#BlackWomenAtWork: How To Thrive At Work When You Are The 'Only'

03/29/2017 10:27 am ET Updated Mar 29, 2017

How Black Women At Work Find Success, Even When Microaggressions Threaten Our Sanity

#BlackWomenAtWork
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#BlackWomenAtWork

Yesterday, #BlackWomenAtWork started trending after Brittany Packnett encouraged Black women to tell their stories in response to Congresswoman Maxine Waters receiving a rude comment about her hair while she was speaking about policy issues. The stories shared were those of microaggressions, discomfort, isolation, and at times, blatant disrespect. While most black women are quiet about these experiences, the outrage over Maxine Waters’ experience encouraged women to speak up about their own. Suddenly, we found solidarity in the encounters that result from a corporate workforce that is just far too homogenous, where “diversity” remains an issue.

So if you haven’t yet seen or didn’t get to participate in #Blackwomenatwork, let me ask you—have you ever dealt with, or should I say, how frequently do you deal with microaggressions at work? Recently, a friend of mine, “Felicia”, who holds a corporate management position at an e-commerce company, broke out her puffy coat to head to work on a particularly cold day. About midway through the day, she felt the cold outside creeping into the office so she put on her down coat with the fur collar at her desk to warm up. Within minutes, she heard her white officemate exclaim cheerily, “Omg. You look like a hoodrat!” The officemate continued as she looked at Felicia in awe, “That is so cool! I could never look like a hoodrat.”

Felicia, a Black woman who holds a master’s degree in business and over a decade of corporate experience, was taken aback by being called a hoodrat at work. If any of her white coworkers wore a Canada Goose jacket at work, would the same comment be made?

While Felicia genuinely believed her colleague wasn’t trying to be intentionally hurtful or degrading, the words still left her feeling stereotyped and isolated. However, her day was packed with deadlines, and she didn’t feel like having another “teachable moment” with her officemate. She instead asked to not be called that again and got back to work. Nonetheless, the experience made that particular workday even more draining than normal.

Unfortunately, my friend’s experience wasn’t so shocking to me because I’ve heard some version of this many times before from people of color who work in predominantly white corporate environments. And I’ve experienced some of this myself. There was that time a colleague couldn’t believe that I was raised vegetarian and really had never eaten fried chicken. Then there was that time a coworker caught me off guard by grabbing a handful of my hair in the bathroom because she said it looked so cool. Perhaps the most annoying were suggestions that I and the “other” black person in the office should date or were already dating, simply because we spoke to each other and well… we were both black.

I could go on but if anything like this has happened to you, know that you are not crazy and you are not alone. First go have a glass of water, cool down, and avoid calling anybody who will rile you up even further. These situations can be frustrating, yes, but nothing to lose your mind over. Nonetheless, dealing with microaggressions on the regular is exhausting! When you are the “only,” or one of just a few, what can you do to thrive, not just survive, in your workplace?

First, maintain a positive mindset. Adwoa Dadzie, a millennial career expert and Fortune 50 HR Executive, suggests thriving is a matter of mindset, “Try seeing being the ‘only one’ as your competitive advantage, and be resilient enough to bounce back even when others try to minimize your brilliance.” Dadzie suggests reframing your role in an isolating environment and focus on where you can deliver value. “Too often we look at being the only one as a drawback or obstacle, when in fact it can be the very source of our value. By being the only one you offer a unique perspective that allows you the capability to be innovative – a key asset in any organization and industry.”

Paula Edgar, a diversity consultant and executive coach, encourages you to “not hide or shrink away. Own your place in the workplace, know that you are talented, able and capable of adding significant value. Embracing your value and authenticity can help with any "imposter syndrome" thoughts and feelings of not belonging.”

A positive mindset also means thinking the best of your coworkers. Edgar recommends you “make friends and allies in the workplace. Thriving happens when you feel included.” She points out, “Others can help you to navigate even if they don't look like you (sometimes especially when they don't look like you).”

