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.
It’s all good until people of color start coming for what has historically been explicitly reserved for white people.
As we’re all aware, we have a long, disturbing, brutal history of racism in our country. The construct of race itself was created to ensure white people would consistently benefit from the systems of our government, while guaranteeing the opposite outcome for people of color. It’s important to understand that the fight for racial justice and reconciliation didn’t begin with this idea of “leveling the playing field” that is often discussed in race relations today. Instead, it began with the desire to just be seen and treated as human. It began with the yearning to not live in a constant state of fear. It began as a fight for survival.
Tokenism is a silent, ugly beast. While it may come across as gentle, harmless, and well-intentioned, it has the unique ability to protect oppressors from their own behaviors while forcing the oppressed into silent accord. While it is definitely necessary for companies to strategically recruit and cultivate minorities into their workplaces, it is extremely harmful when People of Color are used and maneuvered to depict a setting that is simply untrue. Without being accompanied by serious efforts to elevate the perspectives, voices, and norms of everyone (and not just the dominant group), tokenism easily results in isolation and disempowerment.
We’ve moved into a new arena of race relations where people of all backgrounds are really beginning to think about their identities and assess the status quo. Unless you live under a rock, it’s pretty difficult not to be at least passively engaged in dialogue about race these days, with Donald Trump’s bigoted, openly racist comments regarding every minority in our country, the #BlackLivesMatter movement, the discrepancy in media responses to Ryan Lochte versus Gabby Douglas, and the countless, devastating stories about Black men and women being slain by white police officers.
There are three types of power that commonly exclude yet disproportionately impact employees of color. They are:
- Positional Power — influence that is assigned to a particular role or office
- Institutional Power — influence that is systematically assigned to a specific racial group in order to gain exclusive privilege and access
- Relational Power — influence that is granted as a result of close relationships with those who have positional or institutional power, typically established through a shared identity marker.
I never understood what was meant by the old adage “ignorance is bliss” until I really began studying racial equity work. There are so many regular occurrences that I’d written off as “normal” for years–and it wasn’t until I really began carving out dedicated time to understand institutional racism and the intricate, lethal beast that it is, that I realized I had no idea I was interacting with racism everyday. So, I guess that’s what’s blissful about not being aware. You don’t see anything wrong the status quo; you don’t read between the lines or feel the system working against you–you simply accept things for what they are, not even realizing they could be different.
I think we can all agree that our country has a pretty horrific history. The soil we “founded” our nation on? Stolen. The labor used to build this country? Enslaved. And yet, many conversations about 21st century race relations fail to critically examine and account for our country’s history and its deplorable impact on our present narrative. More often, Black people are accused of “using race as an excuse” or “bringing up the past too much,” as if we enjoy thinking about our ancestors as property that could be purchased.