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How to Heal from Racial Trauma in the Workplace
By Minda Harts
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From the powerhouse author of The Memo, the essential self-help book for women of color to heal—and thrive—in the workplace
In workplaces nationwide, women of color need frank talk and honest advice on how to deal with microaggressions, heal from racialized trauma, and find relief from invisible workplace burdens. Filled with Minda Harts’s signature wit and warmth, Right Within offers strategies for women of color to speak up during racialized moments with managers and clients, work through past triggers they may not even know still cause pain, and reframe past career disappointments as opportunities to grow into a new path. Through action points, exercises, and clear-eyed coaching, Harts encourages women to summon hidden reserves of strength and courage. She includes advice from therapists and faith leaders of color on a full range of ways to heal. Right Within will help women of color strengthen their resolve across corporate America, ensuring that we can all, finally, rise together.
I chose to change some identifying details such as locations, companies, organizations, occupations, and names of those I worked with in the past. I consciously made the decision to maintain their anonymity. I have recalled my racially charged experiences in the workplace and conversations based on my memory of them. Additionally, the stories that I share from other women of color about their workplace experiences—their stories are told based on their perception and/or experiences related to the inequality they faced. All the resources shared in this book are only recommendations; so please, do your own research and due diligence if you decide to use them going forward.
How would I describe my life in the year 2020 in just one word? I would probably say stressed. As a Black woman who spent the majority of that year inside my apartment due to the pandemic, stressed might not even begin to fully capture my emotional state. I guess you could say that in addition to feeling stressed because I didn’t want to catch the coronavirus, I was also exhausted due to the racism on full display from the highest office in this country, the presidency.
Oh come on, don’t act like you forgot how crazy 2020 was. Masks, hand sanitizer, and bleach were hard to come by. It was also a huge election year, and many of us were feeling like our backs were against the wall. I felt like the Chicago rap group Do or Die: I was willing to ride in the back seat of any Caddy if it meant I would never have to see Donald in that office ever again. I had so many conversations with friends about what options were available to us if Trump got another four years in office. We were legit nervous, anxious, and downright scared of where things were headed for minorities in our country. I had never felt worried about being a Black woman in this country until 2020.
I remember going on long strolls with my mask on around the nearby pond, but toward the end of that year, I avoided unnecessary walks because I feared being attacked or verbally assaulted. I still would walk my dog, but whenever I saw a pickup truck, I immediately felt triggered because I thought about Ahmaud Arbery. He was just out for a jog and then was gunned down by three white men in a pickup truck in Georgia. Some might say, That is ludicrous, Minda, but that is how I felt, and as much as I didn’t want to feel that way, my fear was real for me. My uncle in my head, the late James Baldwin, said, “I love America more than any other country in the world and, exactly for this reason, I insist on the right to criticize her perpetually.” I felt this same conflicted love for the only country I have ever lived in, and all I wanted was for it to love my people back. Was that too much to ask?
I began to understand why people like Marcus Garvey felt the need to return to Africa. But I also connected with Angela Davis’s work: she wanted to stay and fight to dismantle a system that has never worked for us, and fight for the generations who haven’t yet been born. I grappled heavily with the trauma I felt when Trayvon Martin’s young life was brutally taken from him, and in 2020 I felt that pain all over again with the deaths of Breonna Taylor and George Floyd. So I guess we can add a third word to describe my feelings in 2020: triggered.
What more can we do, how many more marches do we need to have, to convince folks that Black Lives Matter? I felt triggered by all the racial unrest. I started to thank God that at that time in my life I didn’t have a traditional job in corporate America, because I don’t think I could have shown up in a virtual environment and pretended like everything was business as usual. Nor could I work for a company that still refused to even state publicly that my life mattered. I woke up every morning and said a little prayer for my sisters who had struggled the night before and then had to deal with a sea of white faces on Zoom or Google Hangouts and pretend that this sh*t didn’t weigh them down like a ton of Hefty garbage bags.
