Learning to Play the Game to Change the Game

This week, I’ve had the privilege of attending the Congressional Black Caucus Foundation’s 46th Annual Legislative Conference in Washington, DC. Here, I’m surrounded by inspiring, Black change-agents who are all working tirelessly to eradicate the social and systemic injustices that plague our community.  For a few days, we don’t feel like minorities. We look around rooms full of positional power, and we see ourselves. For a few days, we don’t have to justify our feelings or make a case for our perspectives; we don’t have to code switch or rework our standpoints so they fit within the unspoken dominant expectation. For a few days, we are surrounded by a sea of raw, authentic, beautiful Blackness. And it feels good.

Over the course of this conference, we discussed what a truly equitable and ideal society for Black people would look like–A society where systems operated on behalf of all, and not some, and where access and opportunity didn’t discriminate. Many of us agreed that an equitable society would be one where “success” was not a measure of proximity to whiteness. It would be a society where People of Color could authentically and honestly define success in the context of our own culture and experiences, without being compared to or measured against white people as the standard.

But as things currently stand, it is crucial to our success to deeply understand whiteness as the dominant construct, and to accept that there is not a reciprocal need for white people to understand our experiences  As we enter the workforce, we learn to manage the perceptions of white people by closely monitoring what we say and do, while white people define what can be said and done.

As less than 10% of the professional workforce, We have to learn how to play a game whose rule book wasn’t written to include us. We have to learn how to play a game that is biased and rigged to set us to lose everytime. Since the game doesn’t work for everyone, we know that it has to be changed. But in order to change the game, we first have to master it as it currently exists. We have to peel back the layers, understand the nuances, and be better at the game than anyone else. Below is a list of strategies straight from the rule book (i.e. from experienced and accomplished Black professionals) that are proven to produce the most favorable results when playing:

1. Be consistently excellent. Work twice as hard as your white counterparts, triple check your work, and be accountable for what you produce. Build a track record of stellar, groundbreaking work. Exceed expectations. Floor people. Go above and beyond. Be very clear on what success looks like in your role and blow that out of the park. Make them forget that they almost underestimated you. Make them feel stupid for ever doubting you. Make them check their own biases and assumptions without you having to say a word.

2. Build your army. Have an arsenal of people who are your advocates and who are aware and well-versed in your accomplishments and the value that you add. When a new job or opportunity opens up, you want your name to already be on the tip of someone’s lips. Build purposeful relationships that are mutually beneficial. Know what you need and what you have to offer.

3. Be responsible for your development. Don’t wait for your manager to tell you how you’re doing – ask them directly. Seek feedback continuously and apply it deliberately. Keep a record of your work and/or projects you’ve contributed to in order to demonstrate how you’ve improved over time. You should know how other people (especially your manager) think you’re doing, and should never be surprised when it’s time to talk about your performance. Pursue opportunities outside of work to enhance and hone the skill sets that may not come naturally to you. Avoid making excuses, and be aware of your shortcomings.

4. Be humble and willing to get out of your own way. The reality is that there is a long, hard, grueling fight ahead of us. Our ancestors and predecessors have paved so many roads for us and opened so many doors, and they did so while being spat on, hosed, disrespected, berated, and beaten. And yet, they continued to get back on their feet, day in and day out, and fight relentlessly for the rights they deserved. The fight for equity is still in its early stages. We have to be willing to put in the generational work that it took for us to get where we are today. Are our workplaces fair and equitable? No. Do we get to show up as our full, authentic Black selves in our predominately white work environments? Absolutely not. Do we have to go above and beyond and have some unfavorable experiences along the way? Yes. But remember that having the right to even apply for the positions that we hold today was someone’s lifelong mission. We are entering the next phase of the movement and have to be willing to be uncomfortable along the way. Our workplaces won’t be perfect and our experiences may even be unbearable at times, but we can’t let our pride or impatience force us out of the race.

5. Address workplace inequity in a manner that is productive and educational.  We can’t ostracize ourselves and polarize ourselves by calling our white colleagues out on all of their racial blindspots and missteps (as tempting as it is). We have to operate in a way that is conscious of the unfairly harsh consequences that our actions tend to yield. We have to critically assess and understand our audience, and learn how to call in rather than call out. When they go low, we go high. We don’t have have the privilege of going low, so we must always rise to the top. 

Let’s not confuse playing the game with selling out. There’s a huge difference between being aware of the systemic realities that create limitations that we have to learn to operate in, and betraying or abandoning who we are to get ahead. Playing the game is a calculated decision-making process that weighs actions with outcomes. Selling out, on the other hand is letting the game control you. Selling out does not transform mindsets and is not part of a larger plan to change the status quo. If anything, it justifies and perpetuates white dominance.

Changing the game is a process that begins with being an effective player in the game. We can’t offer a different perspective, debunk assumptions, or break down stereotypes if we’re not present. And we can’t get in the game if we’re not more excellent, more willing to be flexible, and more willing to do whatever it takes than anyone else. Remember that processes take time. Remind yourself that the generation behind us needs us to fight this fight just as much as we needed our predecessors to fight theirs.

/// How do you play the game? How do you hope to change it? Leave your thoughts below!




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