For most of my career, I can recall looking around the conference table and seeing no one that looks like me. Jovial coworkers chat about shows like ‘This is Us’ or old ‘Friends’ episodes left me excluded. And then there’s music. I don’t know any Taylor Swift song. Not one. I listen to Drake, Big Sean, HER, Jene Aiko, Earth, Wind, and Fire. There’s little common ground.
Fortune asked black professionals to share their stories. Dee, 49 shared what she wanted her majority counterparts to know about being black at work:
“I want you to know what it feels like to desire to move up the ladder and see there are no other examples like you that you can follow. I want you to know what it feels like to see investments made, grace extended, sponsorship provided, risks taken, and opportunities given to and for others but not you. I want you to know the pressure that comes with trying to be perfect and represent your race well because if you make a mistake, the odds of you being given another opportunity are slim.”
Social injustice is imprinted on the year of 2020. The protests and spotlight on this long, overdue movement have sparked necessary discussion. My majority counterparts asked about my experiences as a black woman. At the time I was the only black person on our team. One of four in our entire office.
I’m expected to move and operate in the world differently than my majority counterparts.
I told them about going to design conferences with thousands of attendees and how lonely it feels. Did I spot other designers of color? A few. But, in my experience, designers kept to themselves. Seeing another person of color didn’t mean we would meet and become best friends.
I would dare tell work associates I worry the color of my skin will block me from advancing. Or that I’ve never advanced despite expressing my desire for growth.
When coworkers play 50 questions on the subject of hair, I remember asking my manager if I could get box braids. I worked in a buttoned up office in Uptown Dallas. I remember the way she looked at me, as she said, ”You don’t have to ask permission. As long as they’re not hot pink, you can do whatever you want.”
Since I can remember, my mom drilled into my brain that as a black woman, the deck is stacked against me. I’m expected to move and operate in the world differently than my majority counterparts. What she meant was bringing my authentic self to the work was out of the question. The way I walk, talk, dress, and act had to conform with the majority. No wonder I felt I needed to ask for approval on a hairstyle.
Now, I’m having the same conversation with my own daughters. I remember waiting for their arrivals. As my husband and I browsed potential names, we visualized how it would appear on their future resumes. After my middle daughter’s arrival, I felt a tinge of regret, hoping her name, Brielle, wouldn’t hold her back.
Finding your way
How do we do that exactly? Find our way. If we want different results, we have to do something different. Not saying we can demolish microagressions force our counterparts to acknowledge their biases.
What I am saying is that it’s possible to navigate the corporate world as-is. Find peace, be authentic, and contribute to the progress of something greater. For me it’s Break the Prototype, my mentorship platform for BIPOC in tech. I’m not trying to move mountains or turn a profit. It’s my way of influencing change in a broken system.
I’m no expert. Happy to admit that. I’m sharing things I observed in retrospect that led me to a healthy space. And how I’ve been able to sustain resiliance through it all.
- Find something you can get behind. It can be as small or as involved as you can manage. Taking action can be cathartic. Considering the challenges we face, it’s an outlet can go a long way.
- Tap into your network. Find genuine support where possible. That support may come from someone within your organization. It may come from a LinkedIn connection. Or friends you can have productive conversations. Healthy comradery makes the world feel a less lonely.
- Evaluate your work situation. How do you feel about the company you work with? Are you happy with the level of diversity? Is your work environment emotionally safe (free of microagressions, etc.)? Has leadership acknowledged any perceived shortcomings as it pertains to race and behavior in the workplace? You spend an enormous amount of time at work (or online for work anyway). If you work in a toxic environment or don’t feel supported, it may be time to look at your options.
Remember the corporate job I mentioned? Overtime I became frustrated. Trying to advocate for my career but making no progress. I talk about Dialexa often because it’s the first place that’s allowed me to be me.
On Slack I use my melinated emojis as I please 🙌🏾 🤟🏾 👌🏾 🙋🏾♀️. I speak to my colleagues more like I would my bestie. I realized that speaking the way I do, didn’t make me less intelegent. I reference black pop culture with less apprehension. These days, I feel less like I’m hiding and more like myself.