Author Topic: Speaking Up While Being a Minority at Work  (Read 468 times)

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Speaking Up While Being a Minority at Work
« on: December 19, 2018, 10:19:41 am »

Before one of my very first job interviews, I called my grandmother. After her typical glowing praise and assurances that they’d be fools not to hire me, she posed a question I’d known to expect: Had I straightened my hair? I was disappointed, though I knew why she asked. She was afraid that whatever white person interviewed me—for there was little doubt that they would be white—wouldn’t think I “looked the part” if I showed up to the interview with natural hair. And while I wanted to explain to her that I wouldn’t want to work anywhere that thought me unprofessional for refusing to change my hair, I knew that she’d spent her life straightening her hair to pre-emptively ward off suspicions of unworthiness.

Any person of color working in an industry historically dominated by white people knows what it’s like to be underestimated, or even mistaken for a lower-tier employee. “I have been handed a tray before and asked if I am there to take their order,” Mallory Whitley, a doctor, told the New York Times in a series of interviews with professionals of color about countering bias at work. “If a nurse walks in — say, a white male — that is their doctor all of a sudden.” Dr. Whitley’s experience is mirrored by the other lawyers, doctors, and politicians in the piece, who describe a constant checking of their credentials and repeatedly being addressed as valets and assistants. All described tactics to reinforce their authority, from prominently displaying badges that identify them to avoiding casual Friday.

What stuck out to me as I read these stories, though, was the additional toll these countermeasures to bigotry come with, beyond the emotional and mental energy it takes to try to pre-empt a quietly toxic form of racism. In almost all of the cases, those interviewed spoke of a delicate balancing act: While deploying these countermeasures they had to simultaneously ensure that they weren’t “causing trouble” or being “too loud.” “I tend to not speak a certain way at work,” Dr. Whitley said, “to make sure in other people’s eyes I am less menacing or less aggressive.”

That balancing act, universal to people of color in mostly white workplaces, becomes more fraught when an unavoidable instance of casual bigotry provokes an emotional response. The result is a spiral of questions: Am I overreacting? Was it unintentional? Shouldn’t I point it out even if it was unintentional? I just spoke up about this other unrelated but still racist thing two weeks ago—will they think I’m that person? Am I calm enough to discuss this in a voice that won’t scare them? Rahmah Abdulaleem, a black Muslim lawyer, remembers a colleague from nearly two decades in the past telling her that she needed to “tone it down so people will feel comfortable.” “And that sticks with me,” she said. “I make sure that I am not the loud black woman

An African-American man in a suit was handed car keys by someone who thought he was a parking attendant. A black lawyer was patted down by guards at a courthouse, even though his white colleagues entered without a search. An African-American politician was told she did not look like a legislator.

Such encounters are the plight of many people of color in the United States, highlighted in October when flight attendants questioned the credentials of a black doctor while she was trying to treat a passenger in distress.

When the physician, Fatima Cody Stanford, later explained that she always carries her medical license to help disarm skeptics in situations like the one she had experienced, other professionals said they, too, had developed strategies to brace themselves for people who will doubt them.

Those in professional fields historically dominated by white people, including law, medicine and politics, say that the pressure to be prepared for these moments can feel particularly acute. It affects how they dress, what they carry in their wallets and how they behave.


In interviews, about a dozen people described their efforts to ward off bias at work because they supposedly do not, as Dr. Stanford put it, “look the part.”

Ramon Ray

Ramon Ray
‘People think I’m the help’
Ramon Ray, 46, a New Jersey entrepreneur, always dresses in a suit or a sweater. But he has still been asked by strangers to park a car, or been handed luggage or a coat to hang up. The bias, Mr. Ray said, was an assumption that he was “the help.”

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He is also aware of the racist assumption that black men are menacing. It has prompted him to modify his behavior in ways that include keeping his distance from white female strangers, especially in isolated places like parking lots.

“Why cause drama? Why cause angst?” he said. “I just wait.”

Dr. Ashley Denmark
Portrait Innovations

Dr. Ashley Denmark
CreditPortrait Innovations
‘We have to normalize our presence in the field’
Black, Hispanic and Latino people make up a low proportion of medical school graduates in the United States. Several doctors described their experiences with implicit bias, or unconscious assumptions about race.

Dr. Ashley Denmark, 34, has overheard patients say they have not seen a doctor, even though she just examined them.

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“I will go back, and round again, and say: ‘Hey, you didn’t remember seeing me? My notes are in the chart,’” Dr. Denmark said.

