Illustration by Garrett Prince
Illustration by Garrett Prince

Work Culture

Emotional intelligence as a form of healing and resistance for Black workers

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Published on July 13, 2020

Illustration by Garrett Prince

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This was supposed to be a different article.

I was all set to write about the importance of emotional intelligence—or EQ, the ability to identify and manage emotions in oneself and others—in navigating remote workplaces during coronavirus and beyond. 

“Emotional intelligence seemed like a professional development nice-to-have B.C. (before COVID),” I wrote my editor. “Now the rest of us are starting to see it as the integral part of maintaining bonds and building company culture it's always been to thriving distributed workforces. Article would breakdown what EQ is and how it keeps connection going.”

And then… Ahmaud Arbery. Breonna Taylor. George Floyd. Tony McDade. Their names and the details of their murders joined a depressing roster I don’t realize I’m keeping until another person is added to the list. And there are always more names. (Many Black people have a version of this list—mine started in 2012, with the murder of 17-year-old Trayvon Martin. He was by no means the first Black person murdered by extrajudicial forces, but his was the first to upend my ideas of safety and justice.)

The subsequent protests in their names have triggered a much-needed and long-overdue national conversation about policing, racism, and white supremacy. And while one hopes this will lead to something like equity, accountability, and justice, I’ve noticed the effect the back-to-back traumas of racism and a global pandemic exacerbated by racism is having on me and others in my community. (Black people have five times the risk of getting COVID-19 of white people, according to the CDC.)

We’re not eating well (it’s either too much or too little). We’re not sleeping well (same issues). We can’t focus. We were once able to compartmentalize this hurt until the next name, but now we’re feeling every emotion on the Feelings Wheel all at once, making it very hard to show up for our roles as friends, partners, and parents. (Not even to speak of our duties as co-workers and employees.)

We are living through history’s largest civil rights demonstration. And we’re experiencing a huge mental health crisis in the midst of it.

Emotional intelligence for survival

Black people’s ability to compartmentalize our feelings in the face of persistent racial trauma is a type of emotional intelligence.

“Emotional intelligence is really being aware of how emotions affect your own beliefs [and] behaviors, and other people’s beliefs and behaviors,” explains Christina Blacken, founder of storytelling platform The New Quo. It falls into four categories, she adds: self-awareness, self-management, social awareness (“how your emotions and your behaviors are affecting other people”), and relationship management (“Are you able to persuade and lead others?”).

We are living through history’s largest civil rights demonstration. And we’re experiencing a huge mental health crisis in the midst of it.

These skills, which are often touted as key to modern business leadership success, have been a part of Black people’s survival strategy in this country since enslavement. We’re told at very young ages about stereotypes and carry the burden of low expectations. We are given “The Talk” (a recurring conversation about how to act when confronted with racism), told we have to work twice as hard for half as much, and repeat this sad initiation when we have children of our own. 

To say that Black people are adept at emotional intelligence would be an understatement. Outside our communities, we are expected to perform identities that manage other feelings for their comfort, for our safety, and to get closer to grabbing that brass ring. W.E.B. Dubois refers to this as having a “double consciousness” in 1903’s The Souls of Black Folk. In it, Dubois says a Black person in America is…

“…born with a veil, and gifted with second-sight in this American world, —a world which yields him no true self-consciousness, but only lets him see himself through the revelation of the other world. It is a peculiar sensation, this double-consciousness, this sense of always looking at one's self through the eyes of others, of measuring one's soul by the tape of a world that looks on in amused contempt and pity. One ever feels his twoness, —an American, a Negro; two souls, two thoughts, two unreconciled strivings; two warring ideals in one dark body, whose dogged strength alone keeps it from being torn asunder.”

That consciousness in practice looks like code switching. Code switching is a “behavioral adjustment” that “involves adjusting one’s style of speech, appearance, behavior, and expression in ways that will optimize the comfort of others in exchange for fair treatment, quality service, and employment opportunities,” according to a 2019 Harvard Business Review article

Being Black has been stigmatized, at best, over the course of 400-plus years. So in order to succeed in a dominant culture, we’ve used emotional intelligence as a way to get by. Speaking African American Vernacular English isn’t “professional” and makes people uncomfortable? Let’s speak “standard” English. Could the way I convey my passion or opinion be misconstrued as “angry” or “aggressive”? Let me modulate my speech and speak in dulcet tones. 