And when coworkers offend? Remember blind spots are exactly what they sound like, an area where people can’t see a different perspective, sometimes not because they are unwilling, but rather because they haven’t been exposed. Don’t assume that people are trying to be hurtful all the time. If you have the time and energy to share why a certain comment stung you, share. If not, move on.

Yes, move on. Be willing to let some things roll of your back. Picking your battles applies to work too. Chelsea Hayes, SPHR, CEO and principal consultant of The Coaching Factory suggests this, “Don't waste too much energy dwelling on the fact that you are an "only." Your brain has a finite capacity each day and if you choose to spend your energy on every real or perceived slight, you're doing yourself a huge disservice. Recognize it as a fact, allow that fact to power your decisions and move forward.” Decide what you can move on from and what you need to call HR about. Build your own internal capacity to avoid letting those comments ruin your day.

Furthermore, focus on being your best ‘you.’ Build a strong presence and be recognized for your performance. Shift the focus to your results and take the focus off of what others are saying and doing. NYU graduate adjunct PR professor, Gabrielle Simpson, says, "When you're the only of any group, you must positively stand out! Whether it is for your insight, expertise or charisma, make sure that your presence is always known and impactful."

Get comfortable being uncomfortable. Kimberly Wilson, a Vice President of Affiliate marketing at Disney and ESPN Media Networks shares her recipe for thriving at work, "I was given a formula from an amazing executive program I attended years ago and I live by it every day. Performance + Relationships = Advancement. It's not enough to survive your environment." So how does one do more than survive and actual thrive? "Being a student of the business you're in, expanding your knowledge beyond your current role, and fostering relationships with potential advocates, influencers and people you can model after," says the marketing expert. "Building your brand based on body of work while learning how to tell your story are critical. I share with those I mentor, be comfortable being uncomfortable. That's when real growth takes place."

A support system is key. If there are limited spaces inside your company to connect with others in similar situations, find some spaces outside of work for this. Edgar recommends you “use your network to support you externally when you need to feel heard and want to have people who can relate to your experiences. In addition to making you feel better, sometimes engaging more externally for support can help you to be more intentional about sharing job opportunities with your network (hopefully making you not the ‘only’) for long.”

Some cities have local chapters of national networking organizations (like National Urban League), or other citywide programs (e.g. Council of Urban Professionals in NY and LA). Most industries also have organizations with national and local levels of engagement.

If you aren’t seeing anything like this in your community, consider joining a digital community. There are slack channels like Ladies Get Paid and Her Agenda where women nationwide can share their thoughts, advice, and opportunities online.

Keep your goals top of mind. Dadzie points out, “Thriving and surviving are opposite poles of the same energy and performance spectrum. To simply survive is to choose to respond to your environment with large amounts of negative energy, like frustration, which typically results in average to low performance with limited growth or development. Living too long in survival often leads to burnout.” When this happens, it’s time to get refreshed on your goals. Ask yourself questions like: Why am I here? What convinced me to take this role? Where can it take me next in my career? What do I want to get out of it? Make bullets and keep the answers in a note in your phone or a post-it at your desk. A quick glance at that list can keep you sane when that colleague remarks with surprise, that you are so “articulate.”

Get out of survival mode and into high performance mode! A new challenge might be the self-care you need and the best method to keep thriving. You can get out of survival mode by checking back in and upping your commitment and contributions to growing your career. Take an employee learning class, request permission to attend a workshop out of the office, leverage any intuition benefits you might have. Find learning experiences that reflect your particular needs. The Memo offers career boot camps specifically for Black women, Levo offers learning events for all women, for instance. Attend a conference. Grow your skills and bring back your learnings to your team.

Finally, work on your thoughts. “Thriving is to respond to your environment with bursts of positive emotions, like excitement, or gratitude, which builds your resilience for the times when things get tough.” So make an effort to be grateful for the journey, to stay goal-oriented, and growth-focused and look forward to a big pay-off. As Dadzie shares, “Thriving leads to high performance, resilience and growth.”

Buddha says “We are shaped by our thoughts; we become what we think.” Don’t wallow in the frustrations of insensitive comments and intentional and unintentional slights by peers. Make sure your thoughts are focused on how this role is getting you to next goal and allow yourself to thrive.

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