This is the podcast adaptation of the third 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. The Break Room provides dynamic insight, education, and consultation on mental health for Black professionals. 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. Nikki Coleman: Welcome back to The Break Room. Welcome. As a reminder, I am one of four illustrious co-hosts, and my name is Dr. Nikki Coleman. I am a counseling psychologist here in the city of Houston, Texas, and today I am fortunate enough to have with me my other co-host.
Dr. Brian Dixon: I’m Dr. Brian Dixon. I’m a psychiatrist up in Fort Worth, Texas. I do a lot of different things, but one of my main goals is to help people feel better, especially Black folks. So I’m looking forward to the awesome conversation today. So, thank you, Dr. Nikki.
Dr. Nikki Coleman: I’m so excited. Now, today is our last episode in the month of February. And as we all know, February is the Blackest, Blackity, Black Black month that we get all year. We Black all year, but February is extra, extra, extra Black, and so to wrap up our Black History Month, we wanted to spend our time talking about Black excellence. We want to celebrate Black excellence and talk about all of the amazing, wonderful things that we do just by being. And then we also want to talk a little bit about what I’d like to call the shadow side. So we are calling this episode, Black Excellence: The Double-Edged Sword because we want to acknowledge that for everything that exists, there’s always sort of a dark side or an opposite side. So we want to sort of do both ends today, and we’re going to jump into that in a minute, but before we get into that, we want to spill the tea. I feel like I need to have a little tea cup. I’m going to have to get me a proper tea cup. Look at you.
Dr. Brian Dixon: Yes. This is Cherry Coke. I don’t know if this counts for tea.
Dr. Nikki Coleman: You’re in The Break Room. Some people get soda in the break room, some people get coffee, some people get tea.
Dr. Brian Dixon: There you go.
Dr. Nikki Coleman: Some people drink for the health conscious of us. So you sip on what you’re going to sip on in The Break Room.
Dr. Brian Dixon: I love it. Well, so one of the great things about the tea today. So, this is actually from a few weeks ago since we’re talking about Black excellence, we elected our first Black and female vice-president. So, Kamala Harris, Madam Vice President Kamala Harris, is an icon, and só one of the controversies that came up was the Vogue covers. I don’t know if you all remember this, but during most photo shoots, you do lots of clothing changes to see which one gives you the best pictures. And só there was a picture of our Madam Vice President who was in her suit, and then she was in her kicks, her Converse and super casual with I think the A.K.A. colors behind her, I think, if I remember correctly, the green and the pink, and then the other photo was, like, gold and very stately, and she was wearing her powder blue suit, standing in a power pose, but also very accessible, and the controversy was they leaked and/or tried to put out the first cover where she was more casual. And what does that say about her? What does that say about us as a Black culture that our first picture of the first Black Madam Vice President is her in kicks and casual. And so I’d love to hear what you think of that. Dr. Nikki. I’ll throw out my opinions in a little bit.
Dr. Nikki Coleman: So I had a friend ask me years and years ago–you know the phrase, and I think Black people say this a lot–they used to say “You have to know how to play the game. You have to know how to play the game. You have to know how to excel or how to move or how to navigate.” And she was like, “Is it a game or is it a set up?” Because if they’re constantly changing the rules or the rules only apply to them, is it really a game? And so I think about that. Like, that’s the setup, right? Yes. she has made it that far. I mean, even when she got the nomination, the foolishness started.
Dr. Brian Dixon: Absolutely.
Dr. Nikki Coleman: The foolishness, something started, right. The calling her out [?] her name started. All of that.
Dr. Brian Dixon: Mispronouncing her name started.
Dr. Nikki Coleman: Mispronouncing her name, like, “Oh, it’s so hard,” like, this phonetic. Did you learn your phonics? Maybe not, probably not. You probably had somebody do that for you, but still. And so for me, it’s just part of all the little coded ways that they take every opportunity to diminish our shine. Like, that is sort of priority number one. I will give some of them the benefit of the doubt. It’s not always conscious. Like, I bet if you ask that photographer why she chose that pose, she could tell you all about the aesthetic and what she was thinking about and how she’s been known and she’s such a relatable character and blah, blah, blah, blah, right, without ever thinking about, “But there’s a whole other story that’s being told.”