Navigating being Black in largely white spaces—which many knowledge workspaces typically are—requires a type of performance that erases or flattens your identity. The lights go up, but there’s no applause, just the knowledge that you made it through another day a dollar shorter than your white counterpart. 

The limits of racial EQ 

Upon deeper interrogation, the benefits of having this type of emotional intelligence feel like getting a booby prize.

“White participants evaluated code-switching behaviors positively and perceived those who engaged in these behaviors as more [their emphasis] professional,” according to an online survey of 350 Black and white respondents conducted by the Harvard Business Review.

Yet much like respectability politics aren’t a bulletproof vest in interactions with the police, these behaviors don’t protect people from the indignities of having to use them.

These skills, which are often touted as key to modern business leadership success, have been a part of Black people’s survival strategy in this country since enslavement.

A 2019 Center for Talent Innovation report found that Black professionals were “nearly four times as likely to encounter prejudice as white professionals” and experienced 14 different types of microaggressions “at significantly higher rates than all other racial groups” they surveyed. (A viral Twitter thread goes into great detail about just how differently Black people are perceived by supervisors.) 

And in the Harvard Business Review survey, Black employees who felt like they achieved company fit and career success practiced code switching. “Crucially, however, they also were more likely to burn out. We suspect this is because the process of trying to fit in can be exhausting and dispiriting.”

It is hard work being on all the time. According to “Working Identity,” a 2000 Cornell Law article by Devon W. Carbado and Mithui Gulati, women and minorities are “likely to feel the need to do significant amounts of ‘extra’ identity work to counter” negative stereotypes about their abilities, only to still be subjected to those same stereotypes when trying to act counter to them. (Working late to show you’re a hard worker can be read as ineptitude: Why can’t you get work done in a timely fashion?)

Yay?

All of this usually played out internally, or as a whisper network in knowing looks and Slack channels shared with co-workers of color. Until…

Ahmaud. Breonna. George. Tony. Rayshard Brooks. 

Now being hyperaware of white people’s emotions feels like a weight too heavy to carry when the same consideration has never been afforded to us. 

In a Mic article called “Being Black at work right now,” the author highlights a quote from Fishbowl, a professional community app. The anonymized statement sums it up perfectly:

“Y'all,” it starts, “it's been really difficult having to fake my smiles during these virtual happy hours and talk about mundane things all the while dealing (yet again) with what it means to be Black in America.”

Emotional intelligence as self-care

Black people are being gaslighted on multiple fronts. We’re more likely to die from coronavirus, yet we’re seeing science ignored and social distancing measures flouted. We’re more likely to die from interactions with the police, yet our grievances are met with “All Lives Matter” rhetoric. One can not overstate how traumatic it is to see someone who looks like you or your loved ones be killed and receive more scrutiny in death than the people who killed them. And then there’s the psychic whiplash of issues Black people have been advocating for centuries suddenly being in vogue… 

Navigating being Black in largely white spaces—which many knowledge workspaces typically are—requires a type of performance that erases or flattens your identity. 

One or two of these is a lot, but all of them happening at once is maddening and triggers a PTSD response.

“People are experiencing secondary or vicarious trauma,” psychologist and yoga therapist Gail Parker explained in an NBCBLK article. “Secondary trauma is the trauma of exposure to a racially charged event that leaves you feeling helpless and afraid and comes from seeing something overpowering. We are seeing this on top of the ongoing daily recurrences of racial events that cause us emotional pain.

“Black people have a group consciousness,” she continued, “so when we see a Black person being killed or abused on television or when we read about it, we identify with that person being abused and with their family,"

Ahmaud. Breonna. George. Tony. Rayshard. Elijah McClain. No, we often don’t know the victims personally, and yet… we do.

If everyone used their emotional intelligence, maybe there wouldn’t be any more new names to add to the list, Christina Blacken suggests.

“A lot of the inequity we have in the world is fueled by low EQ,” Blacken says. “People who only revere their fear and self-preservation to an extreme, who aren’t able to empathize and understand other people, are motivated to be inequitable because they think it’s going to protect them when it in fact just causes a systems breakdown.”

We are living in the midst of a systems breakdown, while advocating for a new system. Perhaps the same skill set that we’ve used as a tool for survival can be used to address our needs. 