If you were a white person during this hectic year, I am sure you also felt the upheaval. But you never had to worry about having “the talk” with your Black son, nor did you have to worry that your Black daughter might be gunned down in her apartment while hanging out with the love of her life. Black and Brown folks don’t get the benefit of turning off the television when we’ve had too much of a certain news story—we are still Black and Brown when everyone else goes to bed.
And then, on top of everything, in 2020 I had the privilege of writing my next book, Right Within, the one you are reading or listening to right now. A book about how we heal from racialized work trauma. A book I was so excited to write for us, a book that I am still excited for you to read. But I have to be honest with you, the experience of writing this book was much different than the experience of writing my first book, The Memo: What Women of Color Need to Know to Secure a Seat at the Table. I struggled writing this book, because I was also in a state of racialized trauma from the overlapping crises of 2020. What our country was going through—hell, what Black people were experiencing in 2020—started to flood my mind, and at the same time I was overwhelmed working through all of my experiences from previous years inside and outside of the workplace. I couldn’t stop thinking about Breonna Taylor, Sandra Bland, and Cynthia Hurd.
Breonna Taylor, Sandra Bland, and Cynthia Hurd had a few things in common. They were all Black women, they all died due to systemic racism, and they were all Black women in the workplace. It has been said that Breonna Taylor had sticky notes around her apartment with the goals she planned to accomplish that year and in the years to come. I don’t know about you, but I have sticky notes all over my office with some of the same goals. I began to think about these women, their dreams, their goals, and even their fears. In those moments, I realized that racism doesn’t just kill people, it kills careers too. Breonna and Cynthia each had a career, while Sandra was about to start a new one. And just to be clear, I am not equating murder with the racial assaults that happen inside the workplace; what I am saying is workplace injustices hurt too. It is damaging to know that if you had been a different color, your life or career might have mattered more.
I began to think about the many times racism tried to kill my career, and how heavy I felt during those times in my life. The times when I wasn’t sure I could make it through the workday because a manager said something racially inappropriate, but I was the one who supposedly “took it the wrong way.” I mean, what other way am I supposed to take comments that start with “You people”? After building my career for over fifteen years, there were days when I wasn’t sure how much longer I would be able to last being the only Black woman in the office. Being the “only” is more emotionally taxing than the dominant majority will ever know. And eventually, it leaves many of us not feeling right within. This led me to start to investigate the importance of being right within and learning how to pack a little lighter. Too often, workplace burdens will other you in some way, shape, or form. And while you can’t control everything, you can center yourself and find ways to heal.
Even in those moments when I felt like crying and throwing the covers over my head because I was so overwhelmed by the trauma all around me, I started to find some joy in exploring what healing could look like for women of color. I started to explore the consequences of not taking time to heal from racialized trauma. Many of us have experienced so much of this trauma in the workplace that, in order to function, we desperately needed to lock away and forget those memories. And some of us are reminded of that trauma every day, because we work in an environment that won’t allow us to live our best lives. You know, those environments that extend more grace to the person doing the harm than to the person who was harmed. The reason for healing and becoming right within is not to benefit corporate America, academia, or your nonprofit organization—healing is for us.
Some of our electronic purchases first require we get a double-A battery, or the fine print might say, “Assembly required.” Well, if you have spent any time in the workplace as a woman of color, then healing will be required if you want to secure your seat at the table. You might be thinking, What table and what seat are you referring to, Minda? Having a seat at the table means that you are part of the decision-making process or you have influence within your workplace. You are valued and you have leaders who are invested in your career success. Often we are experiencing our racialized trauma in isolation and struggling to make some sense of it all. But we have the power to free ourselves from the stranglehold of workplace racial trauma. It’s not an easy feat, and, let’s be honest, some of us haven’t even considered what healing might look like when it comes to what Jim said to us ten years ago. Or how something Karen said last week might affect how we show up in other spaces. Lauryn Hill asked us a very timely, and timeless, question circa 1998: “How you gonna win, when you ain’t right within?” We need to investigate and interrogate how to be free from all of those racialized aggressions. Pushing away the pain, rather than confronting it and healing, only hurts us in the end, stunting our personal and professional growth.