Dr. Brian Dixon: Yes. That’s one of the things that bothers me actually the most about this whole debacle, is that if if the person in charge of putting the information out there–so this is Vogue. This is, like, a big deal, a BFD, a big freaking deal, and if she’s not conscious of what’s going on, then there is no hope for the curators, the people who curate the information that goes in and out. So editors of newspapers, editors of magazines, editors on TV, if they’re not being conscious about how things are going to be perceived, then we’re all screwed. So yes, I was very irritated that they chose to do that. The other thing is, at the end of the day, I mean, it’s your damn paper. You’re in charge of what goes in and out. Why are people leaking anything? I mean, come on, y’all.
Dr. Nikki Coleman: Right. Send this back. This shouldn’t see the light of day.
Dr. Brian Dixon: I agree. This is what I go by. Do you know any tea about Beyonce Gisele Knowles Carter? No. You don’t know nothing about her personal life.
Dr. Brian Dixon: Nothing. If Beyonce Gisele Knowles Carter can keep her life out the light–now we don’t know nothing about them kids. You don’t know nothing about what they eat for dinner. None of that.
Dr. Brian Dixon: Nope.
Dr. Nikki Coleman: They can keep that whole camp on lockdown. Surely that’s the standard we can all set for ourselves.
Dr. Brian Dixon: Thank you.
Dr. Nikki Coleman: That is what I say about the setup. And there’s always justification, right? And the justification always happens before the weak-willed apology, and the apology is always sort of reactive. It’s never proactive.
Dr. Brian Dixon: Never proactive, ever. So one of the reasons why I’m wearing this white man on my shirt–so let me get the odd thing out of the room, because I like to be a provocator. So what you see you believe. When I was growing up–so I’m 40 and some change at this point, it feels like I’m, like, 57 after last week, which we going to get to a little bit later on.
Dr. Nikki Coleman: We’re saving it up.
Dr. Brian Dixon: Yes. We’ll get there. And so, I have He-Man, the master of the universe. So I grew up hearing that there’s this white dude who has big biceps and is cut like steel and he’s the master of the universe. And so that’s what I grew up believing. Right? I don’t believe that there’s a Black guy who’s a master of the universe because I don’t see it. And so whenever you have magazine covers like this, people have to be more sensitive, more thoughtful, because you could literally be changing a generation of kids or a generation of people’s belief in themselves. And so yes, I tried my best to stay off Twitter and out of that argument, but yes, that got me. That hurt my feelings.
Dr. Nikki Coleman: Yes. I mean, so I say representation matters, right? It’s like we say that sort of–it’s become a catchphrase, but it is deeply, deeply true. So I’ll just share really quickly. So my version was there was a portion of my life where I wanted to be an astronaut because I grew up watching Star Trek and Lieutenant Uhura. I was like, “Oh, my God, she’s so fly. Look at this little short dress she’s wearing. She’s still killing it. They can’t talk to none of the aliens without her. She has her little calls on her ear.” I was like, “I want to be an astronaut, and I’m going to be the next Lieutenant Uhura.” That was my childhood imagination of, like, how to do that. But it does matter, and so much that it mattered that on inauguration day I didn’t keep my daughter at home. I know some people actually made that choice or some kids are still at home. I’m fortunate to be able to send my child to a COVID-safe space for school. But the last part where they were sort of doing the walking parade and before, and there was the HQ band that was going to walk her in, I was like breaking our necks trying to get home so we could see it. And it was–it was a moment. It was a moment. And my daughter’s like, “Mommy, she looks like me. She’s the same kind of brown as me.” Like, that absolutely matters. We can talk about her policies and politics and all of that stuff, but the vision matters, right?
Dr. Brian Dixon: Amen.
Dr. Nikki Coleman: She shouldn’t have been short shifted by any means.
Dr. Brian Dixon: Yes. Preach. Per-reach.
Dr. Nikki Coleman: So I actually think this is a really great segue into our topic about Black excellence, because here’s what I say, that any Black woman on her worst day is 100 times better than a mediocre white man on his best day.
Dr. Brian Dixon: Okay.
Dr. Nikki Coleman: On her worst day is better than any mediocre white man on his best day. So that’s why I find that issue with Vice President Harris particularly dismissive, because we know what she has done to get to that place.
Dr. Brian Dixon: Absolutely.
Dr. Nikki Coleman: You have to be the best of the best of the best of the best of the best. You’re not showing up janky, not one day. You’re not taking no day off.
Dr. Brian Dixon: No crust in the eyes.
Dr. Nikki Coleman: And that’s it. Hair laid, makeup, you have to do all the things, because there’s that intersection of woman and Blackness. It has to be all the things at all the times. And so we give her credit where we know for her intellectual prowess and her savvy, her speaking skills. I imagine that she was a bomb prosecutor, because I’ve seen her in some of these Senate hearings.
