Diversity and Inclusion: 5 Things Your Black Coworker May Be Thinking, and Why
Published: March 27, 2018
Author: Zenia Johnson
Creating a more diverse, inclusive culture has been one of 3Q Digital’s biggest initiatives since 2017, and it’s not just about becoming a better business; it’s about being better people. As part of this initiative, we present a weeklong Diversity and Inclusion blog series dedicated to issues we’re trying to address, how we’re trying to address them, and the challenges we’re encountering as we go.
Sometimes, it’s difficult for me to watch the news. When I’m at my lowest, it’s a non-stop stream of the worst type of updates – unemployment rates, Chicago “violence” being thrown about as political fodder, the latest data breach – but when I’m at my best, it serves as a kind of motivation for me to go out and explore the parts of the city that are labeled as undesirable (looking at you, South Side), and to excel and disprove the statistics that say that I, and people who look like me, are less likely to succeed.
And, oh man, are those statistics rough. If you haven’t seen them lately, here’s a quick refresher: according to the 2016 Bureau of Labor Statics report on Labor Force Characteristics by Race and Ethnicity, “…at nearly every level of education, Blacks and Hispanics were more likely to be unemployed than were Whites and Asians.” If Black and Hispanic people can count themselves as lucky and employed, they still “generally had lower earnings than Whites and Asians at nearly all educational attainment levels.”
Those statistics are across all job industries, but if you work in tech, or a tech-adjacent industry, it’s honestly pretty bleak. We’ve all read the reports on the lack of diversity in Silicon Valley, where black people make up less than 5% of the total workforce (Business Insider). For me this means that I have very little opportunity to work with people who look like me, share cultural references with me, speak like me. At work, I feel like the perpetual “Other.”
And don’t get me wrong – I think that 3Q Digital is an amazing company. I mean, I was ENCOURAGED to write this! I’ve had experiences at past companies that have been demeaning, and sometimes outright racist, and I knew that speaking up then wouldn’t change anything because diversity and inclusion were not priorities for the Exec Team. I am proud to say that they are absolutely priorities at 3Q.
But still. When I read that only 5% of a total industry’s workforce looks like me, I can’t help but think of the biases and discriminatory practices that are limiting the hiring of people of color. These statistics rattle in my brain, along with memories of past interactions, and they impact almost every single interaction that I have with vendors, clients, and sometimes co-workers. I think that I have to change who I am to be more palatable, more acceptable, less visibly (and audibly)…black.
When I threw this topic idea around with our VP of Marketing, I was a little hesitant to share such a personal POV. But she was so enthused, and given the current divisive state of our country, I think that sharing these experiences is even more important. Plus, this idea surfaced in Black History Month; I should do it for the culture.
So below is a list of the top 5 things that I’m thinking during our professional interactions. Let’s start the conversation.
1. If I don’t get this cultural signifier, I won’t fit in.
I don’t watch The Bachelor or The Bachelorette (mostly because it took 7 seasons of syndication for the show to realize that maybe non-white people are looking for love too, but that’s a whole other issue). I don’t enjoy golfing, and I have never been skiing. A lot of those things are topics of discussion in and around the office (at my last company, there were entire pools dedicated to The Bachelor), and those small-talk conversations often create the initial rapport that can lead to great relationships with clients and co-workers. Sometimes during these conversations, I worry that if I don’t understand a particular reference, I won’t fit into the group. But should I tailor my likes and interests to be able to have these conversations? It’s honestly something that I’m still trying to figure out.
2. I really don’t want to be the angry black woman today, but….
I am only human. Just like everyone else, I have frustrations and feel anger, but I also know that the stereotype of the Angry Black Woman is pervasive in our society. It’s what made the myth of the Welfare Queen so believable. It’s why Serena Williams is described as “aggressive” while her competitors are “passionate.” And its impact starts in a black girl’s life at a young age – a 2017 study conducted by the National Women’s Law Center found that “black girls are 5.5 times more likely to be suspended [from school] than white girls.” Many educators and researchers believe that one of the contributing factors to the high disciplinary rate is the Angry Black Woman stereotype.
I also believe it’s why one of my very first managers had to have a talk with me about my “conflict resolution style,” even though any normal human being would have been hard-pressed to not express frustration in that situation. After that, I became very careful about how I express myself in the workplace.
3. My hair really doesn’t need to be a major topic of conversation.
As a black woman, I use my hair to express how I’m feeling. Because my disposition leans to the more mercurial, it means that I change my hair a lot. It’s not only how I express myself, but also how I connect to my culture. Now, I know that the frequency of change is not something that a lot non-black people are used to, but it doesn’t mean that we have to have a 10-minute conversation about how my braids were installed, or how I’m going to wash it. If you are truly interested in black hair, there are a bevy of resources available on the Internet. But when you notice that I’ve changed my hair (again), a very simple “Your hair looks nice!” works just fine.
4. If I don’t code-switch, you may think I’m ghetto/uneducated and therefore unable to be good at my job.
Code-switching is defined as “the practice of alternating between two or more languages or varieties of language in conversation.” To my parents, black friends, and family members, it means “talking white”, and we do it because it’s necessary to assimilate into mainstream (i.e. white) culture (side note – a lot of other cultural groups besides black people, for example American Southerners, feel pressured to code-switch). After years of practice, I am very good at it – I can replace my “y’alls” and “ain’ts” with the best of them.
Admittedly, I do find it difficult to keep it up once I feel comfortable, and most of my co-workers at 3Q have heard me speak without the “switch on,” so to say. But, I’ve also been told that “I speak so well” (this is normally said in a surprised tone) when I’m code-switching. It was a big deal when President Obama was recorded saying “Nah, we straight,” to a deli cashier in 2009. It was argued for decades whether African-American Vernacular English was a legitimate dialect (despite the presence of grammatical complexity and consistent logic), and in some schools, black students were punished for using a communication style that allowed them to naturally express their thoughts and feelings. Language in this country is racialized; until it isn’t, I think code-switching will be a necessary factor to attain professional success.
5. I have to be twice as good as white people to get half as far.
If you’ve ever watched Scandal, you may remember this as something that Olivia Pope’s father said to her during one of his many, many monologues. I remember watching this episode with a group of friends, and hearing a collective “YES” at that moment, because it was something that their parents told them. It was definitely something that my parents told me, many times, as I was growing up.
I didn’t think about the impact that this has had on my behavior until reading Ta-Nehisi Coates’ “Between the World and Me.” On this matter, he tells his son, “You are growing into consciousness, and my wish for you is that you feel no need to constrict yourself to make other people comfortable.”
I know that my parents had only my best interests at heart when they told me this, and honestly, I’m still thinking about whether this will be something that I will pass along to my future children. Will telling them this give an unnecessary psychological burden that causes them to be constantly on guard? Or am I putting them at a disadvantage if they live life believing that everyone starts on a level playing field?
I’m writing all of this to say…what, exactly? I don’t have all, or most of, the answers. But, I know that we’re all striving for the same things in life – to be happy and healthy, and to succeed without being held back by forces that are out of our control. Engaging in honest conversations with one another can help us to recognize those forces and barriers in ourselves and others, and enable us to enact change.
Personal interactions are critical in our industry, where every day we’re engaging with clients and are interdependent on our teammates for success. Empathy, open communication, and the desire to learn about experiences different from your own play a huge part in making those interactions truly rewarding.