It may be hard to access those feelings after years of being encouraged to push them away. But using emotional intelligence on ourselves is a desperately needed act of self-care, just as pulling ourselves away from grisly images and social media “debates” and finding culturally competent therapy and communities of like-minded people are. 

“Our superpower is going to be our ability to listen to ourselves, to what’s bombarding us,” Sade Lythcott, the CEO of the National Black Theatre wrote in a powerful Instagram post for Juneteenth. “Our listening is our superpower.”

Doing some honest self-reflection can help us apply those four tenets—self-awareness, self-management, social awareness, and relationship management—to ourselves, and ultimately help with our mental health.

1. Understand your narrative. 

When we’re with family and friends, we don’t have to put on an act—we can be ourselves. But some of us have been told either explicitly or through poor treatment that we need to create an identity that is a photo negative of who we really are. Having a firm sense of who you are outside of stereotypes and the white gaze is crucial to your emotional intelligence. With it, you’re able to identify how you truly feel (rather than how you think you should feel) and advocate for yourself. 

This is also true with the stories we tell ourselves about ourselves. Narrative intelligence works in tandem with EQ, Blacken explains. 

It may be hard to access those feelings after years of being encouraged to push them away. But using emotional intelligence on ourselves is a desperately needed act of self-care.

“Narrative drives our emotions, which ultimately drives our behavior,” she says. “One of the best tools that people can use is narrative inquiry. That’s [asking] a series of pointed questions around various milestones, transitions, and changes in your life, and figuring out the meaning of those moments.”

There are four types of milestones to explore: origin events (that is, life’s firsts), adversity events, innovation moments (“Times when you really stretch your creativity,” Blacken explains), and success moments. Blacken suggests taking stock of those milestones and reconsidering how you’re framing them through self-reflective writing.

“There’s lots of research that shows when you’re able to process and write down an experience, you’re able to have a bit more distance from it; you can find redemptive perspective in it. You can process the actual feelings that are there,” she says.

Instead of positioning adverse moments as “disempowering” and taking a “fatalistic” view of the world, Blacken says, you could reframe them and say, “’This was horrible, and yet, here’s how I got through it, here’s how I was able to process my feelings, and here’s how I’m able to move forward.’”

Yes, the Black community is experiencing trauma as a collective. But you are also an individual with your own experiences and stories. Connect with yourself and engage in some self-examination to avoid the erasure these events can trigger.

2. Create counternarratives for workplace microaggressions.

They’re called microaggressions, but there’s nothing teeny about these encounters. It can feel like death by a million pinpricks, imperceptible to your colleagues. The Center for Talent Innovation breaks down these encounters into three groups: microinsults ("My manager has met one-on-one with others on my team, but not me”), microinvalidations (being mistaken for someone else of the same race), and microassaults (the use of racially insensitive language).

Our old understanding of emotional intelligence required us to take microaggressions on the chin, but not acknowledging the effects of these experiences only further invalidates our feelings, ignoring the emotional toil they have on us.

So write them down, Blacken recommends.

“One, it’s good to have receipts in case you do use the systems around you to get accountability,” she notes. “There could be ways to find redemption and justice if you’ve experienced really serious, egregious microaggressions and racism in your workplace.”

But this exercise also allows you to extend yourself the grace that you didn’t receive in those encounters. As you write down the microaggression, allow yourself to sit with how the experience made you feel. Be honest: Were you angry, anxious, sad, numb? 

“Once you’ve processed and sit with those feelings, create counternarratives that showcase that your identity and value is not defined by white gaze, it’s not defined by other people’s limitations,” Blacken says. “It is defined by your own attitude and your own perceptions of self-worth.”

In doing the self-reflective work offered earlier, you can have a store of counternarratives to call upon to “dismantle any self-doubts…and self-loathing” microaggressions can bring up. 

When these insults feel personal, we can internalize them as truths. However they speak more to the other party’s own gaps and insecurities, Blacken explains. Ask yourself, “’What are examples of my history—my accomplishments, the things that I feel good about as a human being—that can counter these microaggressions?’” she says. 

“An example of that is if you are a really compassionate human being, and that’s affected people in really positive ways,” she continues. “That’s a really great thing to remember and to look back on. ‘You know? I have these great qualities as a human being and this person’s really limited view and stereotyping doesn’t define who I am.’”

3. Separate your self from your work.

We can take it a step further and separate our identities from our labor, something Sade Lythcott of the National Black Theatre called for in her Instagram post.