Dr. Brian Dixon: Absolutely. Yes, ma’am. Yes, ma’am.
Dr. Nikki Coleman: We know that doesn’t come with threats, and that is part of sort of that double-edged sword around Black excellence. I truly believe that when we say Black girl magic, I believe it. It’s some refined particles of, like, fairy dust in our DNA, and I say that for Black people in general. Several years ago, I had the great fortune to go, in the same span of the summer, go to the Civil Rights Museum in Memphis and then go to the African-American History of Culture Museum in Washington, DC, and even as a person who’s aware of the brilliance and resilience and might and strengths and fortitude of Black people–I knew that going in. I’m not ignorant about our history–but for me to sort of see those two moments in time and the way that our story has been encapsulated, I was like, “Oh, we have to be magic.”
Dr. Brian Dixon: Absolutely.
Dr. Nikki Coleman: Like, literally, I can’t imagine any other people not just surviving all that we’ve survived, but to be at a place where we thrive, where we literally excel.
Dr. Brian Dixon: Yes.
Dr. Nikki Coleman: Just when we show up in the building.
Dr. Brian Dixon: Preach.
Dr. Nikki Coleman: And I find that absolutely astounding and amazing. That is a message that I have sort of taught my daughter, and I talk to her about the fact that she was in my mother’s womb when I was in my mother’s womb. Like, you were a seed of a seed of a seed. You have come from a long line of people that have chosen life and resilience and being their best selves, and that is in you, and no one can ever take that away from you.
Dr. Brian Dixon: Amen.
Dr. Nikki Coleman: Because we have to believe that. Bedrock believe it.
Dr. Brian Dixon: I love it. And I would take it even further. So believe it, and then choose it. So Black excellence is a choice. Right?
Dr. Nikki Coleman: Yes.
Dr. Brian Dixon: And I love exactly what you’re saying, because we could have chosen to despair. We could have chosen to be like, “Screw this shit. I’m done. I’m going to start blowing stuff up and doing all sorts of stuff.” We could have chosen that.
Dr. Nikki Coleman: Because we lost things. By golly, we lost. We can’t have lost. We must have been cheated.
Dr. Brian Dixon: Yes. And we could have done that, but we chose not to. We chose to believe that there’s a higher calling, that there’s a higher power, that there’s something better we can build from the awful, just shit sandwich that we get pretty much every single day. We choose to do better. And so, yes. I love it. And I love the seed of a seed of a seed. Amen, sister. Preach.
Dr. Nikki Coleman: Yes. And so someone put in here about Simone Biles and the Vogue cover that she had, which was a whole other debacle, but there was also this article that’s actually old, but it’s been re-circulating, about how they’ve actually changed the rules. This comes back to the setup. So we look at Simone Biles and her prowess as a gymnast, and she created this move known as the Biles, and it was rated at a certain difficulty, but since couldn’t nobody else pull it off, they dropped the difficulty of it to give people the opportunity to still get their scores up. When I read that I wanted to, like, flip some tables over, because that baby girl just got up and she was like, “You can’t tell me I can’t do a triple quad or whatever whatever because it’s in me, I can do it. Oh, you can? Sorry.” But because of white supremacy, the capacity to then dictate reality, shape reality, create the structures and policies to reinforce that reality, they’re constantly changing the game. Right?
Dr. Brian Dixon: Yes. Same thing with figure skating and I completely went… So the Black athlete out of France, Surya Bonaly. So she could do backflips on the ice and they were like, “Oh, no, no, no, no, no, you can’t do that,” and she’s like, “I know what I’m doing, and I do it all the time, and it’s really awesome,” and then they started to actually penalize her for doing something that other people couldn’t do. Yes. Hot mess.
Dr. Nikki Coleman: That makes me mad. And so related to part of that, I think, I do believe there’s lots of us that comes along in the world. I talked about this with another colleague. Sometimes you’ll be doing stuff at work or in your profession and people are like, “Oh, my God, that’s amazing.” Oh, “I ain’t even put that together.” Now you realize on the inside, like that just real regular schmegular. Like, it just kind of came to me.
Dr. Brian Dixon: Yes. That’s one of the things that happens to me all the time, and I talk to people and I help them feel better, and they’re like, “Oh, my God, thank you for talking to me.” You’re really good at this. And I’m like, “Yes.”
