#BlackLivesMatter in Corporate America Too: Overcoming Racial Bias at Work
Updated: Mar 14, 2021
There are many trainings, white papers, and courses that explore implicit bias—how to understand your own, and more specifically, disrupt where they may show up in the workplace. In my experience, there isn’t equal attention given to what to do when you feel as though you’re subjected to someone else’s biases—more specifically as Black people in predominantly white spaces. Inasmuch as we are experiencing a climate that has encouraged many [white folks and leaders] to evolve in their race consciousness, I am also acutely aware that white supremacy, racism, and biases influenced by them are ever present in Corporate America. In this post, I offer a few tactics for enacting your power and agency when receiving biased—or downright racist feedback.
AFFIRM and honor your feelings.
Self-reflect on and honor how the feedback made you feel. What emotions did the feedback elicit in you and why?
This may sound like: “In this moment, I feel uncomfortable, offended and hurt. I am feeling this way because I believe my output was aligned with the expectations set out for this. I feel hurt and unsure because I recognize their biases are influencing their interpretation of my work.”
AFFIRM how you feel and know that your feelings are valid. The reality is, most BIPOC tend to be very aware of the ways in which our racial identities influence how others perceive us (more specifically, how Blackness can be misconstrued, misunderstood, and disregarded in white spaces). Likewise, it is an all too common interaction for white people to minimize and/or deflect when a BIPOC believes and communicates that they have been subjected to one’s racial bias. This might sound like, “Everything isn’t about race,” or “why do you have to play the ‘race card.’” This is why this step is so important. Despite what they say, your feelings are valid. When recognizing and seeking to resolve biased feedback — FEEL and AFFIRM the range of emotions. What you feel is your truth. How you feel and why matters.
CONFIRM the set expectations.
Here, we want to be direct in identifying why we perceive the feedback to be biased. In order to do so, one must revisit the initial expectations that were communicated (if they exist). Consider: What were the criteria by which your performance was being measured? If there were specific competencies, project guidelines or milestones expected, revisit those. Literally write them out, if you need, and align them with your [interpretation of your] output. For example, if you were expected to model “thought leadership” as a competency, list the ways in which you did so from your perspective. This will be part of a conversation you will eventually have.
ENGAGE with a trusted colleague.
Share your concerns with a trusted colleague. Present them with the feedback that was shared and your interpretation of your output or work product. Solicit their input without sharing your initial feelings. Ideally, you want to get their unbiased perspective. Be sure to consider someone who is trustworthy, invested in your success, and ideally, versed in the subject matter by which you are being measured. Engaging additional perspective and affirming your own can be a huge confidence boost. This is important as you engage in the next step.
ENACT your agency.
At this step, we get to “the work” and enact the power and agency that is inherent within us. At this point, you’ve affirmed that your feelings are valid, confirmed that your output was consistent with set expectations, and engaged a trusted colleague for additional feedback and perspective. Now, is the time re-engage the reviewer, perhaps your manager, in a conversation.
Introduce your intent to meet by communicating or emailing something along the lines of: “I have given additional thought to our conversation and have since had an opportunity to reflect—I have some follow up questions to ensure we’re on the same page moving forward.”
Lead with your truth and remember to use “I” statements: “When I read your feedback, I struggled with identifying specific areas where I did not meet your expectations. I felt a bit confused and have since reflected on the ways in which bias and other factors may have contributed to the interpretation of my performance.”
Be Specific: For example, “One expectation or desired outcome was “X,” and I delivered on that in “this” way…”
Ask for an explanation, or clarification: “Can you be more specific about how my interpretation came to be different from yours? I am interested in understanding how you came to your interpretation. Might there be something else that is influencing your interpretation that I am unaware of?
NOTE: Now, based on what we know about power, privilege, resistance and white supremacy, the person may get defensive, perhaps undermine your perspective or deny anything other than objectivity. They may even throw out the wild card—the myth of “meritocracy” that exists within the organization’s processes and practices. This is why the AFFIRM work is so important. Inasmuch as we certainly may choose to be open and curious about their perspective, we must also maintain that our truth is valid. In some cases, they will not, nor ever understand or accept your perspective. Please recognize and know that this is a result of their own unaddressed self-work, not your inadequacy.
Recap & Document.
Send an email recapping and documenting the conversation from your perspective, even if you haven’t necessarily reached an optimal resolve. It may support you in making the case for a promotion, project, opportunity, or lawsuit down the line.
So, the next time you’re in a situation when you feel you may be the subject of someone else’s biases, remember: AFFIRM your feelings and truth. CONFIRM your performance by aligning expectations with your output. ENGAGE a trusted colleague. ENACT your agency and power. And finally, RECAP & DOCUMENT to protect yourself in the future. Unfortunately, racism and white supremacy aren’t going anywhere anytime soon—neither is our collective power and agency.
Note: I originally wrote this post for The Winters Group's Inclusion Solution blog .. but the way my shared abundance mindset is set up... :-)