What would it feel like to walk into a room and be the only one who looked like you? How comfortable would you feel to be asked your opinion on a marketing ad that lacks diversity and inclusion if you were the only person of color being asked? What would you do if you were frequently asked to participate in conversations where the expectation is that your opinion speaks for all voices from your community? How would it feel to not be able to talk about specific shows, favorite foods, family traditions that are important to your culture because no one around you can relate from personal experience?
Welcome to the life of being the only Black person on your team at work.
Up until about a year ago, I have been the only Black person on my team in most of the professional jobs I have held. These jobs have varied in industries from being a server at several restaurants while in college, pharmaceutical marketing, to athleisure retail store manager, digital marketing coordinator at a small agency, and many more. Each time I started my job, I always had a pit in my stomach because being the only Black person on a team involves a lot of emotional labor that no one really signs up for.
Growing up, my three older sisters and I were always taught to do our best, as most children were. The difference is, that when my parents said that, they meant: do your best and make sure it’s better than your white peers. For Black people, we have to put in 110 percent to get half the amount of opportunities, rewards, congratulations, or promotions than our white counterparts. For Black people, from the moment you’re in school all the way until you retire, there is very little room for error. The amount of pressure we feel to do everything perfectly so that we look half as good as our white peers to leadership is overwhelming.
What is it like being Black in the workplace?
We are proud to be in the professional roles that we have, we are excited about the work that’s in front of us, and we are determined to put our best foot forward and represent our departments and companies well. Unfortunately, there is more to our workday than projects and presentations—when you’re the only Black person on your team (or one of few), your work starts the moment you wake up.
When Black people wake up to go to work, we must think about:
- What we’ll wear—because many of us are born with curves, we’ve been shamed for wearing clothing that shows off those curves, whether it’s is a pair of jeans, a maxi dress, or jogger pants.
- How we’ll style our hair—because for years (and even still now), we have been judged for wearing our natural hair and being told it’s unprofessional, “different,” fun, or exotic.
- What makeup we’ll choose—because bold lip colors or eye shadows can look “unprofessional” on darker skin, and we feel pressure to tone it down.
- How we’ll speak—because we have been shamed for our loud and boisterous laughs, our directness when correcting or addressing leadership, or being told we’re aggressive when what we’re actually doing is just speaking the truth.
- What we’ll eat or bring for lunch—because the looks you’ll get for heating up your mom’s collard greens and chicken from her infamous Sunday family dinners can make us feel like we’re perpetuating a trite stereotype.
We’re thinking about most of these things before we even leave the house that day. But these things need to be considered each and every day so that we can make sure we’re doing our part to be seen as close to equal as possible as our white counterparts.
Tokenism is rampant in workplace culture
Right now, as Black people in our work environments, we are going through an incredibly difficult time. Many of our companies are choosing to stand for or against the Black Lives Matter movement and many of the executives are pulling us, Black people, into those conversations for our opinions. What white leadership fails to understand about doing this is that it is not our responsibility to teach white people how to do the right thing. If we have been left out of important conversations in the past, it is very telling to just now be added to conversations and to feel like our voices finally want to be heard.
Many companies are also tasking Black people with leading organizational initiatives to make their company seem more “woke,” diverse, and inclusive. To be clear, many companies are actually moving in the right direction, taking the necessary steps, and appropriately asking Black people if they’d like to be involved or not. On the other hand, there have been countless stories of companies who have gotten these steps wrong and unfortunately, the Black people in those organizations continue to feel the pain and dismissiveness that comes with those actions (or inactions).
At work, we are often feeling so much societal pressure and are on such high alert that by the end of our days, we are absolutely spent. All day we have had to codeswitch—a term used to describe what people of color do when they leave their cultural language, style, or demeanor at the door to better fit in with their white counterparts. It is stressful and sometimes anxiety-inducing, to be honest.
All day we have had to codeswitch, a term used to describe what people of color do when they leave their cultural language, style, or demeanor at the door to better fit in with their white counterparts.
Recently, I have noticed many companies making a change to their observed holiday calendar by adding in Juneteenth moving forward. This is a great change and a positive step forward, but up until now many Black people have felt like holidays that supported Black people and Black culture have gone unnoticed. I have worked for companies that have not acknowledged Martin Luther King Jr. Day but believe Columbus Day is worthy of recognition. I have never seen a company honor Kwanzaa, and of course as previously mentioned, it wasn’t until June 2020 that any company I worked for acknowledged and recognized Juneteenth.
This matters. It is important to recognize as an organization that people from all different walks of life, cultures, religious faiths, and backgrounds may work for you or with you. And while I do understand that a company may not be able to grant a day off for every single important holiday in a calendar year, sometimes an acknowledgment email can go a long way to say, “We know this exists, we believe it’s important, and we want our organization to know.”
What can workplaces do to affect change?
If you are a leader, reach out to your Black employees and employees of color. Ask to meet with them and to listen to not only how they can help your organization, but also to what they need personally and professionally from you and other leaders. Maybe they’d like a resource group where other people of color can meet, create events or fundraisers, or maybe be a mentor. Listen—truly listen—to them, and do your best to implement real change to improve their career path and working environment.
Do your own research to become more informed on Black history and how it pertains to your company—think about what discriminations or biases might be occurring at work. Promote Black people just as much as you would promote a white worker and put Black people in places of power and pay them what they are worth. When you’re having conversations that impact the company, make sure Black people and people of color are present in the room and are listened to.
If you are a coworker, speak up when you don’t see a Black person present in the room for important conversations. Voice your opinion when you notice marketing or brand presence lacks diversity and inclusion. Fill out those yearly surveys leadership often sends around and ask about their diversity and inclusion plans. Take the initiative to learn about racism and racial inequality in the workplace. Stay curious about Black history and Black culture and ask questions if you’re truly interested in being informed.
Being the only Black person on a team is an emotional role to play. It is great that many companies are waking up and recognizing that they need more diversity in their teams and within leadership. The next time you have a conversation with a Black employee know that there is often way more going on behind the scenes for them than what meets the eye.
Read More: How to Take Anti-Racist Action This Week