Dr. Nikki Coleman: So we need to take time out to praise ourselves and really choose that to sit in, affirm ourselves for that. And like Dr. LaWanda is saying to the chatroom, it’d be basic and they’d be like mind-blown. Our baseline is bomb. That’s just sort of what I believe in. And then we also recognize that because it is a set up and there are structures and policies and always recreated policies, additional rules put in place to help sort of put a cap on that, to limit that, what happens is we know we do have to navigate and move differently. We have to move through the system differently just for our brilliance to be acknowledged, just for us to sort of even be seen. It’s not even for us to even be seen on par, but it’s to give them the opportunity to be able to keep up with us. It’s a constant sort of cap, and in order for us to continue to stay in the spaces where we elevate to or work up to higher levels of power and access, it requires this whole level of conscious awareness about how to navigate that. What that means, who to talk to, what not to say, “Let me not talk too loud, let me not put too much bass in my voice.” All of this stuff, and what we find is that also has an impact on our mental health and well-being, that we are actually not just functioning in our excellence at this other capacity, but we’re also doing a lot of sort of emotional labor, a lot of interpersonal navigation, a lot of sort of using our spidey senses, our Black six senses to figure out who’s the ally and who’s not, who’s the advocate, who’s not, who I need to keep on my good side. All of that stuff that we learned to be able to do that, and that for me is the shadow side. That is the part that can take its toll for us as we want to continue to, not just for our own professional development and well-being and our own sense of self-concept, excel and move forward. And many of us do purpose-driven work. We get into fields because we want to be the voice in the room. We want to have a seat at the table. We want to create leverage and opportunities for our people in our communities. We want to open the door. So we have a vested interest in being in those spaces in a different way, but it also impacts us differently, in ways that white folks never have to even begin to think about. That is, for me, when we talk about this idea of privilege, it’s all the things they never have to even begin to consider just waking up and living their lives and being in their regular day.
Dr. Brian Dixon: Absolutely. And in a sense those are two different jobs that you have to be doing simultaneously, being Black excellence, being excellent in everything that you do, plus managing all the shadow stuff that’s going on, because it’ll otherwise pull you down. And so you’re exerting twice the amount of energy, twice the amount of calories, twice the amount of effort. And só yes. To Tammy’s point, you are going to be exhausted, or Jennifer’s point. Yes, absolutely. Yes.
Dr. Nikki Coleman: And Jide says non-stop vigilance. Right? So I want it to sort of–you know, we are a mental health podcast focused on Black mental health in the workplace, and so I think it’s really important, and we’ve talked about this as a team of podcasters, to name things and give people language, and one of the things that we want to name is there’s actually sort of a concept that describes this and it’s called John Henryism. And so I should put it in the chat.
Dr. Brian Dixon: Yes. I think that would be awesome.
Dr. Nikki Coleman: Right. Although I can’t… So, I have to stop and type in there. Good. So, it’s called John Henryism. Is there anybody in the room familiar with John Henry? What’s so funny is I asked Brian before he was like, “Is that the Appleseed man?” No, Brian.
Dr. Brian Dixon: I’m sorry. It’s been a long day. It’s been a long 40 years, y’all. I’m tired.
Dr. Nikki Coleman: So, John Henry, there’s this African-American folklore where there’s this Black man that was a railroad steel driver. So when you see the railroad, those big spikes that go into the railroad to hold the road down, well, there was a time where human beings actually did the labor of putting those railroads down and banging that in. And so John Henry was this fabled, like, really strong, really, like, killing it, he was a badass railroad driver, and then the white man created the steel driving machine. And so the story goes that they put John Henry up against the machine. Just take a moment. Let’s take a moment and just think about that as a concept. We’re going to take a whole human being and compare him to a machine. Like, let’s see which one wins. If that ain’t whiteness one-on-one, I don’t know what is, to compare a human experience to an objectified machine and then put it in competition. We’ll set that aside. And so the story goes that John Henry tried, like, he tried to beat the machine, and so the story goes he beat it, but then he immediately died of a heart attack. Like, died with the hammer in his hands, and that is a sort of very cautionary tale, but it’s also, I think, a metaphor for really what Black life can look like in our modern day context. All the things that we do day in and day out to keep moving forward, to drive ourselves as best as we can, to elevate our families and our communities, to elevate our race. To be in the room, to open the door, to demonstrate our excellence. And at the end of the day, we recognize that Black folks are over-represented in all of these stress related health outcomes. And we have to start thinking about how do we unpack that? How do we stop doing that to ourselves? And what do we do different? Because I talk about this as being, like, that catch-22 racism. Like, you never get outside of white supremacy. You can have all the knowledge and know how it functions, create healthy spaces for yourselves as much as possible, but you’re still in the system. And so it’s always sort of impinging on you and getting at you, and this concept of John Henryism I think shows up for so many Black people in the world of work, and it has real life consequences, and now this is where I’m going to kick it to my MD. Dr. Dixon, who is going to break it down. What are the real sort of physiological effects on our body? What is that sort of shift from excellence to detriment? From function to dysfunction? What does that look like in the body?
