Deescalation And Conflict In White-Dominated Workplaces

Conflict can be hard to deal with for many people. Especially when the conflict happens at work, the source of your livelihood. Nobody wants to mess up their bag and work conflicts can be the perfect storm. Keeping a roof over your head is so ridiculously difficult in this country and so many people are living paycheck to paycheck. And for people of color, there are even more risks to getting into a work conflict with another coworker or worse, a boss, and are trying to figure out how to deal with it without losing your job. The combination of job discrimination/systemic racism, white people’s fear and implicit biases towards us have a huge impact on many people’s ability to make rent. This post will explain how to deescalate conflict in a general situation, the effects of systemic racism and personal experiences with racism, and finally, share professional suggestions as to what resolution can look like for us in these situations.

What is Deescalation?

Deescalation is bringing a high-emotion/energy situation down to neutral. We deescalate situations all the time in our personal lives: “You at a whole 12 and I’ma need you to bring it down to 4, fam. We in public and nobody got bail.” In general, deescalating a situation is about maintaining safety of everyone in the area while respecting the upset person’s agency/humanity. The key is to balance keeping a level of order so that no one is hurt while not treating the person who is upset like an animal. Once you start seeing the upset/agitated person like an animal that needs to managed and contained, you’ve lost ethical control of the situation and the decisions that come after probably aren’t going to be the best.

So what does deescalation look like once conflict starts? Ideally, deescalation involves:

  1. Making eye contact and talking to them in a calm voice. Speak to them calmly until they are able to talk to you about what’s going on for them). It’s important here to be respectful (regardless of how you might feel in the moment) and treat the person with the same empathy you’d want if you were upset.

  2. Dealing with the person who’s upset/angry, etc. 1-on-1. If possible, bring the person to the side and speak to them personally. Don’t gang up on someone because that will probably escalate the situation and the person could become more upset.

  3. Actively listening to what the person is saying. Not putting words in their mouth. Not just waiting for them to stop talking so you can talk. Actually listen to what their needs are. Many times people are upset because they feel no one is hearing them and their concerns are being ignored. So hear them out in all seriousness.

  4. Setting reasonable, realistic boundaries to maintain the safety and peace of the space. For example, reminding the person of the rules of the space i.e. not fighting here or yelling in the waiting area. Or setting personal boundaries like: “It’s hard for me to focus when you ___, would you mind sitting down to talk, etc.?” (Reminder that boundaries are not about setting limits on or controlling other people’s behaviors. Boundaries are ultimately for you, not for other people, as guidelines so you can figure out what’s best for you in each situation. In this case, you are setting boundaries also to maintain physical and emotional safety for everyone in the space. See my intro to boundaries piece for more here.)

  5. Collaborating with the upset/agitated person on other realistic options to this behavior/situation like taking a walk, having a snack/going on lunch, and/or going into another room to talk to someone, etc. This helps you continue to see the person as a human with reasonable concerns and someone who can help come up with solutions to the issue.

How Does Race and Racism Affect How Conflict Is Handled At Work?

I described an ideal situation: all things and people being equal. But what happens when the playing field isn’t fair and 1 person has more power/privilege than the other? Personal experiences with racism and systemic racism in the workspace set the scene for how people approach each conflict. Since my intended audience is mainly Black people (and other POCs), I don’t think I should have to explain how racism and white supremacy affects how people are seen and treated. Who gets listened to vs. presumed to be lying? Who is assumed to be aggressive vs. who gets to be the victim? I think most POC in America have had moments when their fate was decided totally based on white tears, anger, etc. at some point in their work life. It can be a seriously scary moment when your job and ability to live hangs is up in the air to be decided by someone’s whims. What does deescalation even look like when the person doesn’t see you as fully human? The agitated person doesn’t want to reason with you or if you are the upset one, people around you are acting like you’re a wild animal. Often in the workplace, Black people are expected to perform extra happiness for the comfort of white coworkers and employers. A neutral face or any emotion that isn’t joy is often seen as threatening. At best, white people feeling threatened by you existing leads to multiple private meetings and pressures to change yourself and perform whatever person they want you to be for their comfort (extra emotional labor with no extra money to go with it). Or worse, you could be harassed and deal with gaslighting for months or longer before you give up and leave, are pressured to resign, or fired.

