Let's talk about wearing a mask in the workplace. Because everyone does, right? You may not think you wear one, but everybody does. Among brown and black people, we keep our masks on all the time.
We do this because the world can't seem to handle who we are. There is a notion that it is our responsibility to please white people, make them comfortable, and let them know we're not a threat. If we're black, we constantly have to diffuse them fearing they may think that we're angry.
What Are You Masking?
Many brown and black people attempt to soften their styles and/or walk on eggshells the entire time that they're at work. They can't afford to let their true self show because when the true self shows, that's when the attacks start.
God forbid you're a brown or black person working for an insecure white woman.
I know reading this might sting, but it's the truth: when you look at the demographics of what is happening to brown and black people, there are more issues with white women from my perspective. Data shows that white women are increasingly supporting hatred and the destruction of brown and people's lives. Our latest election results affirm these views. The 55 million white women who voted for the destruction of brown and black lives live next door to each and every one of us.
There's no question that we have to diversify boardrooms and executive teams. But diversity in corporate America, again, has fallen into the safe zone, which is gender. So white women are prevailing under diversity initiatives to give them more power and more access to control brown and black people's lives.
Watching black women rise to leadership in elected offices across the country brings up the question: how long before corporate America, with its lack of black women at the top, gets left behind with its inability to get out of its comfort zone?
Most People Are Wearing a Mask
White women wear masks too. We all have this stuff inside of us. I have it inside of me. My filters are up non-stop. Because of my experiences with many white women (you will hear more of this in my upcoming book, The Color of Courage), I have to fight jumping to a conclusion about someone or labeling them based on first impressions. It's intentional work that I have to do in order to not be, and not do, all the things I'm trying to teach and help other people be and do.
First impressions are the stories in our heads. When you meet me, for example, you have a notion about what someone like me might sound like. It automatically comes to the forefront of your mind when you meet me. And so I know what my preconceived characteristics are.
Do you know yourself? Do you recognize the thoughts that immediately jump to your mind about people?
My entire career, I've heard people say things like:
"You know, Cindi, you have such a strong presence." It's almost as if someone who wasn't confident in themselves would be threatened by me. I used to try to "shrink" myself down so my performance feedback would be better. Now that's not the case. The responsibility of diversifying organizations lies within that shift. The burden of "comfort" now rests with the organizations. Get uncomfortable. It's the only way things are going to change.
How My Work Impacts the Masks We Often Wear
My work that I've done -- and I get criticized about this work, by the way -- is to diffuse people around me so that they don't feel put off by me or they don't feel like they have to keep their masks on.
I get pushback from people. Some may say I'm perpetuating the problem because I'm trying to make everyone else comfortable instead of asking them to do some of the work.
The work is learning to be uncomfortable and getting used to being around people who are different. That is the mask that must come down.
When we're talking, I'm happy to have discussions with you. You don't have to agree with me. We can talk about different things. But you have to do the internal work so you're not leaving a conversation with me saying subtle things to other people to destroy my credibility or to take me down.
That is in fact what is going on with many brown and black people -- they leave a conversation with a colleague thinking one thing, then they find out later that they've been labeled difficult or angry.
How to Take Off Your Mask
You have to start doing the internal work. This change has to occur in organizations. It's an inside job. You're not going to fix diversity by hiring us because many of us are not interested in working in toxic racist work environments anymore.
It's just not happening.
The impact to our lives and health is taking a toll.
There are many studies about why black people are just opting out of corporate America. We don't want to deal with the behavior we've constantly had to tolerate.
I tolerated it for 30 years.
I had some good runs in the corporate world. I worked for some good people. But considering the energy that it took for me to keep my mask on and to try to please folks, I'm just done with it. And many brown and black people are joining me in this decision.
If you're serious about change, the change starts with your own self. It comes down to your ability to remove that mask, look at your own heart, look at yourself in the mirror, and ask yourself the question: Do you like who you see?
Don't let your ego answer that question.
Answer it truthfully. Do you like who you see? If you just found what I had to say interesting and scary and you want more of that, you can certainly reach out to me here on my website. I'd love to continue this conversation because I'm here to help you with this.
Cindi Bright is a Seattle based speaker and consultant on topics of race, diversity, and social justice. She hosts HeartBeat radio a weekly program discussing the issues impacting brown and black people. She spent over 30 years in corporate America as a human resources leader/executive. She is known for her candor, honesty, and humor. Her work is aimed at personal and business transformation.