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The Pursuit of Black Excellence: Setting Boundaries in the Workplace

Estimated reading time ~ 4 min
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Setting the scene…

We were on a short weekend retreat and my friend packed her laptop in her bag to bring to the river. “Why are you bringing that?” I asked her. “It is slippery there. You might drop it in the water.”

“Just in case I get a work email.”

“Didn’t you tell them you are on vacation? Plus there probably isn’t even cell service. And it is Saturday?”

I had a very different plan for our day in my head - one that did not include wifi, emails, and bosses.

“Yeah but I feel like I have to be available all the time."

I stared at her with one eyebrow raised.

“Well this is Black Excellence, I guess. I just don’t want them to say I wasn’t doing my part. You know we have to be twice as good to get half as far!”

I groaned.

Yes, we do want to be highly motivated and have integrity in our work. Many of us are moved by the ways our cultures teach us to work hard – harder than everyone around us – to reach success. We often reached success with that thinking. Perfect credit scores, code switching and Standard English (or the Queen’s English). Finish projects to perfection and stay as “professional” as possible with our hairstyles, dress, and writing. The list goes on. And we truly believe it.

But it is not true. In fact, these are deficit-based thoughts, derived from a harmful culture of white superiority, anti-Blackness, and a constant grasping for higher class levels. Black excellence, also known as Black Exceptionalism, is a justification for Black humanity. Like Janice Gassam Asare said, “Black excellence is simply existing in a world that so desperately wants to destroy you.” And many BIPOC cultures outside of the Black diaspora, experience something similar -- The AAPI community experiences the model minority myth, Latinx groups face colorism pressures, and Indigenous folx are oppressed with assimilation demands. In short, all of the groups experience aspects of all of the above.

Our cultures can fall into this trap: “If I do this perfectly or better than others, then I am safe, and not deserving of any harm.”

But the truth is, even if you do just what is being asked, and you do it well or just fine, or even mediocrely, you still deserve humanity. You can even make mistakes and you still deserve humanity! And, you certainly deserve healthy work boundaries.

These old adages and beliefs can be harmful even in BIPOC led and BIPOC corporations. We can sometimes be the pressure cooker that our own community has to face. To be perfect or higher than the standard takes a toll on our emotional wellbeing. And what is challenging is that the few times it has been worth it for us to work harder than everyone else makes us believe we need to experience this level of lessened boundaries all the time. But what about the stress and emotional labor that it requires? And on top of that pressure to work harder than everyone else, BIPOC face racial micro (macro) aggressions, racial bias and discrimination, and ancestral trauma.

We end up emotionally burnt out.

Yes, my friend got the job and was proud of herself. She agreed to do it well and gets paid for her labor. She loves her Black boss and diverse coworkers. So how can BIPOC do this while shedding the old beliefs that have been drilled into our heads?

  1. Seeing is believing. Years ago I went to meet with a Black Senior Leader and she closed out of her Google Chrome tabs at the start of our meeting. I was shocked. You don’t need those? Not even your email? “Lyrica, I am here with you. I am not available for my email right now. Those tabs are not going to help this meeting.” She recommended the book “Deep Work” by Cal Newton and said, “If you are always available, you are not productive or present.” I have never been the same since! You have to find BIPOC who model this behavior to believe you can practice it, too.
  2. Be clear about your availability. Don’t give and take. When you set boundaries with your time and then offer extra time on something else, your teammates and colleagues will be confused, I promise. Set a small boundary and stick with that one for a while. Then set more. Don’t go back on the boundary unless you really feel strongly about it and can still take the time for yourself in another way. You can automate your away messages to be very clear about your availability and make sure people know when you are back to work. (Just make sure the dates are accurate- it is always frustrating to read an out-of-date out of office message.)
  3. Volunteer for some tasks and projects and say no to others. Choose one or a couple of things to do really well. “I’d love to help out with that but right now I have a couple other priorities I have to focus on. I will be in touch when I can add more to my plate.”
  4. Encourage others to take care of themselves, too. No one likes a person who sets boundaries for themselves but then takes advantage of other people’s time. If you choose not to answer emails after work, then don’t send any, either. If you stop working on the weekend, then don’t require others to do so, etc.
  5. Check in with your mental health. Evaluate yourself often. Go to therapy (especially someone who understands the trope of Black Excellence!) and determine if you are experiencing burnout and the emotional labor tax.

Some employers will happily eat up our time and energy to maximize productivity. Often we lean into this, but at what cost? If my friend’s employer does not set the boundaries and create a healthy environment, then it is up to her to do it. She has to be the one to hold, set, and maintain the boundaries.

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