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Working While Black: The 6 Stages to Keep Your Cool and Your Job

It happens.

On Friday’s drive to the office, the phone pings with a news alert about yet another Black man or woman killed by law enforcement. Sadness looms closely as the usual short drive to work now becomes longer. As you walk to your desk, your white co-workers are talking casually about sports, entertainment and last night’s happy hour.

“The weekend is a few hours away,” you solemnly think as you distance yourself from aimless conversation.

To some Black people, this occurs regularly. For them, news about travesties like the Charleston, South Carolina, massacre becomes twice as uncomfortable when they have to show up to work where they might be the token Black person employed.

In her book “Working While Black: The Black Person’s Guide to Success” Michelle T. Johnson references a study on intercultural sensitivity by Milton Bennett that highlights the six stages of cultural development.

“Although the model is based on the premise that whites are the ones who need to learn intercultural sensitivity, the model actually applies to a person of color trying to make his or her way in a workplace filled primarily with those from another culture,” the book states.

The first stage is denial, where people do not recognize cultural differences. It sounds a bit like, “I do not see color, we are a post-racial society,” or the newest one, “#AllLivesMatter.”

Following denial is the defense stage where people recognize some differences but see them as negative, which sounds similar to the classic, “Slavery was in the past, I did not do it, why are Black people still talking about it?”

If your eyes have not rolled to the back of your head yet the third stage is minimization. This is the stage where people are unaware of their projection of their own cultural values onto others and see their cultural values as superior. It is perhaps the stage where most employers are today particularly with comments about “clean work appearances” in regards to the natural styling of a Black man or woman’s hair.

From here the progression becomes positive with stage four being acceptance. People shift their perspectives to understand that what they consider ordinary behavior can have different meanings in different cultures. This stage applies to everyone. Cultural awareness is also critical for those who travel to different countries where Western customs are possibly offensive.

The fifth stage is adaption which involves evaluating the behavior of people in a different cultural group from their frame of reference and adapting their behavior to fit what is normal in this different culture.

Integration is the final stage of Bennett’s sensitivity model, where people can shift their frames of reference and become comfortable with evaluating situations from multiple frames. This is what civil rights leaders hoped for, and just because Blacks and whites can sit on the same park bench now does not mean integration has been achieved.

Chances are these horrific accounts of police brutality will occur while on the clock. The key to not lashing out at white co-workers is to remember that for some, you are the first Black person they have been in close contact with. While it is unfair to be the representative for your entire culture, the key to staying employed is finding measures to reduce the stress. Go for a walk on your lunch hour, listen to soft nature sounds or, if the conversation turns to race, get up and walk away.

But if the situation ever becomes that unbearable, take Malcolm X’s advice and find yourself a Black business to work for.

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