Being Black in a profession that requires specialized training and/or credentialing is a complex and inevitably isolating experience. Despite companies and organizations ramping up diversity efforts in recent years, the white-collar workforce is still overwhelming white. 8 out of every 10 lawyers are white; 80.8% of social scientists are white; 78.2% of education professionals are white; nearly three-quarters of business professionals are white; over 70% of healthcare professionals, engineers, and physical scientists are white. The list goes on and on.
On one hand, we should be proud of ourselves for trailblazing a new norm and diversifying spaces that have traditionally been reserved for white men to dominate. But on the other hand, many workplaces don’t balance their diversity efforts with inclusion efforts, leaving Black employees feeling the weight of assimilation, isolation, and tokenism. Most of us know what it feels like to be singled out overtly or unintentionally at work, a subtle reminder the exclusionary and discriminatory practices our sectors participated in for centuries. Most of us know what it feels like to be misunderstood or misinterpreted–to struggle to find the balance between being too loud or too quiet; to feel the pressure of shifting mindsets and biases about Black people by making ourselves more digestible and approachable to white people; to hold our tongues and reserve our honest opinions when our white colleagues ask us how we’re doing, knowing that it would be more trouble than it’s worth to try to explain the intricate layers of our experiences to them.
Truthfully, workplace diversity can do more harm than good when it is pursued without a clear vision for inclusion. It can difficult for companies to even realize that they’re not being inclusive, because for much of their existence, white dominant culture was the only culture represented at the table. And even once minorities were finally allowed a seat at the table, it’s not like there was a sudden interest in changing the way things had always operated to accommodate them and prioritize their satisfaction. As you can imagine, many companies reluctantly complied with Title VII of the Civil Rights Act of 1964, which required all employers to “take affirmative action to end discrimination.” Six years after the Act passed, only 20% of companies had any sort of affirmative action policies in place. It wasn’t until the Equal Employment Opportunity Act of 1972 where the majority of large firms began to enact equal employment policies (and let’s be honest again–while these policies reduced the amount of blatant discrimination against minorities and women, they in no way came close to eliminating them completely).
All of that being said, this is all very recent history. In the grand scheme of things, Black people are just getting acquainted with white-dominated workplaces, and clearly our majority white workplaces are still getting accustomed to us being there. While I don’t expect for all workplaces to have it entirely figured out yet, I do expect that those workplaces who proudly emboss “diversity” (and/or other diversity-centric language) in their core values and mission statements are actually spending time strategizing and learning the most effective ways to create a culture that allows everyone to show up as their best self. Here are a few characteristics of workplaces that are on the precipice of this endeavor:
1. They don’t operate on the assumption that all employees have the same needs. Ever seen this infographic?
If so, you’ve probably seen it with the first two panels, explaining the difference between equality and equity. Equality gives everyone the same thing, while equity takes the needs of each individual into consideration. Reality, however, takes systemic racism into consideration, and acknowledges that our country still purposefully and methodically provides white people with countless advantages and benefits to secure and protect their superior position in society. Inclusive workplaces disrupt reality. They dedicate time to understanding how systemic racism operates in everyone’s lives, in order to avoid perpetuating it. They operate with equity in mind, and understand that they have to take additional and intentional measures to support and understand their minority employees. They operate from a place of true humility and understanding–they avoid assumptions, acknowledge when they fall short, and treat issues of inequity with the same urgency and attention they would treat anything else.
2. They deliberately elevate and affirm the perspectives and voices of People of Color. Inclusive workplaces taken into consideration the fact that minority voices have and continue to be absent from decision-making practices that impact the masses. In turn, they deliberately seek out the perspectives of People of Color because they value them and understand that they likely differ from the dominant norm. They don’t shy away from prioritizing the voices of People of Color over white voices (and are unafraid of being accused of “reverse racism”) because they acknowledge the way they’ve been silenced.
3. They create safe spaces for minorities and People of Color to address issues of inequity they may experience. Inclusive workplaces allow People of Color to feel like they can call out and acknowledge any inequities they experience without fear of being judged, reprimanded, or told that “this isn’t a race issue.” Inclusive workplaces acknowledge that issues of inequity are a probable occurrence because of the nature of systemic racism. They don’t force People of Color to quietly navigate workplace inequity alone; they make it everyone’s shared responsibility.
These characteristics may seem far-fetched or unrealistic because they are so hard to find. Nonetheless, if we are truly in the business of interrupting the status quo, if we truly believe that we have the capacity and ability to establish and operate under new norms, and if companies value diversity & inclusion as much as they claim to these days, this is the type of workplace culture that we should be striving toward everywhere.
/// What are the characteristics and norms of your workplace? How would you define an inclusive workplace culture? Leave your thoughts, comments, and ideas below! ///