Americans are living in traumatic times. Two mass shootings in El Paso, Texas, and Dayton, Ohio, killed 29 victims in less than 24 hours the weekend before last. As of Aug. 5, there have been more 255 mass shootings in the U.S., meaning that there have been more mass shootings than days in the year.
There is a heightened sense of anxiety about being in public spaces right now, as real panic to false shooting scares has shown. That stress is magnified if you are part of a group targeted by a shooter, said Patrick O’Malley, a grief and trauma psychotherapist based in Texas and the author of “Getting Grief Right.”
“There is the collective response to this trauma because it was commonplace, and then for folks who ethnically identify with the victims, you’ve got that added sense of a targeted group,” he said. “It’s stress on top of stress.”
Authorities believe that before killing and injuring people in a Walmart, the El Paso shooter wrote an anti-immigrant online manifesto on the “Hispanic invasion of Texas” that directly targeted the Latinx community and echoed language from conservative media, President Donald Trump and the NRA. The shooting is being treated as an act of domestic terrorism; police said the suspect told detectives that he specifically targeted Mexicans during the attack. At least eight Mexican nationals were among those killed.
Even those who were not a direct witness or have no personal connection to the victims in El Paso may still be experiencing feelings of trauma as members of the Latinx community. And those feelings do not leave when the work day begins. Therapists and workplace experts gave us advice on how colleagues can show support and care to Latinx co-workers who feel targeted because of their identity.
“We don’t always feel safe talking about immigration or the hate towards the Latinx community in our workplace.”
– Katheryn Perez
Acknowledgement Is The First Step
As someone who is not being directly targeted, you may feel that the best way to support your colleague is to say nothing. That may stem from a fear of saying the wrong thing or by believing that your colleague seems fine. But just because a colleague acts fine on the outside does not mean they are fine. O’Malley calls this mask “social splitting,” where what we feel after a loss is different than how we act at work.
Nicole Sanchez is the CEO of Vaya Consulting, a management consulting firm that advises companies on diversity and inclusion. She said saying nothing after the El Paso shooting can have far worse repercussions for Latinx workers in workplaces where they are not the majority. “There is the sense of isolation, but even worse than that is wondering who of your colleagues is unbothered by what is going on, or secretly supports what’s going on, or doesn’t see the horror, and that’s a legitimate fear that isn’t just about a feeling of isolation,” she said. “By not extending anything, everybody is a question mark.”
O’Malley acknowledges there is a risk in asking how your colleague is doing, but said it is a better risk to take than staying silent. “What you’re doing is making a calculated bet that that is better than ignoring,” he said.
How To Do It Depends On Your Relationship
One helpful guideline for how to show this support or acknowledgement is to first think about your prior relationship with your Latinx colleague. Is this your first time talking to them? Do you even know if they are Latinx?
Sanchez said personally reaching out is “only for people you have a relationship with, not rando-every-person-whose-last-name-seems-like-it-must-be-Latin in your company,” she said. If you don’t have a prior relationship with a Latinx colleague, Sanchez said making a public statement of support to the Latinx community in an internal message board could be helpful.
Katheryn Perez, a California-based licensed marriage and family therapist, said that if you have a good relationship, you can make it a natural conversation by bringing up your own concerns, such as, “‘I’m concerned about this happening in Florida or Los Angeles. What do you think?’ That gives the person the leeway to jump into the conversation and share their own emotional perspective,” she said.
People who are anxious about a conversation should know words are not the only thing that can may a positive difference. Care can be shown through small actions like offering to go for a walk together, or getting lunch, or getting their coffee. “For the Latinx co-worker to feel and know that there is some type of support at work is honestly sometimes more than enough,” Perez said.
Sanchez recommends reaching out like how you would when someone experiences a death in their family: by showing up, acknowledging the loss and being respectful if the person does not want to talk. “People who are trying to figure out what to say and are being thoughtful because they’re heartbroken, they’re not going to mess it up that badly,” she said. “They’re going to be clumsy, but they’re not going to mess it up.”
Let Your Latinx Colleague Lead The Conversation
If a Latinx colleague does decide to confide how they are feeling, listen to what they are telling you — don’t offer your own take. Respect the other person’s boundaries so that you giving your Latinx co-worker power over their own story, Perez said.
“You don’t come in with knowledge, you don’t try to spin it or direct it,” O’Malley said. “The key word, in terms of how to relate to people grieving and under this kind of stress, is to come in open-minded and curious, and that’s a form of acknowledgement.”
Don’t Take A “No” Personally If You Reach Out
If a Latinx colleague declines to talk with you, don’t take it personally. “We don’t always feel safe talking about immigration or the hate towards the Latinx community in our workplace,” Perez said. “We don’t always feel comfortable talking about it, especially if it’s a white-dominant culture.” Perez said that a colleague can model unconditional positive regard to their Latinx co-worker by showing support “regardless of what the person might say or might feel.”
Recognize that a “no” to talking today could also be a “yes” later down the road. “How you respond to the decline is also an act of compassion,” O’Malley said, adding that the act of reaching out can let the other person know you are “someone who is safe should they want to later on.”
Don’t Push Your Help
There may be an impulse to use statistics or data to reassure your targeted colleague that they are safe at work, but that would be a mistake, said O’Malley. “It’s a minimizing response,” he said. “A complete response would be to say, ‘We can look at the statistics all we want, but the fact is, it happened and it happened to a targeted group, and you’re a member of that group, so I’m not going to pretend to understand what you’re experiencing but I absolutely want to note that you have my compassion and support.’”
O’Malley also cautions employees who consider themselves helpers, because the need to be helpful can actually prevent you from listening to what the other person needs. “They say, ‘Oh no, no, I know you really need to talk about this.’ ‘Well, no, I really don’t.’ ‘I think it’s in your best interest, and I’m a good listener.’ You hear that kind of language, you know that the agenda isn’t the person, the agenda is the helper needing the feedback of being a helper,” O’Malley said.
If you really want to be a good listener, you don’t push, O’Malley said.
Don’t Assume You Know How They’re Feeling
If you are not Latinx, there may be an impulse to make comparisons to your own experience as a way to connect with Latinx colleagues. In her personal experience, Sanchez said, these kinds of disclosures can be supportive depending on the specific stories being shared.
“My Black friends who have reached out and compared what has happened in the mass shooting with what has happened in the Black community, I find comfort in that, I find camaraderie in that,” Sanchez said. “When someone who is not a person of color does that, the experience they’re sharing better be pretty spot-on … And I know that that may seem unfair to some people when they hear that, but that’s part of the undoing of white supremacy in understanding why that might be hard to receive. White supremacy always centers itself. White supremacy compares everything to itself.”
If You’re A Manager, Be Aware Of The Power Dynamics Of This Talk
Words of support become more loaded when the person seeking to show care is a boss. A targeted Latinx employee could feel the pressure of “I better say the right thing” or “Is my manager worried I’m distracted?” when this discussion happens under the power differential of manager-to-report, O’Malley said.
“If the manager is motivated out of concern and compassion, take anything that’s related to the hierarchy off the table,” he said. To create a safe space, a manager should emphasize that this is a private discussion happening human-to-human. A fear of being seen as unreliable and risking job security could be holding back Latinx employees from being honest about how they are feeling.
In a supportive message to your Latinx direct report, Sanchez recommends emphasizing that there is no obligation to respond to it. “You are not putting the other person in some burdened position to have to then respond if you just say, ‘You don’t have respond if you don’t want to, but I want to let you know that this has been on my mind,’” Sanchez said. “Simply that could mean so much for the person who’s wondering if their manager is even paying attention to the news.”