How African Americans Can Keep It Real and Foster Understanding.
Carlton*, a successful investment banker, has great numbers, strong client skills and tremendous drive. So it came as a surprise when his performance review questioned if he would fit in at the next level of responsibility. The crux of the matter? There were concerns over how his so-called conservative clients would react to his diamond earring and flamboyant dress.
Robin, a top-flight trainer in her company, takes pride in her classroom skills and consistently positive ratings from her session participants. Imagine her response when her manager suggested her wardrobe might be just a bit too ethnic to be palatable in certain parts of her organization.
News archives from the 1960s, you ask? Not on your life.
In the 2000s, African Americans in the workplace still experience challenges in expressing aspects of their culture or heritage. According to experts, what is often defined as normal is a function of what most people, or the dominant people, in the environment do. Anything else automatically can be viewed as different, unknown and suspect.
"When my secretary started wearing dreadlocks, a senior partner commented that he didn't find the style attractive," reports Theresa, a lawyer in a mid-Atlantic law firm. "Attractive according to whom? I'm pretty sure the dreads were the reason she didn't get a promotion she clearly deserved."
Beyond hairstyles, African Americans report confusion around language choice, clothing and accessories, and cultural celebrations. "I've had people ask me whether Kwanzaa was some sort of political statement," says one advertising executive. "The interest wasn't in understanding the holiday. They seemed to view it as a form of political subterfuge."
So what's a sister or brother to do?
Know Who You Are
"Being true to yourself is the first step," says a former manager in the distilled spirits industry. "If you've made it to a certain position in your work, you probably know what's professional and what's not. Is carrying a briefcase with an African art design any different than wearing a designer tie? It's all a statement of your individuality."
Engage in Dialogue
"Whether it's right or wrong, a lot of the responsibility for reaching understanding rests on the person who's perceived as different," says a director of industrial safety. "I actually look for opportunities to discuss this aspect of who I am with my colleagues, not to explain myself but to foster understanding."
If you feel someone is making judgments about you based on expressions of your ethnicity, ask, "What does this aspect of who I am signify to you? What assumptions are you making about me based on what you perceive?"
Pick Your Battles, but Deal with the Realities
"Some things just aren't worth it," one sales manager says. "If my saying 'bling, bling' at work makes somebody uncomfortable, I just let that be their problem. If it shows up on my review that I lack command of the English language, then I deal with the situation accordingly."
Diversity and inclusion are not just about the people in the workplace -- they're about the ability to respect the differences that make us unique and the similarities that bind us together. What's most important are the choices we make and honoring who we are, however we choose to express ourselves.
*The subjects for this story requested that their names be changed or removed to protect their identities.