It’s still Black History Month, therefore a perfect time to provide insight on my experiences as a black employee. I am sure you have heard of DWB if you haven’t it stands for “Driving While Black,” and if you needed that breakdown, you are likely not black. The same way we know a routine police stop is usually because of our skin color we know corporate America hasn’t changed much either. WWB or’ Working While Black’ is an actual thing, and many corporations and management teams get away with racial injustice in the workplace daily.
I had a conversation with a close friend recently, and we recapped my career and the times we worked together. I will never forget him saying to me, “I hate to say it girl, but if you were white, you would have been at the top of the executive team.” We laughed and shook our heads and agreed on this sad truth. During most of my career, I exceeded my direct managers in education and the business’s length of time. In many cases, I had more relationships than needed to be well known for my work, commitment, and knowledge, but there was always something holding me back. For a long time, I refused to think it was skin color, but my attitude towards that took a drastic change after awakening to my very own work woes, then I realized everything might have been all about race.
A performance management goal I can never reach
Close your eyes and picture a banker… go on… try it! I am pretty sure your banker is white because so is mine. This was the first test I had when understanding people see bankers as white. People trust white people with their money, not someone who looks like me. I knew for sure I wouldn’t be a banker, but even more so, I didn’t realize the same concept carried through entire organizations. I have heard one too many times; you can’t go into that room or that meeting because they won’t hear the information coming from you. This was not because I couldn’t speak well or didn’t know the information, but because I didn’t represent the rest of the team well, I am not white. So, while Sheryl Sandburg was writing lean in, black women like me were waiting for an opportunity to sit at the table.
Promotion politics or just not white enough?
When it came to promotions, year after year, I would hear things like other managers “couldn’t see it”, or there was another project or person I needed to prove myself on. I was leveraged for everything under the sun, and still, there were excuses at the end of the year. I know now these excuses were not for me; they were something people told themselves to feel comfortable about the decisions they made when not promoting, advancing, mentoring, or supporting my career. There were a few honest managers that told me upfront I did not have the “executive presence” they were seeking. I’d ask if there was anything I could do to change that since my areas for improvement remained null. We both knew I would not wake up the next day to be a white man, so there was no solution for me but to leave the team, division, or company to grow in my career path. After all my experiences became a repetitive cycle, I knew for sure this is what I had heard about growing up, I was warned. I was informed about the companies, I choose the industries I decided to go into and the people I would come across, and still, I tried with hope.
One too many
OMG, there’s TWO of us on the same team, (insert dance here), I cannot believe it. Yes, that is what goes through my head every single time. I would be in shock, OMG, there’s two VPs! OMG, there are two managers! Or OMG there’s a black man at a desk! It is like seeing a cheetah in the wild, and when there are two of us in a corporate setting, it is equivalent to watching the cheetah run 90 miles an hour and attack its prey. Then reality returns the moment three becomes an option, and you hear the management team say “never, you two are enough, I can’t take any more strong personalities”, or “we are already so diverse”. And yes, that isn’t an exaggeration, you probably think it is because hiring three white people has never crossed anyone’s mind as ‘too much’. A board full of white men never seems abnormal. There wasn’t anyone in the room saying…. Do you think we are too white to add a ninth white male, is that too much? For us, one black is diversifying the team, two the company, and three is a group, they may take over, so stop hiring before it gets out of hand.
There was a time I had hope for corporate America; at a minimum, I had a dream for me. I am praying to get back to hopeful, but for now, I am choosing to create my table and help companies change their culture and mentality towards black employees. We are people, too, our opinions and feelings matter, even when ‘Karen’ attempts to disregard us. If you are a manager, you are obligated to hear both sides of the story, ask your black employees about their goals, provide them career paths that align them to their objectives, and ensure they are treated with respect. Last, please don’t tout new diversity and inclusion programs around like a police badge. Black people have been policed enough and it’s never worked out for us. Pretty words, powerpoints, and promises don’t change behavior, for us it has benefited little in the past. Show and tell, drive the numbers of your recruiting, promotions, and retention into areas that sound impossible when you say it out loud. It is only the impossible that will leap everyone forward into equity and inclusivity. This is a we thing and blacks have been waiting for everyone else to join the revolution with us.