Pardon, Your Bias is Showing

Pardon, Your Bias is Showing

I’m going to let you into a secret: I didn’t learn the term “microaggressions” till decades after I’d already experienced my first one.

Microaggressions don’t just happen at work, of course. Black people who live in countries where they are in the minority experience them every day, in every sphere of their lives.

(And, just so you know, post-colonial societies where Black people are in the majority aren’t exempt from microaggressions, either, but that’s a story for another time. I talk about that in “Exploring Shadeism”, a study of colorism in Barbados and the Caribbean.)

Most of my experiences of racial microaggressions happened in the UK, where I lived and worked for 15 years. But they’re identical to the experiences my Black relatives and friends have in workplaces in the US.

At first, I was simply perplexed by what I considered stupid questions and asinine comments. But it turned out those questions and comments were all subtle ways of letting me know I didn’t belong.

Here are some of the experiences that stood out most for me. Let’s start with the questions:

How did you get here?

When I first started working in the UK, a few of my colleagues asked how I’d got to England. They knew I’d come from the Caribbean, but they couldn’t conceive of island nations like ours having modern transportation technology like planes. A couple of colleagues wondered if I’d traveled on some sort of “banana boat”, but if I’d said I’d swum 4,000 miles I’m sure some of them would have believed me.

What kind of house do you live in?

This sounded like an innocuous question until further conversation revealed that my questioners pictured me living in trees. Seriously, I’m not making this up — this happened to me in the early 1990s.

It’s not that trees are necessarily a bad place to hang out. It was the assumption of my inferiority that underlay that question. Honestly, I was staggered by the level of ignorance this question revealed.

Can I touch your hair?

Some people ask; others just lean in and before you know it they’ve got their fingers in your hair. That’s just rude. Once more for the people in the back:

Hands off Black people’s hair. It is not your exotica or curiosity. We had 400 years of that BS and we’re over it, OK?

As if the questions weren’t bad enough, there were a couple of statements I heard over and over again during my years working in England.

You’re so articulate/you speak such good English

This is one that’s happened to me in many workplaces. As I’ve said elsewhere, the tone of voice is what separates a compliment from a microaggression.

If there’s admiration, it’s likely genuine. If there’s a surprise, then there’s the underlying assumption that Black people aren’t articulate.

And there’s also an assumption that we come from countries where English isn’t the first language. That’s true for some people, but the colonizers got around and imposed their language, so there are a bunch of places Black people live where English is the first language. Learn some history, people.

I don’t see color

This one always makes me think the speaker’s living in an alternate reality. I’m a tall Black woman, so I think my color is pretty hard to ignore.

Truth to tell, I wish more people would see my color. Then they would acknowledge the whole of me, instead of denying my history and culture.

A twist on this, that I’ve talked about elsewhere, is when my white American roommate in France told me she thought of me as white. Even today, I struggle to wrap my head around all the biases contained in that simple sentence.

In addition to the questions, there are other microaggressive experiences (actually, sometimes there’s nothing “micro” about them:

Being a curiosity

I remember when a colleague told me about the “colored chap” who lived in her village. From her tone, you’d have thought he was another species.

Don’t get me wrong; she wasn’t being unfriendly. In fact, she was going out of her way to make me feel included, but it had the opposite effect. She knew nothing about him other than the color of his skin.

And having been that lone Black person in other places, I can tell you it’s a lonely and uncomfortable place to be sometimes. And it’s equally lonely and uncomfortable as the lone Black person in an office where you’re dealing with this kind of foolishness every freakin’ day!

Not seen as a professional

Another biggie is when people come into the office where you’re working and assume you are “the help”, for want of a better phrase. Just as I’ve seen the double take in interview settings, I’ve also seen it when someone’s come in for a meeting and realizes the Black person he just walked past dismissively is actually the person he’s supposed to be meeting.

Sometimes there’s the “whitesplaining”, as if you don’t have skills, too. I had a bully of a boss who was prone to this, even though I had more industry experience than he did.

Skimming through the #BlackintheIvory hashtag on Twitter, there are also stories of how any issue related to Black people is somehow less worthy of study and attention.

Passed over for promotion

This can be hard to judge, but you get a feeling, don’t you? The same way you recognize the double-take, you know when you’re seen as not quite good enough, simply because you’re Black.