Before I wrote Right Within, I thought I had healed from many of my workplace traumas (praise the Lord). But as I began to write this book, I discovered there were places in my career journey that I had to revisit, and I finally came face-to-face with the pain others had inflicted upon me. I thought that I had to rationalize away those experiences, that that was the only way I could make it through a workweek and not completely break down. I didn’t realize how many racialized experiences I had suppressed. Through my own investigative work, I needed to address all of them, because the pain was affecting other areas of my life. And I don’t have to be a therapist to know that unresolved trauma doesn’t serve me, or anyone.
So I ask you to take a ride with me to explore what healing from racialized workplace trauma might look like for you. And, more importantly, what freedom could feel like. Healing can be messy, it can be complicated, but I am here to be your guide, your sista friend, and your mentor as we uncover a freedom that the women who came before us never experienced. We have the unique opportunity and privilege to choose a path toward healing. We owe this to ourselves and to future generations of women of color, who need to know that healing is possible for them too. Shall we begin?
I CAN’T GIVE UP NOW
Nobody told me
The road would be easy
—Mary Mary, “Can’t Give Up Now”
I have always been the only Black woman in the room. Meaning, in the course of my career, I was the only Black woman in the boardroom and the only Black woman in the break room. And I hate to admit to you that, at times, it was a lonely journey. I’ve eaten way too many lunches alone. I started to settle into the microaggressions and the bias that so effortlessly tended to greet me at any given time during the workday. I don’t know how many times I’ve told myself that Bob didn’t mean any harm, and neither did Kim. Maybe you have created the same fairy tale so that you could get through your workday too. The crazy thing about this narrative is that I began to believe it. In my previous career, I started to feed myself tablespoons of BS—little by little, over fifteen years—and none of that brought me any peace. It only resulted in me questioning my self-worth.
I spent a lot of time questioning. Questioning if what I was experiencing at work was in fact racism, or if I was just reading too much into the situation. I would question if my colleague was just being a jerk or if they were being ignorant. All of that led to even more questioning, especially toward myself. I believe systemic racism was created to make people of color question themselves.
Now, before you go any further in this book, one thing you should know about me from the jump is that I am going to keep it real with you. If I am going to get vulnerable with you about my journey toward healing from toxic workplaces, in return, I hope you’re willing to be vulnerable and unpack your racialized baggage along with me, so that you can be right within.
Please don’t pretend that you forgot the famous song “Bag Lady” by Erykah Badu: “One day all them bags gon’ get in your way, so pack light.” I realize this song might not be talking exclusively about racialized work trauma, but Ms. Badu wasn’t wrong. I don’t know about you, but there was a time in my not-so-distant past when I had all kinds of workplace trauma in my bags. And to be very clear, my trauma wasn’t tucked inside a fancy designer handbag. My baggage was so battered and strained, it started to look like those cheap plastic grocery bags, about to rip open at any moment. When we don’t know what to do with those burdens, we sometimes try to deny they exist, only making matters worse.
Recently, I was on a panel with the CEO of DiversityInc, Carolynn Johnson, and she said she didn’t believe in unconscious bias, but she believed in unchecked bias. I wanted to throw my invisible church fan in the air when she made that comment. For so many years, we have made excuses for many of our white colleagues’ unchecked racialized behavior in the workplace. And because many of us don’t have the agency at work to speak truth to power without facing backlash, we try to pretend we aren’t hurt and tell ourselves that our colleagues had no ill intent. I often think about an old manager who constantly made racialized comments to me about my hair or the bright colors I wore. Those comments always ended with him making jokes at my expense. And even though I unfortunately had learned to laugh through the pain, it didn’t make his words hurt any less. They just added another invisible cut, and my white counterparts never had the emotional intelligence to see my racialized scars. With each racialized experience, it was like salt being poured on reopened wounds, and there is no Band-Aid big enough to heal the pain. The last time I checked, dealing with racialized work trauma was not in the job description. I think I might need some workers’ compensation, because these darn racialized trauma bags are causing me some severe back pain. And since you are reading or listening to this book, I hope you are ready to lighten a load that you should never have been burdened with in the first place.
