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The Heart Work of Equity, A Look at Emotional Intelligence Through the Black Lens

By Ebony JJ Curry

From early on, Black individuals often learn to adjust how they show their feelings due to societal biases, picking up on what’s considered “acceptable” emotional expression. This adaptation points to a larger issue: society’s failure to recognize the full emotional depth of Black people. The need to fit emotions into a narrow societal framework starts at home and impacts all areas of life, widening the gap between true feelings and how they’re shown. This gap not only affects personal emotional growth but also continues a cycle where societal misunderstandings and stigmas about emotions are reinforced, especially towards the Black community.

“Growing up we didn’t talk a lot about emotions, we didn’t really have the opportunity to and emotions can be very strong,” said Cathy Mott, an experienced leadership coach and CEO of CWC Leadership Development. “Most people repress or suppress emotions so, when I think about our people and our community, we need the education, and we need the resources around emotional intelligence.”

In the context of Black history, marked by both suffering and resilience, the discourse on emotional intelligence and racial justice gains immense importance. This conversation merges the enduring impact of systemic racism with the enduring strength of the Black community. As we dissect societal standards and cultural prejudices, the gap in emotional comprehension between Black individuals and others becomes not only clear but also a call for urgent action—a demand for the deep, transformative work of achieving true equity.

This transformative work, deeply ingrained in Black cultural heritage and lived experiences, calls for active engagement rather than mere recognition. It necessitates a fundamental change in our interactions based on the firm belief that equity enriches society for everyone. Emotional intelligence—the art of being attuned to our own emotions and those of the people around us—emerges as a vital skill in this journey. Yet, the challenge remains: how to fully embrace emotional intelligence in a society clouded by racial prejudices?

Adopting mindfulness and improving communication can greatly enhance our ability to understand emotions within ourselves and others, leading to stronger connections and increased productivity in any setting. Achieving success is closely linked with this deeper awareness, making it crucial to start developing emotional intelligence immediately.

Mott supports individuals in navigating this path of emotional awareness and growth with her resources, including the workbook and app “My Journey Within.”

“The reason why I’m interested in helping the Black community with emotional intelligence because I coach a lot of executives and c-suite leaders and I asked myself during a very profound coaching session with an executive, why is this not available to the mases?” Mott shared. “So, I’ve taken a coaching conversation that I’ve had with tons of executives and put it into an app called, ‘My Journey Within.’ It’s like having an emotional intelligence coaching companion in your pocket that you can visit as many times throughout the day.”

Mott cuts to the heart of emotional intelligence. She simplifies it: recognize your emotion in the moment, name it, validate it, and decide what to do with it. Mott points out a common oversight: people experience hundreds of emotions daily but only recognize a few. “We go through over 400 emotions a day, but most can only identify four to six,” she notes. Mott encourages a thoughtful approach to emotions, urging people to reflect on their feelings and their options for responding. This self-awareness is crucial, she argues, as many don’t realize the extent of control they have over their emotional reactions. She emphasizes the importance of emotional intelligence in improving all types of relationships, from personal to professional, and argues it’s a skill everyone should develop, not just the Black community, for overall human betterment.

The struggle for racial equity is deeply rooted in a history of injustice, marked by stories of pain and resilience. For Black people, this means constantly balancing genuine emotional expression with societal pressures that try to box them in. Cultural stereotypes often filter and reduce the depth of Black emotional experiences. Despite these obstacles, the Black community leverages emotional intelligence as a means of resilience and strength, a heritage of endurance. This journey towards understanding and equality isn’t just for the Black community; it requires allies ready to tackle their prejudices and engage in hard conversations about race, privilege, and fairness.

The concept of Black emotional intelligence emphasizes the importance of leaders within the Black community having the adeptness to both perceive and navigate their own emotions, along with those of their colleagues. This skill set is pivotal in recognizing and valuing the diverse experiences, viewpoints, and necessities intrinsic to each member of a team or organization. The significance of emotional intelligence for Black leaders cannot be overstated, as it serves as a cornerstone for fostering a dynamic and successful business atmosphere.

“A lot of people don’t have a healthy relationship with themselves and then they become leaders,” shared Mott. “It’s kind of like, love others as your love yourself and when people don’t have a healthy relationship and they’re not thriving under their own leadership it’s kind of difficult for them to be great leaders so that emotional intelligence piece is very important.”