Sometimes it’s the recognition that your white colleagues, who don’t work as hard as you do, get a raise or a better raise than you do.

Sometimes you have to apply twice for the promotion that less qualified people seem to get as of right.

And sometimes, as I’ve said before, you don’t get the promotion at all, and are subtly disrespected till you choose to leave.

These are only a few of the experiences I’ve had at work. There have been many others in other contexts, which I’ll write about another time. White friends, this is why your Black colleagues are stressed out, unhappy and ready for change.

Want to be an ally and help reduce racial microaggressions in your workplace? Join our Anti-Racist Leaders Association for ongoing support to eliminate racism through consistent action.

Reprinted with permission from Sharon’s Anti-Racism Newsletter.

What Is A Reparations Compensation Model & Why Are We Using One?

What Is A Reparations Compensation Model & Why Are We Using One?

One of the most “controversial” things we’re doing at Diverse Leaders Group is implementing a reparations model of compensation for our people. It’s yet another way we’re doing things differently. 

But what does this even mean, and why are we doing it? We answer both questions on our “work with us” page, as follows:

“Black and Brown members of the team will be paid a % more than white members of the team, as a form of financial reparations and to acknowledge the additional, unseen labour of microaggressions, biases and other forms of racial discrimination that will happen.”

But let’s take a step back and look at why we feel this is necessary…

First of all, the white supremacist, patriarchal, capitalist model is broken, especially as it relates to deliberately disadvantaged people: 

  • The legacy of historic inequities makes it harder for Black and Brown people to access the finance, housing, educational opportunities, promotions and more that white people take for granted. 
  • Depending on where you live, the gap between the average income and savings of Black people and white ones is colossal; in the US, Black households typically have 15% of the wealth of white ones, and the figure is about 20% in the UK.

So, paying Black and Brown folks more closes the gap for the individuals who work with us AND could make it possible for them to start to build up some wealth to have easier lives. It’s a matter of equity (closing the gap with affirmative action), as a stepping stone to equality.

But that’s not the only reason to have a reparations model of compensation… 

One of the things we learned at the last startup we worked in is that even in a company with the aim of being explicitly anti-racist, Black and Brown colleagues will face racism and microaggressions from their white colleagues… 

  • Some people never question why they read feedback differently if it comes from a Black or Brown colleague rather than a white one. 
  • Or why they feel comfortable treating Black or Brown colleagues like “the help” when they wouldn’t dream of treating white colleagues that way. 
  • Or why they will bend over backwards to explain away behaviour in a white colleague that they would be quick to decry in a Black or Brown one. 

The bottom line: Even white colleagues who are aware of their biases and committed to working on them can find it hard to change deeply ingrained behaviour. That means additional emotional labour for Black and Brown colleagues in educating them and additional harm when they experience racism and microaggressions.

And all of this is without the societal context that means that Black and Brown colleagues bear an additional emotional load, when generational or personal trauma is reawakened by incidents in the wider world, like the murder of George Floyd or the killing of Asian Americans in Atlanta.

For us, a reparations model of compensation is just ONE way we show tangibly that we value and support Black and Brown colleagues and are committed to closing the gaps, equitably, that continue to exist when it comes to achieving equality. 

Plus, it’s proven to reduce stress, improve mental health, and increase income and wealth. Isn’t it about time we did this differently? 

Want To Lead The Way To Equality For Your Company?

We can help. We provide a safe, supportive and action-oriented space to work towards anti-racism with no BS, no judgment and nothing but unwavering, kind support on your journey to lead the way to equality. For $50/month only.

The Loneliness of the Sole Black Employee

You know the day is coming. You sent in your application, made it through the interview process and got hired. Now it’s time for your first day, and there’s one big hurdle you’ll have to face, today and every day…

You’ll be the only Black employee in the company.

When you live in countries where you’re in the minority, this is a common experience. You don’t see anyone who looks like you on the interview panel, and you sure as heck don’t see any in the office or the lunchroom. It’s just you — the only Black or brown face in a sea of whiteness – and it’s a lonely place to be.

Apart from the loneliness, there’s a heavy weight of responsibility, too. One reason for this is that you know you’re the person everyone in that office will use to judge all Black people, present and future.

