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Black Women Can Thrive Beyond Racial Barriers at Work

Black Women Can Thrive Beyond Racial Barriers at Work

“White men pave the way for white women.” This was a comment a young millennial white woman said to me one day in a corporate meeting.

I sat stunned in momentary silence. I was trying to determine if I had been transported into a 1950s male-dominated society where women’s career options were mainly limited to secretarial work, housewife, or day worker.

As a Black professional woman, I thought: If her comment is true, then my options are suddenly very limited. I would not have any opportunity to be considered for promotion or to get sponsorship to advance in my career because I didn’t have any white men paving the path for me at the time.

Her perceptions of power fit into a notion that white men were the only influential leaders in a corporate space and would only assist white women in their career trajectory. Her comment also seemed intended to let me know that she was more powerful than me as a Black woman to progress in corporate America.

Responding to bias.

Nonetheless, I had choices as to how I could respond to this microaggression, a “verbal, behavioral, and environmental indignity that communicate[s] hostile, derogatory, or negative racial slights and insults to the target person or group.”

I decided to address her seemingly racist comments toward me head-on. This is one of the tips I write about in a previous Forbes article on how to handle unconscious bias and racism in the workplace from coworkers: Deal with the insult directly.

I explained why her comment was insulting and could be classified as a microaggression, which I also defined for her. The conversation was thoughtful and rational. She apologized for her insult and asked if I had any recommendations on books to assist her with becoming more knowledgeable about racial tolerance.

[Related: Three Questions You Must Ask to Find Your Allies at Work]

Acknowledging your emotions.

Although this situation was resolved amicably, many Black women experience these types of demeaning comments or actions within the workplace. We are often devalued and assumptions about our intelligence and capabilities are lessened compared with our white female counterparts. It can be demoralizing, emotionally draining, and distracting, which are sometimes the intents of the offender.

However, you can choose not to allow these aggressions to deplete you. These comments may negatively affect you - however, only temporarily hold onto the hurt, anger, and disappointment, which are legitimate feelings to have in these situations.

Your success in the workplace is a result of your hard work, education, and training. You need to proudly recognize and embrace your achievements at work and in your personal life. The opinion of a colleague or even a manager should not define your value and worth.

Remember, look to your support system of friends, family, and trusted colleagues to listen and bolster you up.

You may benefit from hiring a health and wellness coach to guide you on discovering healthy ways to manage your frustrations. However, don’t be afraid to reach out to your primary care physician or a licensed therapist to help you psychologically address the stress and anxiety if it is too overwhelming.

Eventually, you will recover, bounce back, and be able to move beyond the hurt. It may take time, so be patient and kind to yourself during the process.

Be a trailblazer and leader in diversity and inclusion.

You often are not able to control how a company or leader chooses to handle diversity, equity, and inclusion. However, you can speak up and get allies and support to make your leaders and human resources department aware of racial biases within your company’s practices or from a particular individual.

You can voice your concerns about lack of equity for under-represented groups, such as Black women, in leadership and decision-making roles at your company and in growth and stretch assignments that garner visibility throughout the organization.

Begin to gather data on the problems with lack of advancement, low salaries, and other factors that negatively are affecting Black women nationally and at your company. Use the information as the framework to build a proposal and recommendations for change; develop solutions for improving the workplace inequities and issues of discrimination within your company.

Ask your human resources department to bring in outside consultants who specialize in diversity, equity, and inclusion to assist your organization.

[Related: Changing the Culture of Business from the Inside Out]

Continue your career and educational advancement.

Regardless of the roadblocks that may be in the way at your job, you can keep advancing. By continuing to learn, you can enhance your expertise and advance in your industry and profession. It is also good to find volunteering and networking opportunities outside of your company to apply your skills and to build new relationships.

If the circumstances at your current employer are too toxic, finding a new job may be the answer. You must decide what the benefits and trade-offs are for staying at a place where you are under-appreciated and overlooked for promotion and advancement.

Look for a company that values their diverse employees, creates pathways for advancement and training, and if possible, has diverse leadership and staff. Sometimes this diversity is difficult to find in many industries, but many companies have a healthy culture where they attempt to value and support all employees as best as possible. Seek out these types of companies to find work.

Move on and thrive.

Challenges are going to occur throughout your career and some will be based on your race, ethnicity, and gender. You cannot let this derail your progress. Finding the time to grieve the setbacks is a natural process, but you must regain your momentum to keep advancing regardless of the obstacles put in your path.

Rely on your skills, resiliency, and support system to keep moving forward and do not allow resentment to hold you back. Find your strength, move on, and thrive!

[Related: 10 Rules of Success for Women of Color at Work]


Brande Nicole Martin is an experienced digital content strategy professional, providing content management and marketing solutions for leading healthcare websites for more than twenty years. She was featured in the Content Strategy Answers blog and has written articles on digital and content strategy, healthcare, and other general interest topics.

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