I didn’t come from money — anyone who knows me knows that I grew up in the projects of East St. Louis. But thanks to the tech revolution, I was able to gain a well-paying job. The only problem? My coworkers — and my bosses — didn’t know how to talk to me.
Being More Accommodating
I first started working when I was 14 years old. I was part of a program that promised to put well-deserving people in poverty (read: kids born and raised in the projects within economically disadvantaged and ravaged areas) into college as long as they retained a C average or above. I was already an A student, so I was low on the radar as “at risk.” But in the back of my mind, the only viable careers I was familiar with were police officers, teachers, or nurses because those were the only people I’d see flashing around money (i.e., via new-ish cars, expensive clothes, and attitudes).
By the time I had gotten through my first few weeks of what would be a three- to- four-year paid internship, I had learned a lot. Not only about finances — I had to learn how to open a bank account and use an ATM card — and the reality of using African-American Vernacular English (AAVE) at the wrong places and times, but also about how to “be” in these scenarios. I didn’t know what I didn’t know about functioning in a society full of well-to-doers.
The first lesson I remembered learning is about clothing. I knew how to wear a blouse with slacks or a nice skirt. I knew jeans were a “no-no.” Luckily, the program took us through a crash course on what to wear and not to wear. But what they didn’t cover is color. My clothing choices were always bright, brilliant, and festive with splashes of colors here or there, especially because I was working during the summers.
I decided to take this a step further and learn more about what was acceptable regarding cultural references (sports seemed to always be a top topic), types of food to eat, and shows to watch. I learned that the games I played were often unheard of outside of my social circle at home. The food I ate was called “soul food”, and although fascinating, it was considered spicy and sometimes smelly. The black comedies were always highlighted as the height of black society, and that others wanted me to emulate such characters.
But after a while, I started to notice that this very same ideology became terribly isolating at home. If I spewed my knowledge to classmates, neighborhood friends, or even the smattering of adults I encountered, they had no earthly clue what I was talking about. Or worse, they’d laugh and say, “That’s white people stuff!” So I had to learn to do one more thing: code-switch. For those unfamiliar with the term, Merriam Webster defines it as “the switching from the linguistic system of one language or dialect to that of another.”
Who Can Bring Their Whole Self to Work?
Code-switching also involves learning how to “function” in multiple societies. Simply put, we all have different ways that we approach our friends, family, and strangers, whether we breach a subject with them or not, and how to do so. In most cases, we learn these topics automatically, especially if we’re from an oppressed minority community working within a space with folks of more privilege.
I noticed that after a while, many folks who were unfamiliar with the concept seemed to fall off the wagon. Those from a privileged majority background seemed to be mystified and often frightened of those colleagues. Sometimes wrangling them into rooms, and saying things like, “We take a more professional tone when we speak to clients and ourselves,” or even, “Why does your face look like that? It makes people think you’re angry.” Of course, it’s always sprinkled with, “It’s not me, I’m fine with it,” tacked on to the end. Sometimes, even with a smattering of proof of how their [best friend/relative/etc.] is the same type of minority.
Besides digressing into various complaints, the issue seems to point toward more nuanced and behavioral problems. A snowball effect occurs, prompting the minority to completely change the way they function within the workspace, keeping two frames of mind running almost simultaneously. This can lead to disconnect between that person being their true authentic self and having to put on a mask to be more appealing to the majority population.
With today’s “bring your whole self” culture, this proves to be disingenuous for those who feel like they still have to code-switch to be accepted and understood. And now with the advent of non-traditional technical folks (myself included) filling up the ranks, an entire generation of workers are now once again being placed into the realms of people who lived, learned, and grew differently than themselves.
How Do the Majority Accept the Minority?
The majority isn’t doing a great job accepting the minority, according to a study done by the Kapor Center of Social Impact in 2017. Stereotyping, being looked over for promotions, and even straight-up harassment have all been reported as reasons minorities decide to leave companies. So job fulfillment in these industries could, as a result, keep declining in growth.
One fix that many companies tried to do within the realm is to employ and create positions for Chief Diversity Officers (CDO). Leveraged as a permanent, on-site diversity consultant, these executives tried to oversea the changes within the organization, and basically, make right the wrongdoings from years past. However, a recent report done by the executive consultancy firm Russell Reynolds has shown that these folks don’t have the power, nor the resources, to actually do anything about their diversity, equity, and inclusion (DEI) issues. Their hands are almost literally tied.
So how do we fix this mess?
I often come with some innovative solution, but the answer is quite obvious and as straightforward as you can imagine:
Talk to Your Employees About the Change
Transparency is the biggest factor in getting someone to trust you, especially when something different is about to or has happened. If you’re bringing on a minority for the first time in a pretty homogeneous and privileged crowd, be honest and upfront. Not just handing down a list of repercussion, but say things like, “We have never had a person like this here, before. So, we’re going to make some mistakes. The best thing you can do is be honest and sincere instead of defensive. We’re all learning, so do your best to put your preconceived notions aside and just get to know this person.”
Give Your Chief Diversity Officer Real Power
I cannot count how many times I’ve seen a CDO literally be just a figured-head to make sure the company ticks all the marks to make it on any of the numerous diversity-aligned lists. Their job should be more than that. Instead of looking at them as a fence to keep the most brutal of insults from coming your way in the DEI space, actually put them in charge of finding out what’s what and arm them with the ability to do structural change.
Bring Back Ambassadors, Orientations, and Welcome Committees
Once upon a time, most companies had an orientation department which included a committee tasked with helping new employees get up-to-speed. But then they slowly started to disappear, especially as startups came on the scene, ten-fold. And with that, so did long-term employee retention. Bring them back. Orientation and onboarding often consist of employees who serve also as the welcome committee and often are ambassadors to getting new employees mentally invested in the company.
Getting all of these items up and running are key to getting on the right track. But don’t mistake placing items on your to-do list with having the ability to structurally and efficiently run your DEI efforts! Re-establishing these practices take time.
Bringing in a diversity consultant to help you get started, stay structured, or re-evaluate your current system could be beneficial in a multitude of ways. Thinking outside the box requires folks who’ve been outside of it. Sometimes bringing in an external point of view might be what’s needed to jumpstart the process. Just don’t do it alone.