Emotional intelligence involves understanding how emotions influence personal beliefs and behaviors, as well as those of others. It encompasses self-awareness, self-management, social awareness, and relationship management, including the ability to influence and lead. The stigmatization of Black identity over more than 400 years necessitates the use of emotional intelligence as a survival mechanism within a dominant culture.

These emotional skills, often heralded as essential for leadership success in the modern business world, have been integral to the survival strategies of Black people in America since the era of enslavement.

A 2019 report from the Center for Talent Innovation revealed that Black professionals face prejudice nearly four times more frequently than their white counterparts and experience a significantly higher rate of 14 distinct microaggressions compared to all other racial groups surveyed. The report highlights the stark differences in how Black individuals are perceived by their supervisors.

Furthermore, a Harvard Business Review survey found that Black employees who felt they had achieved a sense of belonging and career success within their companies often engaged in code-switching. However, this adaptation was linked to a higher likelihood of burnout, likely due to the exhausting and disheartening nature of constant masking efforts.

According to a 2000 Cornell Law article, “Working Identity,” women and minorities often feel compelled to engage in extensive ‘extra’ identity work to challenge negative stereotypes about their capabilities, only to find themselves still constrained by those very stereotypes when attempting to defy them.

Society’s collective emotional intelligence, or the lack thereof, significantly impacts how emotions are perceived and expressed across different communities, with the Black community often bearing the brunt of these shortcomings. This deficiency in societal emotional literacy leads to a narrow, stereotypical interpretation of emotional expressions, particularly those of Black individuals. The broader societal inability to navigate and understand the full spectrum of human emotions fosters environments where expressing feelings, especially by Black people, is often misinterpreted as anger or hostility. This mischaracterization is not just a matter of personal misunderstanding but reflects deeper systemic biases embedded within cultural and institutional norms. The consequence is a perpetuation of stereotypes that not only stigmatize emotional expression but also contribute to a cycle of miscommunication and marginalization.

One must wonder why it is that when Black colleagues call attention to microaggressions or outright discriminatory behaviors, their white counterparts often respond by adopting a victim stance. This phenomenon raises critical questions about the dynamics of accountability and privilege in the workplace and beyond. It seems there’s an ingrained defensiveness, a quickness to deflect blame rather than confront the uncomfortable truths about racial biases and their impacts. This defensive posture not only silences valid concerns but also perpetuates a cycle where Black individuals feel compelled to moderate their expressions and responses to maintain harmony or, at the very least, to avoid exacerbating tensions. The question then arises: why isn’t the cultivation of emotional intelligence, with its emphasis on empathy and self-awareness, seen as equally crucial for all, irrespective of race?

The expectation for Black people to constantly modulate their behavior and expressions to ‘fit in’ or to avoid being labeled as aggressive or confrontational underscores a deeper issue of unequal emotional labor. This imbalance begs the question of why the burden of developing and applying emotional intelligence seems disproportionately placed on Black individuals. Shouldn’t a genuine understanding and application of emotional intelligence be a universal requirement, especially for those in positions of relative social and institutional power? This disparity not only highlights a significant gap in mutual understanding and respect but also points to a longstanding issue: the failure to recognize and address the root causes of racial tensions and misunderstandings, which continues to hinder true progress toward equality and understanding.

The pervasive nature of racism, often cloaked in the insidious veil of “color blindness,” seeks to undermine the realities of racial injustice. To proclaim one does not see color is to deny the very fabric of Black identity and experience. It is a refusal to acknowledge the systemic barriers that continue to perpetuate inequality and a dismissal of the urgent need for change.

In this critical moment of our shared history, the call for emotional intelligence intertwined with racial equity is louder than ever. It beckons us to move beyond superficial gestures and engage in the deep, transformative work of understanding and empathy. For Black individuals, this means reclaiming the narrative of emotional intelligence, defining it on their own terms, and using it as a tool for healing and empowerment.

For allies, it requires a willingness to listen, to learn, and to act. It demands a recognition of the unique challenges faced by Black people and a commitment to support the fight for justice and equity. The heart work of equity is more than a concept; it is a living, breathing movement. It is found in the stories of Black joy and pain, in the songs of freedom and resilience, and in the unbreakable bond of community.

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©2019 Atlanta Tribune: The Magazine

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