I began to realize that women of color needed to solve a big problem. The problem is that many of us have never given ourselves permission to address and heal from the trauma we’ve encountered from oppressive workplaces. The older tools of denial don’t work; they just enable the gaslighting to continue. The burden shouldn’t be ours to carry, but we can help each other tell the truth, validate our experiences, and let go of what we can. We can give ourselves space to reaffirm our value first to ourselves, and then to everyone in the boardroom. We need to breathe easier so we can take our rightful place at the table. We deserve to be right within.
Most of us have been suffering in silence, sweeping our trauma under the rug, or pretending those workplace devastations didn’t affect us. You know those times your manager told you that you weren’t “ready yet” for bigger responsibilities, even though you were his go-to for any crisis. You know the time when the promotion went to your white colleague instead, to the one who always came to work late. Oh, and of course you remember every time you did all the work and never got any credit. In my case, my career devastation happened when I had to walk away from my dream job because I didn’t have any advocates willing to support their only Black woman colleague. When I needed them the most, my supposed friends wouldn’t speak up. If we are honest with ourselves, we’ve often desperately tried to forget these workplace experiences because they hurt so badly. If we aren’t careful, all of those years of so-and-so not meaning any harm will eventually catch up and cause us even more damage. We won’t ever be able to be right within if we don’t admit we’ve accumulated lots of workplace baggage during the toughest moments in our careers. Racialized trauma in the workplace is just as insidious as any other form of harassment. Yet Black and Brown pain seems to be something some white people don’t want to acknowledge. Therefore, we have been conditioned to view our pain the same way they do: as nonexistent.
Additionally, culturally speaking, I believe there may be a common practice across communities of color where we are taught to silence our pain. We’ve learned to “hush up” when that crazy relative gets noticeably tipsy during the holidays, even when they make us uncomfortable. And we’ve learned not to “tell” when someone in our family might have harmed us.
Many people of color have gone through life being told the greatest hits: “Just be happy you have a good-paying job,” “Make it work,” and “Keep your head down.” Unfortunately, we haven’t always been encouraged to speak about the pain that we have experienced, especially pain related to the workplace. It’s almost like we’ve let society convince us that racialized work trauma doesn’t count. In the Black community especially, we are often told that racism at work is “just the way it is.” If you are told a lie enough times, eventually you might just believe it. And many of us have believed that lie and passed it along to others. The ugly truth is, too many of us have the scars to prove it.
I wish I could help you let go of the baggage from every bad situation that has ever happened to you or someone you love; yet the gift I can give to you, the skill of packing light, might help you on your journey in the workplace today. The gift of potentially healing from workplace trauma, in my opinion, is better than any holiday or birthday present. Right Within is what I wish someone had given me when I was starting my climb up the workplace ladder. May this book serve as a resource that you can return to whenever you might need help along your journey to healing.
When I was four years old, I was in an unfortunate car accident that left a visible scar below my left eye. It’s a scar I have grown to love, and it’s part of who I am. The injuries I have from past toxic-workplace experiences, which I believe were racialized, led to scars that I learned to hide, and no amount of Neosporin can heal them. They are cuts that I wish I never had to endure. You might not know that these internalized scars are even there. But I would bet money that your invisible scars are the ones that hurt the most. The funny thing is, when we have external scars, there are bandages to aid the healing process. Why wouldn’t we need resources for those racialized bruises too? News flash: learning to have tough skin doesn’t heal you any faster; it just prolongs the pain.
