11/25/2009 03:24 pm ET Updated May 25, 2011

The Dual Identity of the Upwardly Mobile

I recently came across a survey of the top ten stressors during the holidays. Surprise, family was ranked as one of our top ten stressors. As a diversity attorney, this makes perfect sense to me.

Diversity in our families is often eschewed. Let's be honest, rarely do we think of our families as diverse, yet there are a number of differences that can exist under one roof. There are different personalities, lifestyles, and even races. While there is comfort in feeling that our families are monolithic and share our values, ideas, and ethics, the reality is that our families are probably the greatest source for diversity in our lives. One difference in our families that often goes overlooked, but is a major source of tension, is class.

Last year's Welcome Home Roscoe Jenkins is a good Hollywood depiction of the stresses of being upwardly mobile and not feeling as though you fit in with your working-class family. Roscoe, played by Martin Lawrence, transformed himself into a media mogul after he left his modest Southern roots. In the movie, he encountered jealousy and even physical violence from his brother and sister who could not share in or understand his success.

If you have ever rolled your eyes at a family dinner when an aunt, cousin or some other relative has said, "All it takes to make it through college is the ability to read," or "College ain't that hard; anyone can graduate," you are probably the Roscoe Jenkins of your family. And, just like the movie trailer's tag line, "Going home is no vacation." You have probably had an insecure uncle, aunt or in-law throw you a few pieces of constructive criticism wrapped in jealousy. In college, you may not have shared your study abroad stories out of fear that you might make a minimum-wage earning cousin feel inferior and threatened. As a grown-up, you probably don't talk about the deals you have closed or dare mention your most recent promotion.

As W.E.B. DuBouis so eloquently coined term, "dual identity," it describes the double consciousness of being trapped between two worlds. When I interviewed a range of professionals for my book, Recruiting & Retaining a Diverse Workforce: New Rules for a New Generation, people told me about their frustration, disappointment, and fear of pretending to be two different people--assimilating at work and expressing their individualism after hours. Similar to dual identity stressors in the workplace, the stress of being caught between our professional world and our working-class families intensifies. When we can not bring our whole selves to our families, especially during a festive time of the year, we withdraw. We dread going home, we limit our conversations, we leave dinner early, and some of us stop making the trip to our families and instead spend the holidays with friends.

To keep the peace at this year's family gathering, I would encourage you to think twice about your interactions with loved ones and consider whether you are truly accepting the differences in your family. The diversity in our families is a good place to start practicing and developing good habits around acceptance in the workplace. Have a Happy Thanksgiving.