Module 3: Anti-Black Racism
What comes to mind when you hear the word “professional”? What does a “professional” look and sound like?
The image of the ideal worker or professional is often constructed from a White lens. White features, language, and achievements are the norm to which non-White people are often compared. In the workplace, who is defined as “suitable”, “ideal” or “successful” is often determined by how closely one resembles, literally and figuratively, this constructed identity of the qualified and good worker. Stigma, stereotypes, prejudice and bias play into the construction of concepts like “professionalism” and “suitability.” Therefore, racism is operationalized in the retention, recruitment and advancement process and policies within organizations. As a result, we tend to see a lack of representation and higher degrees of under-employed and unemployed Black people and people of colour across many sectors and at higher levels of organizations.
Microaggressions and unconscious bias mark the experience of employment for Black people and other racialized peoples, restricting their ability to fully participate as valued and contributing members in the work setting. Conditions such as these make it difficult to function, have job satisfaction and give optimal performance if you are in a constant state of deflecting racism. Additionally, it’s challenging when one is lacking support or mentorship, as well as prevented from opportunities to use and grow your talents and skills.
Microaggressions and Unconscious Bias
Anti-Black racism is commonly understood as glaring, direct hostility towards Black people through threats, name-calling, and violence; but for many who live this experience every day, this is just the tip of the iceberg.
Microaggressions are any verbal or nonverbal action, intentional or otherwise, that insults, snubs, or discriminates against someone based on their marginalized community (Sue).
For many Black people in the workplace, microaggressions, discrimination, and unconscious biases can look like:
- Having your experiences and education deemed inadequate in comparison to non-Black colleagues with similar qualifications.
- Being told you are an exception compared to other Black people: “You’re very articulate” or “Your family must be really proud.”
- Assumptions and jokes are being made about your preferences and abilities based on stereotypes: “You saw the basketball game last night, right?” or “We’re thinking about doing a team retreat out at a camp; you know how to swim, right?”
- Being gas-lit or victim-blamed for calling out a microaggression or racist action: “You’re being dramatic,” “It was just a joke, chill out,” or “You’re reading too much into my comment. I’m not racist.”
Imagine the energy that is used to socially and emotionally manage these interactions and barriers daily. Anti-Black racism can show up in nuanced and covert ways as well. This has lasting behavioural, emotional and psychological impacts on Black individuals, including trauma and exhaustion (“Black in Canada“). Some of these impacts include:
- Losing your identity to succeed (“Black in Canada“): Many Black Canadians have mastered code-switching; which is the editing of one’s self when surrounded by non-Black people to make others feel “comfortable” around them, or as an attempt to challenge the stereotypes and biases that may be applied to them for being Black. The extent of this can range from changing the language used around non-Black people to styling their hair to fit the image of professionalism that is, by default, from a White perspective.
- Imposter syndrome: Imposter syndrome is the feeling of not belonging where you are, not deserving the office, promotion, job, team, or classroom that you currently have, no matter how qualified you are (Doggett). For many Black Canadians, this is a manifestation of internalized racism, the psychological result of centuries of systemic oppression by a dominant White supremacist culture reinforcing notions of inferiority and exclusion based on race. Such views perpetuate the idea that Black people are inherently not as skilled, nor good or deserving, as their non-Black peers.
The lack of representation and opportunity are prevailing factors that exacerbate these experiences of exclusion and the impacts of being devalued. One only has to consider who maintains positions of power, leadership and decision-making across organizations, institutions and agencies within society. Some telling examples are that Black leaders make up 1% of corporate Canada and White men account for 52% of political candidates despite making up only 36% of the population. Exclusion from social networks, lack of access to financial resources, limited access to advancement, including leadership and development opportunities and recruitment methods are some of the barriers that confront Black graduates, employees and job seekers. The newcomer experience adds other compounding challenges like language, local experience and accepted qualifications, that contribute to the unemployment and under-employment of Black peoples.
If you would like to further your understanding of microaggressions, Hadiya Roderique, a lawyer and journalist, and Marva Wisdom, Director of the Black Experience Project, discuss the effects that microaggressions and subtle racism can have.
Tokenism or Inclusion?
The scenario above with Jane and Cal is an example of tokenism. Tokenism is “diversity without inclusion” (Byarugaba). It creates the image of being tolerant and inclusive of racialized groups. For example:
- Tokenism: The hiring of a Black employee to an organization because someone posted a negative review of the interview process on LinkedIn, calling the hiring committee racist and noting the lack of diversity on the company’s “Meet the Team” webpage.
- Not tokenism: Hiring a strong candidate who is Black because of the skills, knowledge, and value they can bring to the team.
Tokenism occurs everywhere in organizations: from marketing campaigns claiming diversity or support for Black communities without real action to calling on the sole Black employee in an organization every Black History Month to talk about their experiences.
Remember that the subjects of tokenism (the tokens) are people, and just like with microaggressions, the experience of being a “token” can take its toll. Some of these impacts include:
- The stress of misrepresentation: Being the token in any group often results in becoming the champion of your identifying group involuntarily. Tokens are asked to speak, act, or educate on behalf of an entire Black community and the stress of misrepresenting that community is not to be overlooked. Black people are not a monolith and have membership in other oppressive identities. It is unfair to expect an individual to represent a community that is diverse and nuanced.
- Reliving traumas: Constantly being asked to share racialized experiences and stories for the purpose of educating others is an exhausting, emotional task.
- Isolation: When you have no one else who shares your identity to turn to for support or validation when microaggressions, tokenism, and discriminations occur, this can be incredibly lonely (Gillespie).
The concepts and impacts discussed in this section are scratching the surface of Black people’s experience in learning and working environments. Below are resources you can explore to discover real stories and strategies from Black employees navigating racism, microaggressions, and tokenism.
The Invisible Me – Shaping My Leadership: Stachen Frederick, Founder of BrAIDS for AIDS describes how stress and racism had real impacts on her physical and mental health and shares tools for creating greater inclusion.