I love the work of Dr. Thema Bryant-Davis, a tenured professor at Pepperdine University. She has conducted in-depth research around racial trauma. In her book Healing Requires Recognition, she says we must consider both the impact of the “systems and institutions that devalue members of one’s race” and the impact of violations “being minimized or ignored because of one’s race.” It’s not lost on me that the emotional scars we will discuss may be triggering for you, and I apologize. Even learning to address our pain may mean reopening old wounds caused by negative workplace experiences—a painful process in and of itself. Too many of us have been in workplaces that never bothered to extend to us the same level of professionalism and care that is extended toward our white colleagues. One thing that can help to overcome the gaslighting—the denial of our experience—that we’ve endured is recognizing among ourselves that our workplace traumas are real. These are violations that I wish companies, academic institutions, government agencies, and organizations would take seriously. The human resources department would never tell an employee who was physically assaulted at work that her attacker didn’t mean any harm. Yet somehow it’s acceptable to say to a woman of color who has been victimized because of her race, It’s just Bob being Bob and you are being too sensitive. I am tired of this line of thinking, and I am officially implementing a no-tolerance memorandum for any institutions or corporations that do not take racialized aggression or trauma seriously.
We have to unlearn the idea that our racialized trauma doesn’t matter. Those companies and organizations can’t undo the past, but—whether we choose to speak up or not, whether these companies step up or not—it can still be empowering to take charge of what we can control. We can empower ourselves by centering our experiences and prioritizing our healing. In fact, the healing can start with us. But, with that said, we can and should hold companies and organizations accountable for creating a safe work environment where women of color can thrive and not just survive. Creating an equitable work environment that is free of racialized aggression is 100 percent their problem to solve. And their first step might be not letting Bob just continue to be Bob, because Bob’s authentic self is harming others. And that should no longer be tolerated, no matter how nice of a guy Bob is to the higher-ups or how good his golf swing might be.
While I was on tour for my first book, The Memo, I met thousands of Black women and other women of color who appeared to still be grappling with many of their past and current workplace “broken hearts.” In my first book, I posed a question in the chapter called “The Ugly Truth”: “Where do the broken hearts of women of color go when we can’t take it any longer?” That was the most quoted line from city to city, via email and social media. After the first ten cities, I realized there were recurring issues: unaddressed racial workplace trauma, the need for its recognition, and a lack of models of healing. Too often, healing had not yet taken place because we hadn’t even allowed ourselves time to heal. Or perhaps we didn’t even know we needed to heal, and therefore found it challenging to understand what it would look like. Many of us carry workplace baggage from job to job and position to position, which ultimately prevents us from adequately securing our seat at the table. And some of us are currently working in toxic environments that seem to prevent us from being able to heal, because we are triggered daily by the pain and the people that cause it.
I know from personal experience that, even if you change jobs, even if you move across the country, you can’t keep avoiding your past. If you don’t face this trauma head-on, it’s just another bag you have to carry that was never supposed to be yours in the first place. I believe as women of color we have to heal from this workplace trauma because our health and wellness depend upon it. Not to mention, it becomes a heavy load to bear, and it’s not our job to carry four-hundred-plus years of racial oppression. It’s time we gather our tools to pack lighter and learn how to be right within, because our ancestors are begging us to. They had so many racialized bags that they were forced to carry that the stress alone killed many of them. We have the opportunity to turn our trauma into our most significant advantage: freedom. Audre Lorde said, “When I dare to be powerful, to use my strength in the service of my vision, then it becomes less and less important whether I am afraid.” Healing can be scary, but we must be willing to push aside our caution and see how powerful we can be as women of color without all this extra sh*t weighing us down.