Dr. Brian Dixon: Yes. So in the psychological world, there’s a term called eustress, E-U-S-T-R-E-S-S. Eustress is like stress that happens that’s actually very good, right? So you have a deadline at work or you have a report due, and it’s actually really important that you feel a little bit of anxiety, your heart races a little bit, your adrenal glands release adrenaline, so that you can be on your A-game to give a presentation or do a podcast. So that’s very good. Eustress is good. You know, you being at a kind of middle level, you’re not depressed. You’re not super stressed, you’re right in the middle, eustress, and that’s a very good thing. The problem is, especially being Black, we are constantly in the context of white supremacy, which means that we have to be on our A-game all the time we go into stress. And sometimes it’s really extreme amounts of stress, and your body’s really good at kind of self-regulation – unless you are in a constant state of stress. So you’re releasing adrenaline and other stress hormones, cortisol. When those things go up, it means you don’t sleep very well, and sleep is a very repairing mechanism for a human being. Regardless of what color you are, you need sleep. We don’t sleep very well because we are constantly under stress. We are always ready to go. It’s the fight or flight or freeze response. The problem is there is something called the Oxidative Theory of Aging. So if you type that in, Oxidative Theory of Aging, it basically says that when you’re constantly stressed, when you’re releasing hormones all the time, you don’t tend to metabolize things very well or completely, meaning these little fragments of stuff float around, and we call those oxidative things. So if you ever hear of antioxidants, like, you’re eating your blueberries and “Oh, I’m getting antioxidants,” that’s good because that means they come and they bind the oxidative things and get them out of your system, and so there is now research suggesting that we are under such oxidative stress all the damn time that it is actually shortening our chromosomes. So at the end of your chromosomes there’s something called a telomere, which it protects your chromosomes and makes you live longer. Well, we’re living less long because the stress that we’re constantly under is wearing us down at a molecular level. And so yes, and remember at the molecular level it does not differentiate where your stress comes from. So the stress of racism is terrible, but also the stress of John Henryism. So when you are killing it and you’re working 60 and 80 hours a week and you’re doing the damn thing, you have to be careful because you can still do major damage to heart, lungs, blood pressure, the whole nine yards.
Dr. Nikki Coleman: So the other term that I have a little bit of familiarity with, I think it may be just a combination of the pieces that you talked about, it’s called weathering. There’s been some research around the impact of weathering, particularly on Black women in the world of work, and that the correlation is the higher your SES, so the higher up you get in terms of what your sort of social status is in terms of your career, the prestige associated with that actually [?] sort of the greater experience of weathering that you have, and there’s other research with John Henryism. So Black folks that are in higher SES experience more racial discrimination, and this is how I always think about it. Racism is always doing its thing. Somebody said, “Racism is the water, it ain’t the shark. It just depends on what part of the water you are in.” So for folks among us, Black folks among us, brown folks too, even though it shows up differently across different ethnic groups, that’s a different podcast, but they are sort of structurally impacted by racism, that you are living in a state of poverty, or you’re constantly trying to keep up, you might not have as much access to healthy foods. If you live with a wage earning job, the minute anything goes wrong, the whole thing sort of falls apart. So your body is impacted in that way, but you might actually be in fairly mono-racial communities and work environments. You’re not encountering white folks in the same way, but we know the higher up the corporate ladder–and I’m using corporate sort of euphemistically–you get up, the more likely you are to encounter white folks on a regular basis. White folks are evaluating you, whether it’s explicitly or implicitly. And so Black folks in higher SES deal with greater racial discrimination. The more racial discrimination you deal with, the more need you have for coping because you’re experiencing more stress. And so this John Henryism is one of the ways that we’ve actually enacted to sort of help us cope and lets [us?] sort of have this sustained sort of mental effort, that thinking through and sort of strategizing and problem solving, but the sad part is it still impacts our system.
Dr. Brian Dixon: Absolutely.
Dr. Nikki Coleman: So what do you do with that? How do we fix it? Because I’m not one to leave us just sort of empty handed.