And it isn’t like it’s easy to find a job nowadays. Wider systemic racism affects job market and job discrimination is very, very, VERY real, especially if you are a person of color with many different marginalized identities at once. It’s 1 thing to be a cis Black man, looking for work and dealing with racial job discrimination. It’s a whole other thing to be a Black trans woman and dealing with racism, sexism, transmisogny, etc. all at once.  And without generational wealth, possibly being the one that takes care of family members, etc., we are often in a no-win situation. Many of us stay and deal with a toxic workspace (if we have that choice to stay) rather than be forced out into the unknown. If this sounds like abuse to you, it is because this is abusive. Your life and your ability to survive is tied up in the whims of privileged individuals and in the system. It’s no surprise that many Black people take the “clock in, do my job, and clock out” approach to work.

Dealing with Conflict In White Spaces

What does conflict resolution look like for Black ppl & other POCs in white-dominated workplaces? And I’m defining white-dominated as who ultimately holds the influence/power, not in terms of population size. The first thing I’d ask y’all to remember is that HR serves the interests of your company, not the rights/ethical concerns of employees. Basically, HR ain’t for you, fam. They don’t have YOUR best interests at heart and will throw you under the bus to save the company in a second. Never forget that. As a person of color in a white dominated space, it can seem like you are constantly deescalating and trying to prevent potential conflicts on a regular, especially the darker your skin is. On some level, everything about us is policed so we end up eventually policing ourselves: our body language, tone, how we word our emails, the way we laugh, our resting face…all of that needs to be adjusted if you make it a priority to make your white coworkers and bosses feel comfortable with you (and your Otherness). If you’ve worked in these kinds of places for awhile, it may be easier for you to navigate everything. Being able to work in a white-dominated workplace is not a sign of being better or worse. Your ability to co-switch and act in ways that make white people comfortable is not a sign of intellect. It’s a survival tool, sure. And like other tools, not all of us can use them. It just means that person needs to find a different tool that fits them.

If you are being harassed, document everything. Keep emails and send them to your personal email. Audio record meetings. Get verbally recorded or in writing confirmation of as much of the harassment as you can. See if you have trusted witnesses. Get a pro bono lawyer. Don’t brag about yourself making these moves. You are in a toxic situation with your abusive employer. These moves help to protect your livelihood. Unfortunately, there are times when conflict resolution isn’t enough. Always have a Plan B.

As a psychotherapist, I am going to put emphasis on the need to protect your mental health. It’s one thing to be able to survive and even thrive at the job, but do you have the mental and/or emotional energy for the other parts of your life? It’s important to find that balance so you can survive/thrive for as long as you need to while also being at peace with how you live your life in general. Find a balance between making those unfortunately  necessary for now sacrifices and setting boundaries for your mental and physical health. We all remember how drained about grandparents and parents were after coming home from jobs where they had to coddle white people at work all day for the sake of keeping a roof. Self-awareness is a way to make sure that you are being fulfilled and finding meaning/purpose in other areas of your life. That job is important because it pays bills, but it doesn’t have to be the most important thing in your life. Again, check out my post on how to set boundaries for some more information. It’s easier to maintain a solid work/life balance if you make some time for self care (Self care 101 post here and if you take the time to know yourself. You could also try different Mindfulness techniques (see post here] until you find the right one(s) for you. Mindfulness techniques are useful for checking in with yourself, managing anger, anxiety and depressive symptoms, and cravings, etc. Sometimes there are going to be no-win situations where staying is not an options. Part of having firm boundaries, taking care of yourself, and being more mindful of yourself is knowing when to leave a toxic situation at the point where the it hurts more than it’s helping. At the end of the day, it’s about how not only doing good for yourself now, but also keeping this same energy years from now. Sustaining yourself. Growing yourself, not the company.

Deescalating a heated and/or tense situation at work is hard enough as it is. Adding in racial dynamics can make work feel like a life or death chess match or survival strategy game everyday. And that can be draining. Figuring out how to set the right boundaries, doing some self care and mindfulness techniques, and having a life outside of work goes a long way in protecting yourself from the potential damages of working in a less than affirming work environment. Taking care of your health and mental health is priceless.The only way you’ll be able to survive and/or truly thrive in the long run is if you make yourself a top priority.

Thanks for reading. The next post will cover the phenomenon of detransitioning and the reasons that trans people might decide to detransition, and what you can do to support them in whatever actions they take.

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