BEWARE OF FEELING LIKE YOU DON’T DESERVE IT
For many women of color, before we can ease on down the workplace road and get our seat at the table, we first need to heal. But how do you learn to be right within when you have settled into the microaggressions? Or perhaps you’re accustomed to trying to make a toxic workplace work. It’s not easy to heal, but we owe it to ourselves to try. As much as I want you to secure your seat at the table, I want you to make sure you are right within first. I want you to know what it feels like to be free at work. Webster’s dictionary defines freedom as “the absence of necessity, coercion, or constraint in choice or action.” Wouldn’t it finally feel good to experience freedom at work? Freedom from the stereotypes of an Angry Black Woman, Feisty Latina, or Docile Asian? Don’t you want to be released from the past triggers or the current toxicity that you may not even know is causing you pain? Here’s another way to look at freedom. Billie Holiday had a song called “Good Morning Heartache.” She sang, “I’ve got those Monday blues / Straight to Sunday blues.” I don’t want us to feel like we have to say good morning to the trauma, good afternoon to the trauma, or see you tomorrow, trauma! Trauma can’t go where you’re going. Your future can’t sustain it. And you shouldn’t be expected to normalize your racial trauma. All of that stops now, and I’m asking you to trust me when I tell you there’s a lighter load on the other side. You deserve to know what healing feels like. And you deserve to know what tools you can use to pack a little bit lighter at work.
YOU ARE NOT ALONE
“Incorporating guidance from therapists and faith leaders, Harts takes a comprehensive look at what this trauma can look like and provides strategies for how to talk about it. Moving beyond how to heal, Harts also points toward the future and shares tactics to help women of color succeed in their workplaces.”
—TIME, "8 New Books You Should Read in October"
- “Minda Harts’s new book, Right Within, is one I’m taking my time to read—it's purpose is to help women of colour heal from racial trauma in the workplace, and Minda absolutely delivers on that.”—Priyanka Khanna, Vogue India
- “Harts argues that we need to understand that racism kills both people and careers, and that workplace injustices do incredible harm. She goes on to explain the labor involved with being the only Black woman in the office, facing microaggressions from colleagues and a lack of support from human resources. This vital guidebook for women of color in the workplace… urges readers to understand there are paths forward, and to remember that they are not alone.”—Booklist
- “Harts offers advice on how women can acknowledge their pain and recover from their heartbreaks with the right healing tools, and she continues to raise awareness about these challenges among industry leaders and managers.”—Entrepreneur
- “A frank-talking field guide for “how to deal with microaggressions, heal from racialized trauma, and find relief from invisible workplace burdens.” Most importantly, it includes insights on how to advocate for oneself and an equitable, inclusive workplace, even when on unequal footing.”—The Root
- “If you want to be a better champion for your colleagues who have experienced racism at work, or a boss who creates a work environment that heals rather than retraumatizing your employees, this is the book you need to read. Now.” —Kim Scott, New York Times-bestselling author of Radical Candor
- “Right Within compels women of color across generations to address racialized trauma by speaking up, healing from the inside, and identifying triggers. You will benefit greatly from putting its wisdom into practice.”—Melonie Parker, Chief Diversity Officer, Google
- “A moving guide to healing and equity— Harts is a voice to be reckoned with. Everyone needs to read this book.”—LaTosha Brown, co-founder of Black Voters Matter
- "Harts highlights that what matters most is valuing you, and trusting yourself enough to push through obstacles faced on a daily basis. A powerful, necessary read for women of color—and everyone—seeking to tap into their resilience from within." —Barbara Whye, VP of Diversity and Inclusion, Apple
- “Harts puts so much that needs to be said into words, and her advice is priceless. This is the guide we’ve been waiting for.”—La La Anthony, TV producer, actress, and author of The Love Playbook
- “With resilience and self-preservation, Harts guides the reader through her personal journey, providing expert advice on how we, too, can overcome and heal from ongoing racial discrimination.” —Dr. Sheila Robinson, Publisher & CEO, Diversity Woman Media
- On Sale
- Oct 5, 2021
- Page Count
- 288 pages
- Seal Press