It’s been over a year of new, confusing feelings. Pandemic-related existential turmoil aside, I’ve had a profound personal reckoning with my own race and ethnicity.
Throughout my entire professional career—from an investment bank to a tech startup, to a TV newsroom, to now cofounding a media company—I have only had one fellow Bangladeshi coworker. Often as the only Bangladeshi person, if not the only person of color, in the room, I’m familiar with the feeling of being an “outsider.”
But the renewed focus this year on dismantling racial injustices targeted toward Black people, coupled with the deep recognition of rampant and blatant hate toward Asian Americans, gave me “permission” (or at least the external support) to try to proactively change that outsider sentiment—for myself, and for other underrepresented and underserved communities.
It’s been exhausting.
It took me some time to realize that the word “guilt”—believing that I was at fault for speaking up—described the deep discomfort I felt after many interactions in which I had to flag or defend something related to diversity and inclusion. The requests and considerations I brought up repeatedly ranged from making sure we were explicitly seeking out representation in hiring, instead of taking the path of least resistance, to asking bosses why our management team wasn’t trying harder to understand why we had difficulty retaining women of color in leadership positions.
All fair asks, but for some reason, I continually felt like I was doing something wrong. I found myself on the verge of tears more than once, trying to brush the feeling—warranted or not—that my broken record pleas were being received with eye rolls.
But thankfully, it wasn’t all bad. Leaders around me have taken meaningful steps, knowingly or unknowingly, to ease the pressure on BIPOC employees, and those are moments I will never forget. The most effective strategy? Proactivity, not reactivity.
As a leader or decision-maker, if you proactively bring up seemingly “small” points like stating out loud that a team on a project must include BIPOC representation, or that you’ll diversify your efforts to identify the target customer for your product, you are relieving a tremendous burden off those of us who think about representation in every waking minute.
It may seem like a small, outwardly unremarkable comment in the moment, but a collection of low-bar actions can lead to major impact for your BIPOC employees. And if you say it out loud before we have to, it’s one less uphill psychological battle for us to face.
Another point of guilt I’ve felt is in my inability to “justify” my frustrations on multiple occasions. If someone asked me how I have been personally held back, slighted or overlooked in work environments based on race or gender, I frankly couldn’t verbalize the list off the top of my head. Dr. Jeanette Kowalik, former Milwaukee health commissioner, said it best when I interviewed her in 2020 about the racism she experienced in her job:
“Microaggressions are like death by a thousand papercuts. It’s not necessarily someone calling you a racial slur or someone mailing offensive things to your office, but [it’s] those little infractions that add up.”
Another strategy that can help? Absorption, not justification.
Listen to and absorb your BIPOC employees’ requests and allow them to decide how involved, or not involved, they want to be in tackling your company’s shortcomings in diversity. Remember that “justification” does not matter, whether it’s trying to understand how your employees feel, or making the case to hire a diverse team (it should just be a given). And as you tackle the company’s deficiencies over time, keep your employees updated on progress in your inclusion efforts, even if it’s small changes. They want to know that you’re doing something, and they don’t want to have to ask.
As outsiders, the system works against us, and we know that we have to try just a little bit harder to be seen and heard. As leaders, you can make a huge impact on our emotional journey by being proactive in diversity conversations and absorbing our needs—and maybe one day, we won’t feel so guilty for trying to break the status quo.