Adapting New Ways to Navigate the Workplace
I remember being in a small group as we debriefed and discussed our takeaways from a gender and sexuality professional development training facilitated by a Black queer non binary femme (btw, I was here for all of the energy given by the facilitator!). The conversation quickly shifted to two (white) group members giving their opinion that the facilitator’s response was inaccurate, lecture-like and aggressive in tone based on a moment in the PD when a white female colleague challenged the facilitator around patriotism versus colonialism. In recalling both moments, I reflected on the many experiences of micro-aggressions and the fact that these views and behaviors come from being deeply rooted in white supremacy and white standards of “acceptance”. As I sat there listening to and reflecting on my own experiences of being one of the only black women in predominantly white spaces, of not feeling safe and having classmates and colleagues challenge my expertise and attempt to derail recommendations (sometimes directly and other times indirectly) despite my proven record of doing exceptional work. Yet if I am being completely honest, these individuals' efforts were just an attempt to try to delegitimize my work. While I could have remained silent and not said anything at all I remember a quote from Audre Lorde… “And when we speak we are afraid our words will not be heard nor welcomed. But when we are silent we are still afraid. So it is better to speak remembering we were never meant to survive” and I chose to speak up because these same individuals needed to sit in the discomfort of hearing lived experiences of their black and female colleagues in the workplace. Then I thought about how this is unique to my journey, but the challenges and struggles faced, especially in the workplace, are very similar to many of my clients and other black women in positions of authority and leadership.
Don’t be mistaken Black women are out here winning, being bold and claiming spaces… Leading organizations, blazing trails, sitting at the tables as the “only”, and creating new tables altogether; high performing Black women, Executives, VPs, Directors, Deans, Entrepreneurs, Managers, Leaders, Business Owners, Community Organizers, and the impressive list goes on and on. Simply put, we represent every aspect of our very rich and diverse diaspora. Now think about your own individual professional journeys.
Can you relate to the daily work struggles like …
Subtly, contemplating changing the way you express yourself in majority white and male dominating spaces? Maybe slowly but surely silencing various parts of your identity that you believe aren’t accepted or is viewed with a negative perception by others? This can be referenced as code switching and having to keep up with this appearance can slowly wear you out.
Feeling like you’re constantly having to bite your tongue and work hard to maintain a “soft and gentle” tone of speech so you won’t be perceived as angry or aggressive? Possibly shying away from sharing your true opinions, thoughts, and critiques or how someone’s micro-aggressive, racist or misogynist comment offended you? Maybe not addressing instances when your opinions are disregarded yet acknowledged and validated by your white or male colleagues when they share the exact same idea or suggestion you did (sometimes even right before you). It’s called policing your tone, it's called silencing and minimizing yourself.
Are you the “only” at the table and trying very hard for men (including black men), white and non-black people to like you and your work. It’s called Questioning if you belong and it usually accompanies the symptoms of Imposter Syndrome. You’re not an imposter and you do belong! The years of messaging and conditioning that have subtly and directly told you that you don’t belong is the true imposter. Not you!
How about feeling burned out because…
You feel like when you share your experiences you’re having to manage your boss’s emotions and reactions or even worse when you bring challenges to their awareness they are defensive? It’s called Managing up/Exerting Emotional Labor. You’re not alone, you’re having to manage your supervisor’s fragility and anti-Blackness. Many Black women face this daily, several times a day.
Feeling like your colleagues are looking for you to speak on behalf of all other Black women and who are so unaware of their own biases and internalized racism? It’s called being tokenized and it's not only incredibly burdensome and draining, it is also unsustainable. Your actions reflect you only, and it's time you become comfortable with shedding that narrative. Also you shouldn’t have to endure the burden of everyone who hasn’t addressed their internal race and savior complex struggles. It’s their work to do and it’s time you allow them to do it.
Even with having all of the degrees, licenses, certification and spending endless hours becoming an expert in your field yet you feel you have to constantly prove your worth as a Black woman? All of this keeps you from honoring your humanity, showing up as your authentic self, and being well! You cannot be sustained in that state and you most definitely cannot thrive.
Listen, aren’t you exhausted from enduring all of it yet struggling to ask for help? I think you have internalized the Strong Black Woman Narrative and although a tool of survival, it can keep you from being the best and healthiest version of yourself. In the end you know why you’re doing it but it doesn’t serve you in the long run, sis. It is okay and in fact strongly encouraged that you show up as your most authentic self, use your natural talents and presence to captivate an audience and do the work that you know you can do. Your input and experiences deserve to be shared, while professionally setting boundaries and gently putting someone in their place, respectfully.
I want to offer you some skills and tools to navigate these spaces and for owning these positions that you hold! And I’m here to help. I’m excited to offer Individual Psychotherapy (in New York) facing any or all of the challenges I outlined above.
While DEI initiatives are being introduced and implemented across the US and abroad, in competing cities and states they are threatening to take away this progress. Yet there is still so much work to be done, and the workplace remains filled with threats to Black wellness. Your mental and emotional health and wellness should not be a casualty. If you identify with any of the struggles above, book your free initial consultation here: Free Initial Consult.
Let’s get you some new skills and learn to navigate these situations so that you can move from surviving to thriving on your terms!
La’Tish M. Thomas, LCSW
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