Thursday, August 8, 2013

A Story From NCORE: Workplace Sabotage and Believing People of Color

Earlier this summer I attended NCORE (the National Conference on Race and Ethnicity in American Higher Education) and one of the sessions I went to was about career development for diversity professionals.

First, a bit of background: There were four presenters, all Black, one man and three women. They held a variety of roles in their universities but if I remember correctly, had all worked as both faculty and administrators. Their careers had taken them in different directions until they ended up working in their current diversity-related roles. The session attendees were mostly People of Color with a handful of White folks, including myself.

During the first half of the session we listened to a team of four presenters as they walked us through best practices for career development. Throughout this part of the session I noticed certain words and phrases being used by the presenters: “sabotage”, “being lied about”, “stealing/taking credit for your work”, “protect yourself”, “find mentors and allies”, “get it in writing”. A theme seemed to emerge: people are not going to trust you, they’re going to try to manipulate you, they will try to hold you back and you need to do everything you can to protect yourself.

After maybe 10 minutes of these messages being woven in and out of the presentation (sprinkled here & there) I had a clear thought: “Wow, they really think people are out to get them.”

I immediately began to justify in my mind why this was a misperception on their part. “People may treat them poorly but they’re not doing it intentionally.” “I’m sad that they feel they have to be paranoid to protect themselves, they’ve probably learned to be this way due to all the times they really HAVE been discriminated against.” “People have tried to take credit for my work, too.” These weren’t very developed thoughts – it only took a couple seconds for me to note that the presenters thought people were out to get them and to go through several reasons in my mind on why I thought they were probably wrong.

I was thinking about these things and feeling really uncomfortable, when my thoughts moved to the question, “Why don’t you believe them? Couldn’t it be possible that what they’re saying is true?”

As I thought about this a bit more, I remembered times when coworkers who are People of Color express frustration at being misunderstood, at being ignored and overlooked, at the microagressions they deal with every day from people who are otherwise friendly to them. Most of the harm I’ve heard about has been passive, not active or aggressive. I don't think I've heard stories of work being stolen or being lied about.

I’ve learned, though, that it isn’t always safe for People of Color to divulge everything they think or experience to White people, not even to White people who are trying to be their allies. For example, consider a White person who is used to being able to stand up for themselves. Telling a White coworker your troubles, as a Person of Color, can have disastrous consequences. The White person may encourage them to stand up for themselves and then not back them up when they do, or the White person may decide to “save” them (usually without having been asked) by speaking to whomever the problematic person is, without the Person of Color’s permission, which unfortunately can result in retaliation from the problematic person. I also know that White people are much more accepting of responsibility for racist action if they believe it was something they did without being aware, compared to being accused of intentional or hateful action. It can be very dangerous for a Person of Color to accuse a White coworker of maltreatment, not only because the White coworker may have more power in the organization, but also because the organization will not want to appear as though they condone that sort of thing. Sadly, it’s common for the organization to NOT do the work of addressing the actual problem but instead to get rid of who they see as the trouble-maker: the person doing the accusing. Not the accused. I have seen this happen.

As I thought about this, I knew that I didn’t want to believe that there were White people out there intentionally being hateful and conniving toward People of Color they work with. It’s a lot easier for me to sleep at night to imagine the Intentionally Racist White Folks as the minority and the Can’t We All Just Get Along, Oops I’m Still Being Passively Racist White Folks as the majority.

I still think that some of the people who have been manipulative and deceitful may not be fully aware that they are driven (at least in certain circumstances) by racism and prejudice – they may just think that their Person of Color coworker isn’t as qualified as they are so they deserve to be taken advantage of. They could have this attitude about White coworkers as well. The thing is, if they are having these "not qualified enough" thoughts about Person of Color coworkers, their beliefs may well be rooted in racism and prejudice. Whether they’re intentionally acting on racist beliefs or not, the damage is still the same. That aside, I choose to believe the experience of the presenters in the career development session – White coworkers have intentionally tried to harm their success.

I’ve been thinking about this ever since. When do I believe? What do I believe? How often will I believe? Why and why not? When I struggle to believe, what is it about that particular issue that makes it  hard for me? What part of myself am I struggling with, and is that related to why I don’t want to believe?

It has honestly been a long time since I heard a description of discrimination and didn’t just automatically believe that what was being said was true. That doesn’t mean that I don’t seek out more information or sources to verify the claims – but more often than not, I find that they turn out to have valid backup from other people’s similar experiences, from statistics, from my own witness. So to have someone describe something and for me to hesitate to believe it, to try to justify why it must be otherwise, felt foreign and shameful.

It was yet another reminder that while I have learned and grown a lot, I am not and will never “get it” all. It was also a good reminder that uncovering areas within myself where I still need to grow isn’t the end of the world – and I know I am capable of that growth. Besides the personal revelations this has caused, I have paid much closer attention to how I interact with my coworkers (of all backgrounds) and whether I am in a position to help or hinder their work.

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If you are a Person of Color, have you experienced someone intentionally sabotaging your success at work because of your race?

If you are White, have you witnessed a Person of Color's work being sabotaged? Did you consider whether or not the sabotage was motivated by racism? Have you heard People of Color say they've been harmed by racism in the workplace? Do you believe them? Do you struggle with believing them?

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