Dr. Brian Dixon: Yes. Well, I was just going to throw out there. So, Jennifer, we are definitely going to get to your question in just a second. And so, how I deal with John Henryism, I try to find ways to do bite sizes. So I’m an overachiever, and that’s just what I had to do to get to where I am, and I wish I could change that now, but I’m old and personality is really hard to change at all. So it’s built into the personality. So I just try to do bite sizes, and só I use my journal, which I don’t have here, but I use my journal to kind of break things down, and I write it all out, and some things I can’t get to and I’m learning to let go. I compartmentalize and I let that go. And then I do what I can. The other thing that I try not to do–so what to do is equally as important as what not to do–is you don’t overdo drinking. So I can’t stress this enough. A little alcohol can be safe. A lot of alcohol can be very, very bad. So just be very mindful, very thoughtful about your alcohol intake. If you’re going to a happy hour, which we’re not doing right now because we’re in COVID anyway, but yes, if you’re at work and you’re trying to do the damn thing and you want to make sure that your boss sees you at happy hour and you’re under a lot of pressure, be very mindful about what you’re drinking in those spaces. Alcohol actually decreases your inhibitions, which means that you’re more likely to let some of the truth fly, and we don’t want you all getting in trouble for being like, “You’re racist, and you’re racist.”
Dr. Nikki Coleman: “I don’t want to talk to you anyway. I don’t want to talk to you no more.”
Dr. Brian Dixon: Just be very thoughtful about that, y’all. So what I do is compartmentalize and kind of stay structured with my little planner, and then I try to avoid excess alcohol. What do you do, Dr. Nikki?
Dr. Nikki Coleman: So, I try to pursue–and I always say radically because just the idea I think is radical, but radical joy and radical pleasure, because for me it’s about the offset. I’ve opted in, and that’s the thing. You either go opt in the system or you going to opt out, and I’m not ready to live off the grid and milk goats and have my own chickens. I’m not ready for that. I have visions some days, y’all, I’m going to be real. That’s how my Blackness is set up, where I just want to be like, “You know what, forget all of you. I’m going all the way over here,” but recognize that as long as I choose to opt in, then I have to be in control of pursuing joy and pursuing pleasure. It is my offset. So I think about all the ways that I have to pour out. And there are all the ways that you are pouring out unconsciously, and then I need to be intentional about what I pour in. So I make time to make sure that I dance, that I laugh, that I play with my kid, that I do things that are just frivolous. Sex, solo sex, sex with a partner, doing sexy things, all of that is pleasurable. I do enjoy a good glass of red wine, not all the time, but regularly. So I think about ways that I can pamper myself, ways that are within reason that I can indulge. So it’s a way for me to affirm for myself that I am important and I matter and I have value and I have worth. And then the other thing is I try to keep a gratitude journal, and I think that is so important when you stay in a mindset of gratitude. It sort of actually opens up your neural pathways to have more access to your prefrontal cortex. It gives you more capacity for creativity and clearer thinking, and it gives you the opportunity to see other avenues and pathways forward to help you strategize better. So I always know when I am moving into a bad place because I stop singing. When I’m singing, like, just randomly or singing a song, I know I’m in a good place. When I stop doing my gratitude stuff, I know I’m not a good place. So these are habits, and I always use the word practice for a reason. I practice these things because there’s always something in life to pull you out of it.
Dr. Brian Dixon: Preach.
Dr. Nikki Coleman: There’s always going to be a disruption. And so just come back to it. Come back to it constantly.
Dr. Brian Dixon: Yes. Amen. So, just a plug, they’re not paying me nothing, but I use my passion planner, and each week they have a whole list of good things that happened the week before, because what tends to happen is you forget. Honestly, like, you go throughout life and you’re like, “Everything is bad. This is horrible.” Well, if you make a gratitude journal or you keep track of what’s been going on, you can then look back and go, “You know what? Last week was a horrible time,” and I can’t wait to hear the last The Last Nerve with Dr. Nikki in a second, “but guess what happened before that? Oh, we had a great family Zoom meeting. I got to eat a really great piece of cake. Those sorts of things, those small things will help you in the long run. So a couple of questions. So Dr. Nikki, I’m going to ask you this one first. So Jennifer said, “I’m a Black female, fairly young, 30ish…” Okay. Get it. “Female professional that feels that the excellence that is inherent in how I show up often makes others, even other Black folks in power, uncomfortable. Any advice on how to unpack that? Not wanting to lose myself, but also not wanting to make others uncomfortable. How do you balance that?”
