So today I’m going to talk about the abuse of power. So that is my topic today, because that is my last nerve. So I just spent most of the day watching the impeachment trial. I am working in systems that are majority white male oriented because I work in medicine. I’m looking at school districts that are run by majority white male and white female people, and I do not appreciate abuse of power. If you have a fiduciary responsibility, meaning you have a responsibility to the people that you serve in those roles–because we are in a service industry, education is a service industry, medicine is a service industry, government is a service industry–you have a responsibility to those people, and you need to uphold that responsibility, and it is unfair to do anything else. You do not get to put yourself first, and if you don’t want the job, then don’t do the job. It really is that easy. There are some folks that I know I can’t work with, but it’s still my responsibility to let them know what their options are as their physician, whether we disagree on vaccines, which again, I think they’re good. Some people don’t, but that’s okay. I’m going to give you informed consent. That is my responsibility. You know what, I’m going to go over this. We are going to change that. It’s going to be a minute and a half to two minutes the next time. So I have a responsibility to tell you what your options are and you get to choose what you want to do. Educators should be staying up overnight to make sure that our kids are being taken care of. This vaccine rollout, whether you believe in it or not–again, I do–it should be 24/7. If you want a shot, you should get a shot. That’s how it should be. We should all be using our fiduciary and our responsibility as people in power to affect large global change, and so that is my Last Nerve this week. So my takeaway that I want you all to take away is that when you’re in the position of power, do what’s right. You know what’s right, your mom and your daddy, your grandma, they taught you do what’s right. That’s called integrity. So have integrity about the process, and that’s all I got for the evening.
Dr. Hill: Listen, can they pass around the offering? Because I have an offering, and we can open up the doors of the church. That was amazing. Thank you so much, Dr. Dixon, for that Last Nerve. We really appreciate you for offering that Last Nerve because that’s important to underscore, and I don’t want that to get lost. When you sign up for service industries, which we are in, when you sign up to do what you pledge to do, have some integrity, and integrity in layman’s terms is what you’re supposed to do when there is nobody looking, and [as?] I said, ain’t nobody looking, and you cannot abuse that power because that’s not what you signed up for. There are so many people counting on you, depending on you, and that has several implications, and you know what, because I am spiritual up in here, [?] onto you because justice will be served. It may be delayed, but it won’t be denied, and you can dance on Mary’s Little Lamb right there, [but] that justice will be delayed, but it won’t be denied. So let me calm down, because Dr. Dixon got me all fired up, and I’m going to be zen. Thank you all so much for engaging with us and coming to The Break Room. This is the space where we come, we gather, we center Black folks, Black professionals, Black wellness, and we will be back next week, same time, same place.
Dr. Dixon: Thanks, y’all.
Dr. Hill: See y’all.