Are You Unprofessional or Racist?

Some time ago, I was babysitting my (at the time) 4-year-old niece, which I love doing. It was about 5:30 pm, and she was playing with her toys, unwinding from a long day at school. I told her, “In 30 minutes, dinner will be ready, so it will be time to stop playing with your toys and to sit at the table and eat dinner.” She said, “Okay!” At 5:45 pm, I told her, “Hey love, so in 15 minutes, it will be time to stop playing and to have dinner.” Again she said, “Okay!” At 6:00 pm, I let her know, “Okay, it’s 6:00, time to stop playing and come to the table for dinner.” She proceeded to pitch a fit (which I couldn’t help but smile inwardly at how children can produce tears so quickly!). She said, “Noooo, I want to keep playing!” And I said with love and kindness in my voice, “Okay. Do you want to get in your chair on your own or do you want me to pick you up and put you in your chair?” She stopped crying and said, “…I want to keep playing.” I replied in the same sweet voice, “So do you want to get in your chair yourself or do you want me to pick you up and put you in your chair?” She looked at me like I was crazy, and said “I want…to keep playing.” So I replied again, “I understand. Do you want to get in your chair yourself or for me to pick you up?” She said, “…I want to get in myself.” And I said, “Okay!” And she got into the chair, and we proceeded to have dinner.

Sometimes people need two options from which to choose so that they can act accordingly.

I have frequently found myself in situations at work where I do not know if the person is acting towards me in a certain way because of their perception of me as a Black person or because they are inept at having difficult or straightforward conversations. Three brief examples: 1) A peer was upset with something I had done and expressed it rudely, and I asked them to please talk to me as a colleague. They denied that that’s what they had done and avoided the follow-up conversation we agreed to have. 2) While sitting around a leadership table with coworkers discussing a policy change, I said that I did not think we were equipped to have the racially-conscious conversations necessary to implement the change that day, and I recommended that we be given additional time for training. No one said anything in reply, and the conversation continued as if I had not even spoken. 3) In a cohort group chat, someone raised a problem, and I suggested a solution. Minutes later, a different person suggested the same solution, and the first person thanked them.

These types of interactions happen frequently to people who are visible minorities in the workplace.

One characterization of these experiences is “microaggressions.” A microaggression is a comment or action that subtly expresses a prejudiced attitude towards a member of a marginalized group. Merriam-Webster adds that this comment or action is “often [done] unconsciously or unintentionally”. (1) I find it hard to excuse these behaviors as unconscious or unintentional when it feels quite purposeful.

As a Black person (who also looks much younger than she is), I constantly have an internal dialogue running: “Are people not acknowledging or appreciating my contributions because of my race?” “Is this person acting this way because they are unprofessional?” “Does this person not know how to give direct, constructive feedback?” “Has this person not sought training on how to handle differences in opinion?” “Has this person not learned the value of hearing and incorporating multiple perspectives?” Because I can’t read minds and know the reasoning, it makes it even more difficult to contribute to the work environment in the ways in which I am capable.

Research shows that a significant number of people who are in a visible minority group bear the same burden and the trauma of oppression. One study found that 58% of “Asian, Black and Latin employees” were continually consciously preparing to deal with bias or discrimination at work. Other sources have found that the upward mobility of “African-Americans” is impacted because it is difficult building relationships across racial boundaries, and they fear that anything they share will be used against them in a future context. Another group of researchers found that 10–38% of the difference in life expectancy of those in different racial groups was related to their workplace stressors. This is supported by a 2011 study by researchers from Columbia University (I had to give a special shout-out to my fellow alumni!) which found that being in a demographic minority in the workplace has a long-term impact on the employee because of their expectation that they will be judged or perceived on how others identify their sub-group instead of on their actual performance. (2)

So what I am asking each of you is: are you unprofessional or racist? (If you need help assessing your current state and learning to be more inclusive, Gallup© has a great tool [3]). At some point, one of those adjectives is the sub-text to your interactions with a person in a minority group, and I’d rather you discover and address it than continue to unconsciously or unintentionally have life and death impacts on me.

  1. Microaggression Definition, Merriam Webster, 2020; What exactly is a microaggression? Desmond-Harris, Vox, 2015.; Microaggressions are a big deal, NPR, Limbong, 2020.
  2. How to cope when being a minority at work contributes to stress, Montanez, Forbes, 2019; Diversity and Authenticity, Phillips, Dumas & Rothbard, Harvard Business Review, 2018. The impact of workplace stress on minorities, Healthify Team, 2016; Contending with stereotype threat at work: a model of long-term responses, Block, et.al, The Counseling Psychologist, 2011.
  3. 3 requirements for a diverse and inclusive culture, Washington, Patrick & Robison, 2018.

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Camara Watkins

Author. Explorer. Columbia University Alumna. Lifelong Learner. Change Agent.