Dr. Nikki Coleman: So, the first thing that comes to mind is… So I used to have that similar experience and people would give me feedback of, like, “Well, you’re just intimidating.” “Well, I don’t know if you know this, but you’re intimidating.” And I was having a conversation with my cousin and she helped me to totally flip it, and that’s what I’m going to offer back to you, Jennifer, and so what I now will do is when I get that feedback I will ask the person, “Is it that I’m intimidating or you feel intimidated? Because if you feel intimidated, that’s your issue, right? I can’t control what I’m doing and how I’m showing up by being my best self. So am I intimidating or are you intimidated?” Now asking that question is intimidating. I want to acknowledge that, right? Because that’s, like, a level of, like, boss that people don’t do in the world of work. So I think I encourage you to be careful and thoughtful about how you do that, but it really is sort of a reframe, and I offer that to you whether you ask the question out loud or not to that person, I want you to have that reframe, that really–if you are really engaging with best intentions and you are a considerate person, you are doing your job, you’re being kind to people and other people still feel a kind of way, then that’s not on you. That’s on them.
Dr. Brian Dixon: Amen.
Dr. Nikki Coleman: And there are going to be lots people who will be affected by your shine. Some people are going to want to gravitate towards it because they want to feel that light on them, and other people are going to be so uncomfortable in how it highlights their insecurities that they’re going to want to shut you down. So it’s really starting to do that internal work and thinking about what are those interpersonal interactions telling you. Is it because it’s something I’m doing that I can be accountable for, or is it really about work that they need to be doing?
Dr. Brian Dixon: I love that. And one concrete thing that I always do is keep in mind, especially when you’re in the work setting, everybody loves themselves. And so catch people off-guard by helping them talk about themselves. “Oh, my God. That is a really great idea, Bob. Tell me more about that. Oh, that is fantastic.” Right? So then Bob thinks that you’re actually interested when you’re not, but that’s okay because it’s very disarming, and then he goes, “Oh, my God, Jennifer, you’re such a great listener,” and you go, “I know that, Bob. Thank you. That’s why I should be getting a raise over you, but we’ll go to HR and deal with that later, okay?
Dr. Nikki Coleman: Now go about your business, Bob. I got work to do.
Dr. Brian Dixon: Great. Second question. Alrighty. Do you mind if I read this one to you, Dr. Nikki?
Dr. Nikki Coleman: Sure.
Dr. Brian Dixon: Okay. Alrighty. So “How would you suggest dealing with what I would refer to as ‘toxic aunties, uncles, and folks’ within the workplace? So it’s one thing to deal with micro-aggressions and macro-aggressions from white and non-Black people and people of color, but the sabotaging behaviors, the anti-Black comments and the harm from your own, that feels a lot worse. I see this often when folks want [to tell me?] that my version of Black is “too much” for the workplace. I think of Molly in Insecure when she was asked to talk about “the ghetto Black girl at work.” So how do you manage when it’s your own people going off and saying stuff?
Dr. Nikki Coleman: Ain’t nothing like it, and I actually think we should have a whole podcast just about that.
Dr. Brian Dixon: I think so too.
Dr. Nikki Coleman: Because internalized racism is real. Internalized anti-Blackness is real.
Dr. Brian Dixon: Absolutely.
Dr. Nikki Coleman: And it always hurts worse when it’s your own people. Like, I just want to acknowledge that truth. It always hurts worse, and even if it’s not an active sort of limitation on your behaviors, but just this whole way of saying anybody has sort of the market on identifying what Blackness is. Like, I could be all of these ways and still be Black, and the way that I show up may not be what makes you comfortable, but it’s what makes me comfortable. I think the only thing that I would add without knowing more about this context is part of sort of professional development is figuring out sort of what works for you. Like, what are those zones of tolerance that you can stand? And what are those that you can’t? And then who’s worth your time and energy and who isn’t? Are some of those people worth having a conversation with to explore where that disconnect is? Could some of them potentially be allies for you or co-conspirators with you? And maybe other people won’t come along. And then the other thing is we also have to be aware of, like, maybe when a place no longer serves us, and if you have the capacity to be able to think about exiting a particular environment if it’s toxic, I encourage you–let me say it this way. I encourage you not to get comfortable in a toxic environment, and are there ways that maybe you can sort of navigate differently or think about moving through that, but definitely I think having a whole podcast episode on internalized anti-Blackness…
Dr. Brian Dixon: Yes, we definitely will. Gosh, having gone to predominantly white schools and living and working in predominantly white institutions, yes. Definitely a standalone podcast. What I do a lot of times, and it sounds condescending, but I don’t care, and kind of petty but I don’t care either, is I use that old Southern saying, which is “Bless their hearts,” and I’ll say it to myself, and I just look at them with all the, I don’t know, pity, in the world, and I think, “Bless your heart,” and then I just literally move on because what you give your energy to tends to grow, and I don’t want to give it any more energy. So I just… yes. Not all Black folks are the same, and I’m like, “You know what, I will come on my Break Room podcast with people I love and who feed me energy and enthusiasm, and I’m just going to skip all the rest of the nonsense.”
