There is a lot of energy being invested into talking about the many differences in humans, especially in workplaces, due to the general lack of acknowledgment that different people have different needs, experiences, and ways of existing, which is valid and important. It is critical for those in a privileged state to recognize, understand, and embrace this as a culture. Barriers must be removed to allow those that are “different” not to be required to assimilate to advance. This is a fact. However, I would argue that this does not need to be the conversation taking place amongst groups of individuals who have had to live in the existence that makes them “different.”
In other words, let’s stop training BIPOC professionals on how to be who they inherently are within the workplace. We can stop preaching the theories behind double consciousness and building a community. Anyone that has worked in a professional setting for more than a few years has already and continues to do this work.
Instead, I would like to focus on the power we have in just showing up.
It has been my experience and recently been brought to my attention through the experiences of others that when we show up to a meeting, a gathering, a discussion, it can be eye-opening for the majority of folks in the room. Having come from a myriad of backgrounds, beliefs, and experiences yields a certain perspective that everyone does not share; while being a valuable contribution to a homogeneous group stuck in a narrow viewpoint. The slow recognition taking place in the tech industry that diversity of people leads to the diversity of thoughts, ideas, and innovation is planting the seed for a powerful future. However, the conversations directed at people who are “different” are still addressing age-old traditions, schools of thought, and practices that no longer have the same power.
For example, just a decade ago, it would have been a real stretch for someone to think that a person of color could show up to any executive meeting authentically reflecting their culture (i.e., braids, hijab, locs, etc.) due to the many trials and tribulations that people experienced attempting to keep their cultural identities while moving up corporate ladders. While this is still true in some less innovative industries, I’d challenge that this is not accurate for all. These differences are increasingly being understood to be an asset. These differences are more readily being recognized as the missing component of otherwise successful organizations. Just by showing up at different levels within a corporate structure, bringing the professional background, experiences, and yes, cultural perspective — — people of color add value.
I want to present a mind-blowing idea that may be a bit controversial to some, that a person of color employed in forward-thinking industries, that does the work of a high performer (there’s still some bias there — recognized), stands in their power (to be discussed further in another article), maintains their culture, and meets the professional standards of their peers of every color has the opportunity to sit at whatsoever level they choose to within a company… with the right sponsorship.
This idea is not perfect. I would admittedly state two obvious flaws are:
- People of color need sponsors.
- Many people of color are losing touch with their culture due to the forced historical process of assimilation.
Why the need for sponsorship?
The reality is that most people from underrepresented groups still come from segregated environments, sometimes by choice, that limit how they organically create networks with those in power. This limitation is impactful within a corporate structure where one might wish to advance. This limitation may be overcome by the purposeful sponsorship of someone at a higher level who sees potential and wishes to help advance a person from such a cultural background. The concept of sponsorship can be a misunderstood idea by those who could make all the difference. For clarification purposes, the definition of sponsorship within the workplace being used here is:
A workplace sponsor is traditionally someone in a position in a company that is able to guide and influence your progress through the maze and politics of advancement. A sponsor takes an employee they think has potential and guides them in a different manner than a mentor or supporter would. — JONE JOHNSON LEWIS
A prideful individual might find this a hard pill to swallow. A person with unrecognized privilege might not accept that they have such privilege nor understand the power they hold to sponsor such an individual. So alas, this can be easier in theory than it is in practice. Truthfully, regardless of one’s background, no one is an island, and it takes the power of many to put any single person of influence in the position that they find themselves. Whether it be one’s lineage, education/social networks, romantic partner, etc., there are many types of sponsors people have benefited from their entire lives that go unrecognized, so it should not be surprising that this unconscious effort sometimes requires a more purposeful intervention in some cases.
Let’s Touch on Assimilation
For decades people of all color (except one) have been expected to take on the characteristics, mannerisms, traits of the majority to be accepted (period). This is a fact of life, just how it has been. The impact of this has led to a decreased cultural identity for some that have been fortunate enough to have led a somewhat privileged existence even in brown skin, yet are still subject to the compromising circumstances that occur due to being born into this brown skin. This diminishing cultural identity has led to harmful self-images, unconscious biases, a lack of awareness around a shared struggle for most people with similar ethnicities, and more. This in of itself is too complex of an issue for me to dive into, but the impact is tumultuous, to say the least. The relevant impact that I’d like to call out is that when placed in a corporate structure that now is looking for diverse thinking and cultures, those that may look “different” do not show up differently due to the long-term impact of assimilation. They are no longer able to relate nor have the shared experiences of their culture that could lead to the advantages that corporations hope to achieve by creating diverse leadership teams. This means that the few that do make it to the ranks of executive or board leadership have a very different experience from those that could make the most impact at those levels as it pertains to diverse thinking and perspectives.
I do not wish to use the word “assimilated” as a negative term as it has proven itself to be a valuable survival mechanism to people of color. Like so many other tools we’ve had to use in the past, I hope that this can be discarded.
What’s the point?
My closing message to anyone who has made it this far is that perhaps the focus should no longer be on what makes us different and how do we “deal” with that. Instead, putting more energy into the impact of being authentic and SHOWING UP is critical to the advancement of individuals and creating a truly diverse culture within corporate America.
Executive leaders will have to reach further down into their companies, external networks and recognize the contributions of those that do not have the traditional background of the assimilated few to move to the next level. BIPOC professionals would benefit from training that sought to fill this gap in career advancement . As most have made peace with who they are, know their identities are quite content with them, while still wish to further their careers while seeking financial wealth.
There is, of course, so much work to do on so many sides; however, we must recognize that progress has been made and create new types of support systems and access that speak to the present challenges.