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I'd always thought any discomfort I might experience as the only Black woman on the job would ensue from blatantly racist remarks or awkward moments such as a curious colleague touching my hair. But, as the only woman of color on my team at a predominantly White company, I quickly learned that more nuanced experiences—like feeling invisible when your suggestion is ignored or having your cultural background discounted—can sting just as much. While our rich history gives us a unique perspective, research shows that our solo status can cause stress and jeopardize our opportunities. "One of the challenges of race in America is that you always have to disconfirm the stereotype that you're not smart," says Valerie Purdie-Vaughns, Ph.D., a research fellow at the Institute for Research in African-American Studies at Columbia University. "Constantly feeling the pressure of having to appear excited, happy and intellectually engaged can actually wear you down over time." Instead of suiting up and hitting your stride, you may find yourself in a constant battle to prove your worth. But managing the spoken and unspoken racial dynamics at work is critical. Our experts drew up a game plan to help you overcome hurdles when you're the only Black woman at the office.
Colleagues Are Insensitive
Maybe a coworker slips urban slang into conversations or your boss remarks how "articulate" you are. Do you speak up or let it slide? "If it appears to be a silly attempt at humor, just ignore it," says Jackie Jones, career coach and author of Taking Care of the Business of You: 7 Days to Getting Your Career on Track (Wealthy Sistas Publishing House). If it's more serious, ask the offender to meet in private. "Say 'I just want to know what you're thinking, because this is what I heard, this is how I reacted and this is what I'm thinking,' " explains Jones. Ask questions, keep your emotions in check and focus on how you can work together in a positive way.
You Feel Isolated
Finding ways to fit in at an organization is extremely important during your early days at a company, says Purdie-Vaughns. Instead of spending your lunchtime alone, eat with a coworker or chitchat around the watercooler. Show interest in your coworkers' family and hobbies. "Look for opportunities to relate to people on a human level unrelated to work," she says. Check out Working While Black: The Black Person's Guide to Success in the White Workplace (Chicago Review Press) by Michelle T. Johnson for ways to handle feeling isolated at work.
Feedback Is Nonexistent
Studies show that "minorities aren't given the critical feedback they need to succeed on the job because people have concerns about being seen as racist," says Purdie-Vaughns. "Meanwhile, they are consciously or unconsciously evaluating you against their own personal stereotypes about Black people." The stress of feeling as if you constantly have to combat stereotypes can cause you to second-guess yourself and perform poorly even though you're working harder, she adds. Ask for critical feedback based on company-wide performance measurements. Also partner with HR or your boss to create a career plan that focuses on developing your skills, says Mary E. Stutts, author of The Missing Mentor: Women Advising Women on Power, Progress and Priorities (Household Publishing).
Your Exit Is Imminent
If all your efforts to make your workplace a more racially comfortable environment aren't effective, it may be time to leave. But first ask yourself if you're doing work you're really passionate about. "You might want to stick with your current position to continue honing your craft," Stutts advises. "Working in a racially uncomfortable environment is just one of the many different types of challenges we will face on our career journey. Learning how to handle this opposition will serve you well throughout your entire career." If you decide, however, that it's time to chart a new course, then carry your skills and contacts to the next position and leave the rest behind, says Jones. For more tips read Jessica F. Carter's Double Outsiders: How Women of Color Can Succeed in Corporate America (JIST Works).