Dr. Nikki Coleman: Skip all the rest. Yes. I was in a training not too long ago when the world was open. So this would have been 2019, and there was a Black woman in there. She was an aunty. An older Black woman. She clearly had lots of success in her career, but she had to make a lot of concessions. It was clear. She had to make a lot of–sort of dimming her light and boxing herself in to get to where she was, and she kept sort of being really vocal. “You can’t do that,” and “You’re not going to be able to do this,” and “I’m going to tell you what you’re not going to do.” Like, it was clear. And so what I tell you is to sort of also be aware of that energy. Sometimes the toxicity is a reflection of people’s damage. They have been hazed. They have been hurt. They have been discriminated against and beaten down in the world of work and they’ve never dealt with it, and so they’re sort of projecting that onto you and imposing that onto you, repeating the cycle, and so you don’t have to buy into that, and it also means that there could be some discomfort in your environment because you’re not buying into that. You’re sort of an outlier in a healthy way, and that always feels a little bit off-center.
Dr. Brian Dixon: Well, so Dr. Nikki, we got a couple of questions that pushed us through our question and answer period. Just to let everybody know you can send us questions. You can email us. I’m going to get that email address shortly. Email us at email@example.com. So it would be firstname.lastname@example.org. Because I know we get to transition over to the…
Dr. Nikki Coleman: That’s right. There you go. Jide usually does and I was like, “When are you going to do it, Jide?” So I’m going to time myself, Brian.
Dr. Brian Dixon: Yes. So, we try to time ourselves, y’all, because The Last Nerve is our sermon, and you know Black people in sermons can go on literally for hours into the afternoon, and we got stuff to do. So yes, we don’t want to keep you all too long.
Dr. Nikki Coleman: We don’t, but I got The Last Nerve, so I have the pleasure of having The Last Nerve for this week, and what done got on my last damn nerve is people so, so, so, so in love with capitalism and white supremacy that they forget their humanity. That has gotten on my last nerve. Down here in the great state of Texas, last week–if you’ve been under a rock you may have missed it, but people–when I say people I mean millions of people, meaning if you retained all of your lights and power and water throughout last week, you were in the minority, right–we lost power and water. I was in here with this nine-year-old child and all of her talkativeness, inquisitiveness, curiosity, and this 5-month-old puppy in 45 degree weather in my own house. I went to school. I worked hard. I got a good job. I shouldn’t have to be inside my house in 45 degree weather. We weathered that for three days without any power. Four days without any clean running water. It was a hot fucking mess. That’s my minute? So let me say this.
Dr. Brian Dixon: Keep going, keep going.
Dr. Nikki Coleman: And so when the power came on, there were people beating down my email door scheduling for next week. I can’t wash my butt still, but you want me to show up for a Zoom training. I need you all to step outside of the white man’s reality and know that this will all be okay. If there is any institution in this country that couldn’t survive four days with lower productivity, then you need a new business model. You need to be put out of business anyway. You better leave me the hell alone. Let me get in here and get a good hot shower. Let me cook some food on my own electric stove. And let me watch some Netflix and get my whole mind right. And that is my last nerve.
Dr. Brian Dixon: Amen. Preach. Thank you for sharing the last nerve.
Dr. Nikki Coleman: Thank you. Thank you. Thank you. Thank you. Thank you for that rant, because it’s been a doozy of a week. The recovery also. People have been, I think, disrespectful of the recovery process. So I’m going to give me some more Netflix this weekend. That’s what I’m going to do.
Dr. Brian Dixon: I love it. Well, we are super glad that you all joined us. Dr. Nikki, you are a badass, so thank you for leading the conversation. Love it.
Dr. Nikki Coleman: It was great. We appreciate you for joining us. Like we always say, be a friend, tell a friend. We are so excited to see our audience sort of grow from week to week. So we hope to see even more people here with us next time. We appreciate you all.
Dr. Brian Dixon: Bye, guys. Love you.
Dr. Nikki Coleman: Peace.