(Photo by PeopleImages/iStock by Getty Images)

Earlier this year, before live events were cancelled because of the coronavirus pandemic, the Brooklyn Historical Society hosted a panel discussion titled “Take Your Feet Off Our Necks: Implicit Bias in the Workplace,” exploring how “women and people of color all too often face microaggression, diminution, and exclusion in a workforce that equates white collar with white male.” From Day One contributor Angelica Frey, who attended the event, offers highlights from the conversation, which resonates deeply with America’s sharp new focus on systemic inequality.

When Vincent Southerland, now the executive director of New York University’s Center on Race, Inequality + the Law, was working as a public defender, he was mainly active in courtrooms in the South, representing people on death row. In most of his encounters with people, he was mistaken for a paralegal, a private investigator, or a family member of his own clients, said Southerland. “The reality that I was a lawyer representing my client was the last thing on people’s minds.” A similar phenomenon routinely happens to his wife, he said. When she goes to a meeting with her white intern, who is much younger than her, she ends up being the one who, people assume, is the intern. The real intern is typically mistaken for the supervisor.

These are just a few episodes of systemic racism that people of color encounter in the workplace. “Systemic racism is structured racism that is endemic, and when I consider what that racism looks like, I can’t help consider white racial framing,” said sociologist Tsedale Melaku, the author of You Don’t Look Like a Lawyer, which examines how this phenomenon is deeply rooted in law firms and the corporate world in regard to women of color. A phrase such as “you look so young,” explained fellow panelist Jamia Wilson, executive director and publisher of The Feminist Press at City University of New York, when uttered towards a person of color, “… is code for black.” Moderated by Erica Chito-Childs, chairman of the sociology department at Hunter College, the speakers explained how the American workplace–including the corporate world, academia, and creative industries–falls short in rooting out bias despite oft-stated intentions to do better. The speakers offered proactive steps for both executives and employees to make much-needed course corrections.

“Diversity and Inclusion” as Buzzwords

In Corporate America, the term “diversity” over-promises and under-delivers, like the more recent term “woke.” In fact, due to the inherent conditioning of centuries-old beliefs rooted in white patriarchy, people of color are still bound to the false promises of the myth of meritocracy, asserted Wilson. “We’re taught in this culture that, Oh, if I just strive a little more, if I just prove a little more, someday I will achieve my way out of this,” said Wilson, “when by design you will always continue to strive and the only the people who benefit from that are the people who are making money off of that.”

Diversity efforts have been in place for 30 years, yet, wondered Melaku, “where are the black people?” She used as an example one of the firms she surveyed in her book You Don’t Look like a Lawyer. The firm had 11 white men and one white woman at the top, yet they billed themselves as 25% diverse. The person classified as a “person of color” was a “white-passing Latino,” who, thanks to his appearance, could benefit from the privilege that comes with passing as white, said Melaku. Her advice: stop using the word “diverse” unless you’re prepared to show the receipts. As for inclusion: “It’s more like who are you excluding?” continued Melaku. “You need to think about how we use language to exclude people. That's also very critical to this argument.”

Southerland elaborated on this dynamic. “Without power, it’s just window dressing,” he said. “To me, the diversity thing let people off the hook, that’s what we have to dig into and be brutally honest about.” Will it be easy? No. “It is painful, there’s no zero-sum win,” he continued. “A lot of Americans want to get over racism and such and move on and have the benefits of utopia, but people have to give something up, and they should because they obtained it unfairly. ”

Women of Color Have It Worse Than Most

In the workplace, women of color encounter both racial and sexist bias, now defined as intersectionality. In the traditionally white, male hierarchy of Corporate America, “if you’re not gaining access to these social networks and events that happen in the workplace, then you’re losing out of opportunities to network with seniors,” said Melaku. “… and access to sponsorship too: Do the whites see you, a black woman, as a viable candidate? How can you gain an organic relationship?”

Then there is the matter of invisible labor. “I talk a lot about labor: invisible labor, labor that is uncompensated and unrecognized labor in addition to the work you do,” said Melaku. “Negotiating race and gender aggression is taking away from the work you’re supposed to be doing in order to build your craft or career.” She is referring to the resources that women of color, especially black women, have to spend in order to be included in the work space they inhabit. These include: the mental toll it takes to endure racialized aggressions; relational labor, meaning the effort of building a language to communicate with privileged people who do not partake in that struggle in order to have a satisfying work relationship with them; and the financial cost of having to try to conform to a white, Europhile aesthetic, investing in hair and makeup–often in vain, Melaku said.

“Diversity 101” Initiatives Are Mostly Ineffectual

The panel discussion took place earlier this year at the Brooklyn Historical Society (Photo courtesy of the Brooklyn Historical Society)

Ostensibly progressive workspaces now have their Bias 101 and Diversity 101-type workshops, but they tend to be adjacent to a status-quo work culture. They don’t exactly rock the boat. “If we talk about diversity,” said Melaku, “We need to be able to talk about racism and what it means in that space. We should be uncomfortable.”

Wilson recalled a work situation where using the word micro-aggression was making the white higher-ups uncomfortable, and it was only when the sarcastic suggestion of the word “micro-inequities” was brought forward that the white men (of a certain generation, she specified) felt comfortable, as that new word would invite more people into the conversation, she said. “It’s an aggression to have to name an aggression in a way that makes you feel comfortable,” Wilson deadpanned.

“There’s focus on the perpetrators of harm–did they mean to be racist and sexist?,” Southerland observed, noting that intentions are not what it’s all about. “The hurt person’s perspective is largely ignored.” And in the case of a diverse space? “You find that people of color and women of color are not only bearing the brunt of the harm, but end up comforting the folks that are doing the harming,” he continued. “Part of the challenge is to have folks who are in position of power take that mantle and do the work themselves. Don’t put the onus on the black person.”

The circumstance with the highest likelihood for change? “When money is affected,” said Melaku grimly, like when a client demands diversity–and the corporation that won’t deliver ends up losing the client. “When people are losing money because of certain things, then things will change.”

Keeping Receipts Is Paramount

In all, despite the way workplaces make efforts to be “woke,” the onus of speaking up and holding people accountable is being put on black people. “Whatever I say I have to triple-check because people come for me,” said Melaku. The same goes for documenting racist behavior. It’s important, the panelists all agreed, to keep a log to document certain behavioral patterns. The reason: unless the perpetrator uses the most overtly racist terms, it’s hard to build a case of discrimination. The same goes for emotional labor, the speakers agreed. Employees should track how often they find themselves doing the unpaid labor of being the educator/therapist of white folks who act badly out of ignorance.

This is also true when it comes to owning up to one’s own mistakes. “There have been things I've said on Twitter that I'm now not proud of, and I have left those things up because I don't believe that by deleting such a tweet, I’m not actually doing anything except kind of like cleansing my ego,” said Wilson. “I want to actually leave it up that though I learned, I tripped, I got called out for it. And now we move forward  with accountability from the community.”

Angelica Frey is a writer and a translator based in Milan and Brooklyn.