Perception is Reality for Professionals of Color in the Workplace

Professionals of color endure emotional stress from real and perceived tension in our personal lives & in the workplace. — By Jess Evora

Once in a while, when an individual who does not identify as Black looks at me a bit funny while I’m speaking, I sometimes find myself asking them (only in my head, of course): Are you listening to what I have to say, or are you wondering if you could touch my hair?  

I hate that this is what sometimes comes to mind.   The individual, quite frankly, may not be thinking about my hair at all, and may simply be intrigued by our highly-insightful conversation, or potentially distracted by a personal issue they’re facing in their life.

However, I’m the one who has to sit in my thoughts and wonder, because I’m the one who has been asked too many times to be the object of display for a person’s curiosity because my hair is different.  At the end of the day, it really doesn’t matter what that person was thinking because sometimes perception is reality.

I was forced to think about this concept as a Black woman driving across the country solo last summer.  I drove from Los Angeles to Rhode Island, and had no clue what I would find in between.  At a time when Racist America has come out of hiding, I was hyper-aware that I’m not familiar with the specific areas in each state where people of color are not welcome.

It was risky enough to be traveling alone as a female, but as a tall Black woman, with my rich melanin and my long box braids, I knew I was a very visible target if I found myself in an area of the U.S. where racism runs rampant.  The scariest part is that there are not many immediate signs to determine whether you’ve wandered into such an area.

Therefore, I simply had to be on guard everywhere I went, even in areas filled with families and smiles.  No matter how friendly the environment, I found myself on guard the moment I realized I was the only person of color in sight.

I’ll never be able to go back and separate perception from reality, but what I can say for sure is that in these moments, my heart felt heavy and the tension I felt was indeed my internal reality.

adult-beard-blur-450277.jpgThis emotional battle is one that many young professionals of color experience in the workplace.  And research shows that there are very real consequences that people of color endure because of both real and perceived tension and discrimination in the workplace.

When African American employment rates are at an all-time low, it is unfortunate to know that even after you’ve secured the job and conquered your first day, this is just the beginning of the psychological stress that you may have to endure as a person of color. 

How Employers Can Help

Employers can remedy this by bringing awareness to the emotional rollercoaster people of color face, and to address the issue head on.  I just finished Week 2 of my new job.  My supervisor (a fun, Italian woman) and I already got a few tough conversations out of the way, and I will always appreciate her or that.  I can now trust that there will not be any subtle penalties for “being too Black at work”.  As a proud, Black woman I can bring my whole self and trust that there will not be any subtle penalties as a result, and that is not something that many professionals of color can say.

Employers should take the time to learn what harmful “diversity strategies” they can avoid, and try to understand the intentional efforts people of color have to make to navigate a workplace where they are one of a few.  Organizations need to become more aware of the subtle ways in which we are negatively impacted in the office environment.

For people of color, we do what we can to support each other.  When we have the patience, we help educate those who are unaware.  Some of our White colleagues try their best to navigate what it means to support us. 

However, if we want to both survive and thrive, we need the institution to do the heavy-lifting to diversify the workplace and institutionalize inclusivity efforts.  In the meantime, for us, Talib Kweli said it best: “Job one is self-preservation”.



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A blog that celebrates the diversity and the impact of today’s young professionals

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“If you want to go fast, go alone.  If you want to go far, go together.”
– African Proverb 

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