“With all the expectations and fatigue in our DNA, this is an opportunity to redefine what our value proposition is in this country, starting with ourselves and this community,” she wrote in a Juneteenth post. “Who are we if we are not tied to our labor?”

People’s identities are so tightly connected to productivity metrics that discount our humanity. (Oh, capitalism…) As a society we equate being a “good worker” with being a good person. So what happens when the news cycle keeps us from being our most productive selves? We feel bad!

Our ability to produce isn’t what defines us. Doing that narrative inquiry—and most importantly, making space for it to happen—can help us connect to our identities and separate it from our labor. Affirming that we are not our outbox gives us the compassion and space we need to process our feelings.

4. Call in Black.

A concept created by YouTuber Evelyn from the Internets in 2015, “calling in Black” means taking a mental health day to process racial trauma.

“Every reblog, retweet, repost of citizen video footage that ultimately will never see the light of a courtroom… Watching the same narrative play out over and over and over and over and over and over again takes a toll,” Evelyn explains. “Sometimes I need a minute, m’kay? And that’s where calling in Black would be so clutch.”

“Despite these consistent but unpredictable occurrences, Black employees may feel pressure to maintain a professional demeanor and carry out their regular work routines,” states a 2017 article called “Calling In Black: a dynamic model of racially traumatic events, resourcing, and safety” published in Equality, Diversity and Inclusion: An International Journal. 

“Developing post-traumatic stress symptoms or feeling pressure to discuss racially traumatic events with coworkers may disrupt the workflow due to Black employees’ depleted physiological and psychological resources,” the report continued, “especially when Blacks are underrepresented or their work-related goals are contingent on their relationship with potentially non-Black coworkers.”

Even though the report found experiencing these events “results in poorer health outcomes such as increased hypertension, increased vigilance and sensitivity to threat, and increased depressive symptoms and anxiety,” we tell ourselves the show must go on.

It doesn’t. If you’re in a bad way, use your personal time to give yourself a much-needed break.

“The average American doesn’t even take their PTO, so the least you can do is take that!” Blacken says. 

“Handling it like you would bereavement or grief is a good way to go,” she advises. “It depends on how trusting your relationship is and how open and transparent your culture is. If you are in an environment where people are punished for being vulnerable, take a mental health day and say, ‘I’m dealing with a serious personal emergency,’ because it is an an emergency. You’re having very serious mental health challenges because of what you’re seeing and it’s valid! We’re seeing people being hung in the streets, shot in their sleep, shot for running… it’s traumatic and it’s scary!”

For those at more transparent workplaces where you feel comfortable being your full self, let people know how these events are affecting you. Clue them in on how they can support you as you process these events and create the boundaries you need to protect your mental health.

“I think it’s important to say…’I need some space and time. I may be a bit slower on some things, I may be taking a bit more time to do what I need to do, and I want you to be aware of that,” Blacken says.

You’re asking for empathy, not carte blanche to play hooky. Stating that can make a difference.

5. Reassess your environment and values and change accordingly. 

A popular saying among Black people is that “We are our ancestor’s wildest dreams.” That goes beyond integration, cars, wifi, and white collar work-from-home jobs. Even though we’re still tapping into the same emotional-intelligence-as-survival toolkit as past generations, the backdrops and circumstances are vastly different.

One of those differences is that we can choose to change or opt out of environments that don’t serve us. Of course, this is all contingent on multiple factors: After all, we are still in a pandemic and experiencing historically high unemployment rates. But start to think about what showing up as your full self could look like at your office. If it’s not possible, consider what it would look like to take your talents somewhere else that’s more aligned with your values and needs.

If you’re in an environment that regularly proclaims itself to be open and transparent, use the systems it has in place to hold the company accountable to its values—if you have the energy to carry out the extra emotional labor. (Being one of few or “the only” often means being asked to do the unpaid work of representing the entire race, which brings its own headaches.)

By the time I finish writing this article, there very well may be a new name and story that I will have to add to my list. Our list. For the foreseeable future, there will be new headlines, a new hashtag that sets off a furious news cycle that is overwhelming and draining. Using the emotional intelligence we’ve acquired to survive in America on ourselves is an act of self-love and self-healing in the face of trauma. It’s an act of resistance.

As Audre Lorde wrote, “Caring for myself is not self-indulgence. It is self-preservation, and that is an act of political warfare."