“If you want to be successful, you need to learn how to act around white people.”
Those were the words my middle school teacher said when I expressed interest in pursuing opportunities that have traditionally excluded those who look like me. This was the first time I could recall someone connecting my Black Jamaican-American identity with failure.
For most of my life, I grappled with my own experiences within systems that never really cared about Black people. As a Black woman, racism permeates every aspect of my life – and I carry the burden of not just being a professional, but also facing bias and racism through interpersonal interactions and systemically.
In order to decipher why these experiences occur and how to combat them, it's important to understand the two terms most closely associated with this phenomenon.
Intersectionality is a term coined by Kimberlé Crenshaw and investigates how individual’s identities intersect in ways that impact how they are viewed, understood, and treated. For example, Black women are both Black and women, but because they are Black women, they endure specific forms of discrimination. When possessing multiple marginalized identities, bringing your whole self to work can be risky for professionals of color.
Respectability politics, or the codes of behavior that many people of color use to be accepted into dominant culture, carry an overwhelming weight. Respectability politics is a coping mechanism from years of ostracization and can lead to behaviors such as code switching and worrying if one’s natural hair will result in negative attention from colleagues. Historically, those with social and institutional power, typically white men, have had the luxury to bring their full selves to the workplace in the United States.
Possessing multiple marginalized identities can make individuals live with constant fear that someone might retaliate because they spoke up about their lived experiences. However, there are values that can be embraced to create a sense of belonging and advance racial equity in the workplace…
Self-awareness is the ability to understand who we are, how others see us, and how we fit into the world around us.
Personal experiences inform our actions, values, beliefs, and assumptions and can shape our perceptions and expectations of others. In the workplace, self-awareness requires the ability to examine the ideas, thoughts, and feelings you have internalized and how they relate to engaging with diverse populations, sources, and materials. Practicing self-awareness allows you to react better to situations or people, which is a healthy skill to cultivate – especially in diverse workforces. When you are aware of your emotions, you create an environment where people feel more comfortable deepening working relationships.
In 2020, many organizations made public commitments to address racial inequity and injustice, and established or expanded diversity, equity, and inclusion (DEI) initiatives for their current and future workforce. After more than two years of efforts, the question arises: Do underrepresented employees trust their organizations’ commitment and feel comfortable speaking about their identity at work?
Despite pledges to change the workplace, 42% of Black women report feeling uncomfortable sharing their thoughts on racial inequity and 22% feel they cannot talk about the impact current events have on them or people in their communities. Creating room for underrepresented groups through employee resource groups and prioritizing frequent empathy interviews can aid in establishing trust.
Building an inclusive workplace requires recognizing that employees have multiple identities that intersect, such as race, gender, sexuality, and disability. These intersections can compound discrimination and marginalization experienced by each individual. Employers should listen to nuanced narratives and experiences to understand how systems and structures impact people differently. By addressing systemic inequities, employers can create a culture shift that embraces DEI. Inclusivity goes beyond surface-level diversity initiatives and requires a deep understanding of the complex ways that intersectionality impacts people of color within their organization and beyond.