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Real Talk: Only Black Person at Your Job? How to Get Ahead

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Career Woman Smiling
Photo Credit: Getty Images

Ever wondered why there aren’t more faces of color in high corporate places? Yeah, me too. A new study from the Center for Talent Innovation, “Vaulting the Color Bar: How Sponsorship Levers Multicultural Professionals into Leadership,” has an answer: A lack of relationships with the folks who can help bring us up the ladder. The study lays out key reasons why many talented people of color haven’t yet acquired executive positions, and the one the factoid that stood out the most to me was CTI’s finding that “people of color too often feel that they have to hide their true selves [at work], a discomfort that breeds two-way distrust and distance.” According to the study, more than 35 percent of African-Americans say they “need to compromise their authenticity” to conform to their company’s standards of demeanor or style.

I’ve been there. Two jobs ago, I was one of just two Black women — out of an staff of about 30 to 35 — in the New York office of my company. The other one had me by about 20 years, which means technically, she was old enough to be my mom. To make matters more challenging, I was by far the youngest editor and the only one who lived in Brooklyn, back before it was universally regarded as the best borough ever.

I swear to you I tried to fit in. I popped in my colleagues’ offices to strike up random conversations, hoping to stumble upon a mutual interest.

Me: Where do you live in the city? [Classic New York question.]

Her: Upper West Side [or New Jersey]. You?

Me: Brooklyn.

Her: Oh. [Awkward pause.] I went there once.

She said it like a visa was required to enter.

The things that I bonded over with my previous co-workers, all Black—hair salons, music, TV,  movies—were off the table. There was no common ground. Nobody knew who Dave Chappelle was, much less had heard of Chappelle’s Show. Martin references were out. Gushing over Love Jones? What happened on The Sopranos? No and no. Pop culture was what I thought I knew best, but that line of questioning was building a bridge to nowhere.

There had to be something. I tried current events. That was cut short when my casual observation about the Katrina disaster was summarily dismissed by another editor as “So sad, hmm?” and then it was on to the next topic.

I fell back as much to lick my wounds of rejection as to re-strategize, which meant I mostly stayed in my office, my head buried in a manuscript or my eyes glued to my computer screen. I decided my job wasn’t to make friends, but to do work, get paid, then go home.

But after a year, I decided I wanted more money and a better title. My work was good, but it wasn’t getting me the lift I desired. There were more Black people at the office by then and we had great relationships. But no one there was in a position to bump me up the ladder. I read a book—Lois Frankel’s Nice Girls Don’t Get the Corner Office—about how to get a raise. Frankel said you don’t necessarily get promoted because you bury your head and do the work, but because you are liked. So I decided to try again to forge alliances.

I stopped by the HR manager’s office to pick his brain since he seemed friendly enough. As we discussed my concerns, I noticed the Broadway Playbills he had recently posted on his wall. An in!

We talked show tunes, then a mutual adoration of Bob Fosse, then Diana Ross. He mentioned that another editor — one with a lot of clout — had similar affections. I caught her after-hours one night as she was celebrating (by popping champagne) with another editor to ask if she’d seen a new show playing, and just like that, I was gabbing with them and swilling bubbly in a plastic cup behind closed doors. It was a turning point.

I didn’t get that promotion (even though my supervisor, who had noticed my new disposition, told me I was up for one). Before it could happen, I was offered another job, a dream opportunity. But I stuck around there long enough to learn a great lesson: I could fit in, perhaps if I stopped focusing so much on what my cultural Blackness brought to the table and put a little more focus on the subjects that transcend it. It wasn’t about downplaying who I was, more like playing up all aspects of my self and my interests — not just the so-called Black ones.

Demetria L. Lucas is the author of A Belle in Brooklyn: The Go-to Girl for Advice on Living Your Best Single Life (Atria) in stores now. Follow her on Twitter @abelleinbk

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