“It plays to a bigger problem that we have to normalize our presence in the field,” she added.

Dr. Mallory Whitley
Lans Stout of Lans Stout Photography & Productions

Dr. Mallory Whitley
CreditLans Stout of Lans Stout Photography & Productions
Dr. Mallory Whitley, 33, emphasizes to patients that she is their doctor. “I have been handed a tray before and asked if I am there to take their order,” she said. “If a nurse walks in — say, a white male — that is their doctor all of a sudden.”

She is also aware of how she delivers her orders. “I tend to not speak a certain way at work,” she said, “to make sure in other people’s eyes I am less menacing or less aggressive.”

It isn’t just black professionals. Hispanic and Latino people, Asian-Americans and people of other races have also reported encounters with bias.

Dr. Gricelda Gomez, 31, who is Latina, said she was helping herself to a supply of scrubs recently when an unfamiliar white nurse challenged her, assuming she was not a doctor and snatching her badge away after she did not provide her name.

Dr. Gricelda Gomez
Brigham & Women's Hospital

Dr. Gricelda Gomez
CreditBrigham & Women's Hospital
“The default is never ‘you are the physician,’” Dr. Gomez said.

Such assumptions that she is less qualified than other professionals are rarely overt, she added. “This is the tricky thing about bias and talking about it,” she said. “It is not macroscopic anymore. It is all underlying.”

After the encounter with the nurse, she stopped wearing the badge that identifies her as a doctor on her hip and started displaying it more prominently.

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“I pin it right in the middle of the V-neck,” she said.

Dr. Gomez, who also recalled being accused by a colleague of playing the “minority card” to get into Harvard Medical School, said she worked twice as hard to be perceived as competent as her white colleagues.

“The default is ‘Oh, she is Latina — she squeezed by because she is a minority,’” she said.

Anthony Denmark

Anthony Denmark
Avoiding casual Fridays
Anthony Denmark, 33, a lawyer in South Carolina, said he avoided wearing informal clothing on his firm’s casual Fridays.

Mr. Denmark, who is married to Dr. Denmark, has been patted down at courthouses where white colleagues walked in without a search, he said. In his car, he hangs work badges from the rearview mirror so he will always have identification within reach.

“At times I have had to show my license to my own clients before they believed that I was the attorney working on their case,” he said.

Kyle Strickland, an analyst at the Kirwan Institute for the Study of Race and Ethnicity, said, “I want to be able to say people should not have to wear a suit to fit in.”

“But at the end of the day,” he added, “you are still a person of color in America, because we have not necessarily confronted the issue of race head-on.”

Emilia Strong Sykes
Office of State Representative Emilia Sykes

Emilia Strong Sykes
CreditOffice of State Representative Emilia Sykes
‘You don’t want to be the black legislator causing trouble’
In 2016, a black Ohio state legislator, Emilia Strong Sykes, 32, asked why she had been singled out for a search entering the Statehouse. “Well, you don’t look like a legislator,” she recalled the guard saying. After a pause, he said she looked “too young.”


Ms. Sykes braces for such encounters. She dresses conservatively, keeping her badge visible and unfailingly displaying her legislative pin. “I am very mindful of it,” she said. “You don’t want to be the black legislator causing trouble.”

She has also instructed her aide to greet visitors at her office entrance, so there is no question that the black woman they encounter sitting at the representative’s desk is, in fact, the legislator herself.

“There is something that triggers those thoughts that ‘she is not supposed to be there,’” Ms. Sykes said.

Rahmah Abdulaleem

Rahmah Abdulaleem
‘A stereotype in their mind’
Rahmah Abdulaleem, 43, a Muslim lawyer, said her evolving head scarf choices reflected her efforts to pre-empt bias. When she was starting her career in Georgia, she would wear a dark scarf, making the Islamic covering less jarring for clients or colleagues. As she became more established, she started to wear colors.

“It was for them to be comfortable,” she said. “Then I finally got to the point where: ‘This is not me. I am not happy.’”

But she still recalls clearly how a colleague told her, almost 20 years ago, that she needed to “tone it down so people will feel comfortable.”

“And that sticks with me,” Ms. Abdulaleem said. “I make sure that I am not the loud black woman. I want to be respected for what is coming out of my mouth, and not falling into a stereotype in their mind.”

A version of this article appears in print on Dec. 13, 2018, on Page B3 of the New York edition with the headline: How Professionals Of Color Say They Counter Bias at Work. Order Reprints | Today’s Paper | Subscribe

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