Note: In light of the election results and many people’s anxiety, fear and rage with the results, I want to repost this blog entry from this past February. I have been hearing from many good white men who just don’t understand why women, people of color, Jews, Muslims and LGBTQ folks are so worried. Those of us who fall in these categories are so used to putting on armor and being on high alert that we don’t discuss it. It just is. But now that sentiments that were once held back have now been given cultural permission to be spoken and acted upon, it is important to legitimize this fear. We must talk about it. We must help white men understand it. We must insist our companies take this more seriously. We must stop letting it just be “the way things are.”
You wake up each morning in the comfort of your home feeling relaxed and fully yourself. You go to your closet and select the appropriate armor for your day ahead at the office. As you drive to work you expertly tuck away big chunks of yourself. You walk into the building.
You smile and greet each person so that you appear friendly but not too friendly. You make certain that you give attention, even deference, to your white colleagues and keep some distance from other minorities. You sit in the meeting and offer your views being sure that your voice isn’t too loud or aggressive. You suck it up all day when colleagues overtly and covertly question your competence and right to be in your position. You play the part of the non-threatening person of color and express too much appreciation for every opportunity you are given. You disregard all the moments in the day that you are ignored, discounted or disrespected. You leave the office, get in your car, blast the music to drown out your ranting and walk into your home to become your full self again.
Every day people of color have to start at square one to prove themselves worthy of their jobs. They are not afforded the automatic respect and trust that white people do. It doesn’t matter that they are well educated, experienced and very good at what they do. The thin line they must walk every day is something white people cannot relate to or ever need to think about. It takes very little for a person of color to be labeled an angry black person, bitch, too expressive, affirmative action recipient, diversity quota hire, less than, not professional enough, too flamboyant, uppity, always bringing up the minority view. In other words, professionals of color must find that narrow space that makes white people comfortable. Even that is no guarantee that they will ultimately earn respect and status.
(There is no equivalency to this daily submersion of self except for women of all colors. As a white woman, though, I can tell you that I don’t have to watch my back nearly as closely as a woman of color. But I can understand a bit of what people of color experience.)
This self-shrinking raises an obvious question. What is it about white establishment men that makes them so threatened by people who are different? Why is it okay for white men to be expressive (sic. loud, frustrated, pissed off) and take up air and physical space when the same traits are judged so harshly for people of color? Sure, the obvious answers have to do with wanting power and control and the old ways are changing and safety with your own type and on and on. But I’m not satisfied with these tired responses.
Other makes all of us uncomfortable. That can set off automatic fight or flight responses. This is evident in the workplace. There is polite avoidance or hostility (often displayed as rejection or dismissal). Both choices maintain or widen the gap between groups. To choose to confront one’s own discomfort and bridge the distance by connecting with people who are different takes self awareness and courage. Sadly, there just isn’t enough of that in our companies. This goes way beyond even the best inclusion activities. I’m speaking here about forming meaningful relationships that are professionally satisfying. It’s not about going for drinks after work. It’s about seeking out the expertise, collaboration and camaraderie of people who are other during work hours.
I’m writing this because corporations usually lead movements that create social change. But companies are woefully behind on this score. Sure, there are good intentions and inclusion officers and recruiting campaigns. But the needle isn’t moving. As someone who used to be one of those officers I can tell you what the bottom line is. All the best convictions and programs don’t scratch the surface of the culture that brown professionals walk into. It would be great if there was a critical mass of minorities but they are used to being in the white world. They are adept at being chameleons. It is the lack of respect that is so pervasive is the ultimate killer of even good efforts.
I wish I could wave a magic wand and make every white professional feel what a person of color feels every day at the office. I want them to feel slighted and less than. I want them to feel the pain. I want them to feel that all their hard work and blue chip educations don’t count just because their pigmentation is all that is seen. I want them to put their personalities and emotions into a tiny box for 10 hours every day. I want them to take on a persona that works for the people around them while they shrivel up inside. I want them to feel the exhaustion at the end of every day from putting up with all the crap.
I’ve got nothing clever to say about this phenomenon. Just a sincere and passionate plea to all my fellow melanin challenged colleagues. Pay attention to your less conscious judgments about people who are different than you. Fight to neutralize these learned and automatic reactions. Change your assumptions. Greet each person of color with the same respect you are granted every day for just showing up. Assume (at least) equal status, competence and capacity. Drop the unearned skepticism and open your mind. Extend your hand to get to know someone who is different than you. Be curious about his/her story. Share your own story. Form a professional bond.
And once you’ve done that with one person, don’t stop there. Because if it is only one or two people of color that you connect with you are apt to think that they are the exceptions to the rule.
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