Queirra was a second-year nurse who worked in the intensive-care unit at her local hospital when she began feeling like her workplace culture made her uncomfortable as a black woman.
It was the small things, but they added up. “I didn’t truly begin to feel that way until subtle micro-aggressions began to happen to me,” she said.
“One of them was, ‘Once I tan after this vacation, I’ll be almost as dark as you!’ Another was, ‘I like you because you are different than other black people,’” recalled Queirra, who asked to be identified only by her first name.
She also found herself feeling obliged to speak up and act as an ambassador for all things black in her workplace. “It made me feel like I was the ‘token’ black person—as if my voice represented that of the entire community.”
Being one of few nonwhites also caused her emotional discomfort. She felt under constant pressure to alter her speaking style and hide her personal interests to avoid making her coworkers uncomfortable. Until she’d had enough.
“It impacted me enough to quit. But mainly, it began to be almost painful for me to hide my blackness. I was always self-conscious of how I wore my hair, how I dressed, and how I spoke because I wanted to appear that I ‘belonged.’” She didn’t feel she could showcase her true self, so she left.
Keenan White, a black man who spent several years working as a pharmacy technician, recalls a similar discomfort with workplace professionalism and company culture. “I felt like I had to change who I was to avoid coming off as threating or aggressive,” he says.
Unfortunately, neither of their experiences is unique for black Americans in the workforce. They often feel constant pressure to adapt to workplace culture and often feel conflict about “opening up” about their personal lives, according to research by three management professors who reported their findings in Harvard Business Review last year.
“Building workplace relationships across racial boundaries can be difficult. Given the obstacles minorities face in navigating a corporate culture, this may seem minor. It is not,” the researchers said in their report. “Opening yourself to others requires risk taking and trust, but without it employees are less likely to build the deeper relationships that lead both to success and to more happiness at work.”
Amber Hewitt, a counseling psychologist with expertise in African-American identity development and well being, believes the assumptions of what is professional can alienate people of color. “Mainstream depictions of ‘professionalism’ center on whiteness and a Western worldview. I think the real issue is the culture of some work settings and how they can be toxic and promote race-related stress for black Americans,” says Hewitt.
Cultural insensitivity in the workplace can range from subtle to overt. Tzynya Pinchback, a content developer in the technology industry, says she has experienced a wide range of comments questioning her abilities, but one of the most grating interactions involved a coworker making comments about her hair.
“I was cautioned by my superior that the hair products I used when I wore my hair natural had an offensive smell and, in one case, made someone nauseated,” she recalls.
Interestingly, Pinchback hadn’t recently switched hair-care products, but she had switched her hair from its initial straight style she wore in her earlier days of employment to a natural one.
Her hair products were mainstream. “At the time, the same as now, I used Pantene co-wash and argon oil regardless of how I wore my hair, so it was nonsensical [to think] my hair only produced an odor when it was natural,” she says.
A black female attorney who asked not to be identified said she was once forbidden to speak to a judge because she was carrying an afro pick for her hair, which security officials perceived as a potential weapon. Ironically, she needed to see the judge because she had been assigned to provide technical support to a jurisdiction seeking to reduce racial and ethnic disparities in the operation of their juvenile-justice system.
“I, as a black woman and attorney, have to confront the fact that my personal-grooming products are weaponized,” she said. “If I had a regular comb, it would not have been a problem. However, my afro pick was considered a threat. Therefore, I was considered a threat.”
Cultural bias on the job is just one of many ways that African Americans suffer from perceptions of inferiority that limit their economic opportunity. Hiring discrimination is as bad for black people as it was nearly 30 years ago. Wage disparities fuel the continuation of our nation’s wealth gaps. And unconscious bias is fuel for the fire.
More than half of black Americans report facing discrimination at work. Some industries, notably the STEM fields (science, technology, engineering and math) have low levels of black employees and high rates of reported slights and inequities. And frankly, it hurts.
“Pressure to change oneself in the workplace because of your race/ethnicity/culture, coupled with feelings of invisibility, can contribute to feelings of hopelessness, despair and anger,” says Hewitt.
Aggravating the situation, black employees often feel reluctant to complain about negative experiences for fear of being perceived as “playing the race card,” says Hewitt.
“It’s disheartening that this takes place, since the beauty of diversity-and-inclusion work is that it creates an opportunity for voices that are often marginalized to add value and help shape the work environment,” says Hewitt.
For Pinchback, the lack of feeling accepted was enough to lead to a new job search.
“It was like being the kid with a ‘Kick Me’sign on their back. My stomach would be in knots the whole time I was at work. I left the company as soon as I found another opportunity, taking a significant pay cut,” says Pinchback.
She believes many established workplace protections are simply “band-aid solutions” that ignore the lack of diversity in company leadership and society at large.
“The workplace is a microcosm of the greater society. People bring their personal biases along with them wherever they go,” she says.
What are the solutions? The results are mixed on the most effective way to prevent these occurrences. A growing body of research suggests that diversity education can often lead to unintended consequences, like fueling separatism or encouraging resistance and jokes.
But we can’t leave things the way they are, and the answer is likely multi-faceted.
Most companies push the importance of diversity, which has become a catch-all term for general differences, yet they have made little progress in terms of identifying bias.
Anti-bias training, which has a focus on equity and active inclusion, has the potential to make marginalized employees feel validated in their experience, with a corresponding beneficial influence on their mental health.
The most prominent example of a company-wide teachable moment came last year when Starbucks closed all of its stores for a four-hour, mandatory anti-bias training session after two black businessmen were accused of “loitering” while waiting in a store to meet a colleague.
Psychologist Hewitt emphasizes the importance of diversity education being one aspect of a larger strategy. When incorporating anti-bias materials, they work best as one of many conversations on the importance of inclusion, as opposed to occasional training workshops. Developing an equitable environment requires making sure every aspect of the company, from hiring to corporate partnerships, promote anti-bias measures.
Companies can try a host of measures including mentorships and transparency in pay, hiring and promotions. Having a diverse team of leaders to pursue creative solutions to issues is another important measure to promote inclusion.
Companies like Bank of America, Starbucks and Google have taken action to be transparent around their employee demographics, affirming the importance of making improvements and being open to hard conversations. It’s a start, but business leaders need to be reminded frequently that inclusion is not just good for the health of their black and other minority workers, but for the health of their business.
Rochaun Meadows-Fernandez is a diversity content specialist whose work can be seen in The Washington Post, The Guardian, Glamour, and many more