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Standing your ground: 8 tips for women of color in the workplace

Vice President of the United States of America Kamala Harris’ statements at the 2020 United States vice-presidential debate illuminated the lengths that Black, Indigenous and People of Color (BIPOC) women must take to be heard in professional spaces. “Mr. Vice President, I’m speaking,” is like the lines I have had to utter in my career. “Mr. Manager, I’m speaking.” “Mr. Peer, I just said that.” “Mr. Subordinate, please don’t interrupt me.”

Earlier in my career, however, I did not always feel comfortable reclaiming my microphone. Standing my ground was usually met with negative responses. Some of my favorites include, “Oh, Leslie is feeling particularly sassy today,” and “Wow girl. Why you mad?” I have even had a white man go as far as saying that he felt threatened by my assertions. Those reactions became my kryptonite.

I eventually became so obsessed with not fulfilling the angry/sassy Black woman stereotype in my predominately white workplaces that I lost parts of myself in the process. I stopped speaking up in meetings to avoid those negative perceptions. I sought absolute perfection in the most debilitating manners to ensure that my mistakes were not blamed on my race, my public university education, or anything else that made me feel othered.

Most upsettingly, I allowed people to talk down to me and unnecessarily explain simple concepts because I knew that statements like “I am well aware,” and “I just said that,” would be perceived as me having a poor attitude. If these “mental and emotional gymnastics” routines, as Kerry Washington identified them, constituted an Olympic sport, I’d be as decorated as Simone Biles.

As I struggled to overcome this burden and regain my Black woman superpowers, I got to a point where I realized that I need to focus on myself, my growth and my well-being more than anything. I am. It’s the mantra I carried with me as I continued to discover myself again. I am smart. I am capable. I am deserving of every opportunity I am given. I am here. I am powerful.

We tend to look for a clear division between our private and our professional lives, but we forget that it is all personal because we’re human. Though I still falter, shrink, and code-switch at times, I strive to bring my full self to work every day. It is far from easy and comes with a fair amount of stress and anxiety, but here are a few things that have helped me to maintain control along the way.

Find your people

Every space won’t feel like a safe space. As a Black woman in corporate America, I am often the only Black person on my team or in a meeting. It can feel draining to go all day without interacting with someone who looks like you. At EF Education First, we have employee resource groups, or EFinity groups, to provide such spaces for similarly identifying groups. I am a founding member of Black @ EF. This group has had a huge impact on my growth within this organization.

I’m not sure how long I would have lasted without this group and its members. We also have Asians @ EF; Latinos @ EF, LGBTQ+ @ EF and Parents @ EF. If that isn’t yet an option at your workplace, make time to check in with friends, family, or community groups for that much-needed balance. Most importantly, if you are in a space where you don’t feel welcomed or accepted, make a plan to change that space rather than change yourself.

Say it with me, #IamRemarkable

I became an #IamRemarkable facilitator in 2019. #IamRemarkable is an initiative to empower members of underrepresented groups to self-promote and advocate for themselves. It’s a session in which I recommend everyone participates at least once. It will change the way you see yourself and the value you add to your team and organization. It has helped me understand the societal norms that sometimes make us feel less worthy of praise or advancement and less deserving of a seat at the table.

Get moving, but don’t forget to breathe

Navigating professional spaces and cities (I’m looking at you, Boston) as a Black woman is stressful. If we throw a global pandemic, racial injustice, and an entire shortage of hugs for those of us doing our part to reduce the spread, we are downright exhausted! I have turned to fitness to release some of that tension. I do HIIT classes with a colleague over at Hult International Business School, an associated organization of EF.

In addition to that, yoga has helped me to realize and challenge my strength, both physically and mentally. Lastly, I also meditate and do breathwork with the Foundations app, open to all EF employees. The daily reminders force me to take a few minutes to exhale whatever I don’t want to bring with me through the rest of my workday.

Flexing the muscle

For members of underrepresented groups, standing your ground, asserting yourself and pushing forward in your career can be tough. So is doing 10 pushups the first time you exercise in over a year. It’s important to build up those muscles with practice. Practice your salary negotiation skills with your peers or friends before meeting with your manager. Practice using phrases like “I was speaking,” “I just said that,” or “I’m leading this project.”

Similarly, practice removing certain words and disclaimers from your vocabulary in everyday conversations. Starting questions with “Sorry, but,” justifying your questions or beginning factual statements with “I think,” or “I feel” are not the way to go. If you don’t do it with your friends, don’t do it at work.

The first time I had a difficult conversation with my manager, my voice was shaking, and I felt like I wanted to run out of the room and cry. But I got the words out, even if I had to read them word for word from my notebook. And each time after that, my voice grew steadier and stronger. Work that muscle until you can flex it like a boss.

Find a role model

Those who know me, know that I stan Shirley Chisholm. The first Black Congresswoman and the first Black woman to run for president of the United States, is also of Caribbean descent like I am, a fellow Brooklyn College alumna and my soror in Delta Sigma Theta Sorority, Inc. Since initially learning about her in college, I spent much of my professional career asking “WWSD.” What would Shirley do? In all her Unbought and Unbossed glory, Shirley wouldn’t let anything stop her, and neither will I.

I am

I’m a firm believer in mantras. Imposter syndrome, minority stress and stereotype threats can sometimes chip away at our confidence. Just like Queen mother, Angela Bassett reminded Chadwick Boseman, aka T’Challa, to “show [them] who you are,” while his back was against the wall, mantras are the easiest way for us to remind ourselves!

I have mantras written on post-its around my desk to remember who I am and who I am becoming. Sometimes, all it takes is that glance to the left of my monitor to breathe in that truth. It is easier said than done, but you owe it to your current and future self. Some of my favorites include

I am.

I am remarkable.

I am more than enough.

I am powerful beyond measure.

Your mantra can also be music. Sometimes, I’ll step away from my desk for an uplifting Black Girl Magic solo dance party. Try adding these songs to your fika playlist:

Brown Skin Girl by Beyonce

I Am Light by India Arie

Go Get It by Mary Mary

Do It by Chloe x Halle

No one is you –– that is your superpower

We can sometimes fall into the debilitating rut of seeking perfection because we may be the “first” or the “only,” and feel responsible for representing our community. As a Black woman, it doesn’t help that I may also be one of the first Black people that a colleague has interacted with on this level.

It is often clear when this is the case, and it adds some more weight to the chip on my shoulder. While it is important to be aware of this, I am here representing myself. I cannot carry the weight of another’s perceived stereotypes about me or those who look like me. Let them hold onto that on their own and go on about your day.

Forgive yourself

The tallest hurdle over which I had to climb was that of forgiveness. I had to forgive myself for shrinking in the past. I had to forgive myself for the self-doubt. I had to forgive myself for letting people speak down to me. I had to forgive myself for unnecessarily backing down to white people and men. The kicker is it may happen again.

While we continue to work on ourselves, we need to understand that this is a process. Again, we are working this muscle so we can flex it like Kamala Harris, like Shirley Chisholm, and like Leslie Anselme in the very near future.

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