The world is in crisis with both the COVID-19 pandemic and, in the United States, the current backlash of authoritarian power against the #BlackLivesMatter movement. Many people have lost their jobs, homes, income, and lives. But not everyone is affected by or involved in these world changing events in the same way. Many of us are somewhat insulated against the medical, financial, and social repercussions. And while some are actively participating in protests, some of us can’t do that.

Whether or not we are directly affected or directly involved in the necessary work of our current crisis, there are ways that everyone can help. One of those methods of help—intentionally listening to those who are affected—is a simple act of kindness and care that can have a large impact. Unfortunately, it also has the potential to be fraught with problems.

Not Just An Offer to Listen

Listening to the people who are struggling, need support, or need to just vent can be a simple way for us to offer support. A well-worded response with validation of their struggles, or maybe some insight and suggestions (if they’re requesting it) can go a long way toward helping those in need.

There is bad news though. As easy as it is to listen, it’s just as easy for our responses to create a greater burden for those we’re trying to help. This is true whether or not we have the best of intentions. Our words can carry the weight of our own emotional needs if we’re not careful. They can also carry the emotional background and baggage of our collective social history.

We need to be aware of not just who we are as individuals. The circumstances of our background, experience, and privilege play a role in how our comments and responses are received. All of this interacts with the social and historic background of the person we’re trying to help.

This is especially true across racial differences in the context of #BlackLivesMatter.

Emotional Labor Across Racial Differences

A coworker recently shared an article from Dr. Robin DiAngelo, titled White Women’s Tears and the Men Who Love Them. The focus of the article is working to recognize the power and problems that our emotions, as white people, can perpetuate. Whether or not we want it to be true, our reactions come with hundreds of years of oppression when responding to Black people and other people of color.

[Our emotional responses] affect those around us. We are not unique individuals interacting in a social vacuum. We have to look beyond ourselves and recognize our socio-political context. Our emotional reactions in cross-racial settings and the behaviors they inform have an impact to which we must attend.

Dr. DiAngelo is not trying to make you feel guilty for having your own emotions and reactions. And she isn’t trying to tell you that white people can never respond to Black people. She is, however, pointing to the long and terrible history of emotional labor being pushed onto oppressed people—and especially Black people.

We, as non-Black people, need to consider this context and history before we react and respond.

  • Who is being centered with my response?
  • What purpose does my response serve?
  • Is my response going to help the person that should be centered?
  • Will it relieve the emotional burden of that person?
  • Will it allow them to be fully present in their own emotional needs?

Unintended Emotional Labor

Consider a situation where a Black person may be expressing frustration or anxiety around the violence being used against the #BlackLivesMatter movement. If I, as a white person, respond with my own experiences as a way to connect with them, I’m likely doing more harm than good. My response—no matter how valid my experiences are—would likely have centered me in the conversation instead of the person that needed the support.

Sometimes the problematic responses are less obvious, though. Sometimes problems are cloaked in a positive message.

Another coworker may be opening up about anxieties and fear related to COVID-19 and how it has directly affected them, for example. Responding with praise for that person being open, for being vulnerable, for being a leader in difficult conversations might sound appealing. But, they might not want praise or a boost in their perceived leadership skills. They may genuinely be scared, frustrated, angry, and unsure what to do other than open up and let it out.

These “positive” responses can lead to situations where that person feels like they have to be the strong one—the person that pushes through and leads through difficult times. While in reality, they have not been given the support they need. Instead, they have been unintentionally shoved out of the center of the conversation and expected to provide the support they needed, to other people.

So, what does it mean to “center” someone in a conversation? And how do we do that?

Ring Theory: Centering Those Most Affected

Another coworker shared an article from Elena Premack Sandler: Ring Theory Helps Us Bring Comfort In … and “dump” our own stuff out.

The article talks about the use of “Ring Theory” to create a center around the people that are most affected by a crisis. From there, rings are added in an outward direction, representing people who are less and less affected.

When you are talking to a person […] closer to the center of the crisis, the goal is to help. Listening is often more helpful than talking. … If you want to scream or cry or complain, if you want to tell someone how shocked you are or how icky you feel, or whine about how it reminds you of all the terrible things that have happened to you lately, that’s fine. It’s a perfectly normal response. Just do it to someone [who is less directly impacted by the crisis, than you].

All of this points back to the emotional labor that needs to be done in a crisis response: who needs support, who should provide that support, and how we can reduce the emotional burden on those more directly affected than us.

A Dangerous Misuse of Ring Theory

Applying Ring Theory to help individuals with their emotional needs in a crisis is a necessary way to offer help. But the ideas behind this can backfire when misued.

Say I were to approach a Black colleague with a blog post talking about a software and technology event that I’m running. I might want to know if my colleague thinks now is an appropriate time to post this, or if I should hold off during the current crisis.

Why is this bad, though? I’m concerned about Black people. I’m sensitive to the current situations in our country. And I’m trying to consider my Black colleague’s feelings. What’s really happening, though is a two-fold problem:

  1. I’m implictly compelling that person to perform extra emotional labor for me, and
  2. I’m asking them to speak on behalf of Black people, everywhere

Instead of pushing my own work and emotional labor onto this person, I should take the time to do some of my own research. And if I can’t find an answer from any blog posts, articles, or other discussions, I can err on the safe side and choose to hold off.

Remember: Black people are not a monolith. One Black person does not represent the entire Black race. And, in the words of a coworker’s spouse:

“Don’t offload your emotional labor to the one Black person you know kthx”

Listen Well, Respond Well

Our goal in listening to other people should not be to respond with whatever happens to cross our mind and hope it provides the support the other person needs.

Instead, we need to listen with careful intent. We need to hear the frustrations and specific words and phrases used. And we need to reply in a way that validates the other person’s experiences and emotions.

When we do that, we stand a much greater chance of having a positive impact on someone’s mental health and their ability to cope with the crisis that they are facing.

River Lynn Bailey

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Double Agent
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Agent 0069
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Waco, TX