Many of them have never interacted day to day with anyone who looks like you. Some will be open-minded and friendly; others will be closed-minded and not so friendly. And there’ll probably be a couple of outright racists in there, too.

While inside your home, you’re just you, but the minute you leave, your blackness becomes the first thing that the white majority notices about you.

As you commute to work, you may see people shrink away as if you’re going to rob them. And you may wait twice as long for a cab as the blond person next to you. When you get to the office, superficially everything’s ok. But the microaggressions can start as early as your first day…

You may have to convince a security guard that you actually work there. Or you’ll find that rather than being allowed to make your own way upstairs, someone has to accompany you. (Once you’re on the team, it may not happen again, but it’s a clear sign of the implicit biases that will affect your working life.)

As you fill in your paperwork, and people make “small talk”, the microaggressions continue…

Surely you can’t be from here? Oh, you are? But where are your parents from? If it’s not this country, then your questioners can safely put you in the “lesser” box and get on with their day.

Early on in your relationship with the company, you may get questions about your hair. Some may be rude enough to put their hands in it. And there are other microaggressions too, about how you speak, about how you write, about your education, about…whatever you do or are that’s perceived to be outside the norm for a Black person.

But it’s even worse when it comes to doing your actual work…

For example, in a meeting, people will often talk over you and ignore you or, even worse, listen and dismiss you. You might be brilliant and have great ideas, but they’ll never know because their minds are firmly closed to the possibility that a Black employee might have value to offer.

And that goes double if you’re a Black woman. You may find that it takes longer to get projects approved, that there is more micromanagement and oversight, and that if something works well, you might not even get the credit (though you’d better believe you’ll get the blame if anything goes wrong).

You can’t even be sure that your manager will support you…

Often, that manager is threatened by your intelligence and will block you from opportunities for advancement.

But it doesn’t get much better when people listen. Because they only tend to listen when it’s a question of issues that have to do with Black people.

Suddenly, you’re THE expert on diversity, equity and inclusion, even if that has nothing to do with your day job. You’re THE expert on the Black experience, even though by now people should know that Black people aren’t a monolith.

The Black community is as diverse as any other…

The cultures of Black people from the US, the UK, the Caribbean, and the plethora of African countries can and do vary widely, even if we all share a skin shade.

And you can’t win: Bring up diversity issues outside the allotted discussion slots and you’re met with eye-rolls and sighs because the Black person is talking about diversity AGAIN. In some cases, talking too much about inequity can get you fired.

Somehow you struggle through the day, counting the minutes till you get back to your sanctuary, your home. Sadly, you’ll have to do it all again tomorrow, and for much of your working life.

It’s no wonder you’re tired. It’s no wonder you’ve decided to keep your head down, get on with the job, and avoid making race an issue.

I’ve been that person, reserving conversations about racism for late-night confabs with my girlfriends. But lately something’s changed. I’ve been more vocal publicly about racism and related issues in the past few years than I have my whole life.

I’ve talked to friends and acquaintances, and also complete strangers who’ve responded to my articles and LinkedIn posts.

One of my friends said I was “giving a voice to the voiceless”. What they meant by that was that they couldn’t speak out in their workplace for fear of repercussions. (You’d better believe that when you interrogate the white patriarchy about diversity, equity and inclusion there are repercussions, ranging from side-eye and snarky remarks all the way up to you losing your job.)

But I’m a freelancer, so I can speak, because nobody can fire me. Sure, there may be some jobs I don’t get. I’m sure there are people who are uncomfortable with what I post. Hearteningly, there have also been those who are listening and learning and committing to doing better.

I plan to continue to highlight these issues where I can, and to amplify the voices of those who are leading the way on anti-racist action.

My view is that everybody needs to be talking about this. Let me make it clear to my white friends and colleagues: I don’t hate you, I just hate racists and racism.

But hating racists isn’t enough. The question is what are we doing to challenge racist behavior? If you’re white, how are you using your white privilege to support your Black friends and colleagues? Are you having hard conversations about racism with the people who look like you?

Because that’s what needs to happen next. It will be difficult, challenging, and uncomfortable, but unless we all do it, nothing will change.

Ready to commit to being actively anti-racist? Join the Anti-Racist Leaders Association for ongoing support to eliminate racism through consistent and persistent action.

Reprinted with permission from Sharon’s Anti-Racism Newsletter.