Not your baggage: Rooting out the effect of racial bias in your leadership

Black woman working with papers and calculator

Do you ever have an overwhelming feeling of anxiety? You check for your keys — again. You try to recall if you locked the door, paid the bills, smiled at your colleagues, finished all deliverables, picked up groceries, and emptied the dishwasher.

It feels like it never ends for those of us socialized to be all things to all people, and by “us,” I mean women — especially Black women and Black women leaders. When our need to please is compounded by the racial bias that places our behavior under a microscope, we end up working too hard to please others who then regard us as unpleasant. If this reads like mental gymnastics, try living it.

We are constantly inundated with messaging about how we should and should not be. We can’t laugh too loud, can’t be too bossy, wear too much make-up, or manspread. We can’t ask too many questions or require too much. Then we’re told, “Just be yourself.” This is less of an invitation to be authentic than to conform quietly.

As a Black woman leader, I made a deliberate choice to just be myself. I have worn a nose ring since I was 18. I went to law school with a nose ring. I went to a law firm with a nose ring. I went to court with a nose ring. The same thing with my natural hair. I have fielded questions throughout my career about whether or not the way I present myself might hamper someone else’s ability to take me seriously — but that’s on them, not me. They underestimate me at their own peril. I should not have to compromise how I show up to be respected.

If I compromise, I pass on the expectation to compromise to another generation of Black women. I refuse to do that. I want those women to be able to show up as their most authentic selves wherever they are, from Wall Street to Silicon Valley.

Meanwhile, no one questions the tech bros in silly chinos and rumpled polos launching billion-dollar corporations — even when they should be questioned. The difference for a Black woman is that when something she does becomes the cultural zeitgeist (those nails!), somebody else appropriates it and makes a fortune. All while she’s undercut as a leader and a professional for having started the trend.

To “just be yourself” carries risks, but also rewards. After all, if you’re not playing a part, you never forget your lines. At the same time, there’s a belief that we must assimilate to be effective. How can we make this work and bring our authentic selves to the working world?

Know yourself

You can’t be yourself if you don’t know yourself, and that’s not a given if we haven’t had much grounding or support from family, friends, and mentors. (More on this in to follow).

One of the big things I hear when I’m listening to women is a focus on imposter syndrome. I hear a lot of women question themselves, even though the world is already doing it for them. Society at large will constantly question if this or that woman has the authority, the agency, and the experience to do the job.

When this gets internalized and we begin to question ourselves, we fail to honor the generations of Black women before us whose unsung leadership and hard work allowed us to be where we are. Remind yourself of that truth the next time you question whether or not you deserve to be where you are.

Stop apologizing for everything

I’m not saying never apologize. To err is human. Apologize when it’s called for and move on. I’m talking about compulsively apologizing for not being perfect.

Something I observe about women leaders in particular is that they are constantly striving for perfection. Sometimes, you need to claw their work from their overachieving hands because it’s not perfect yet. It’s never going to be perfect. We are never going to be perfect. The work just has to be good enough to meet the goal.

We didn’t sign up to be perfect. We signed up to give our best effort. Make that enough. Name that for yourself so that you can make decisions, because perfectionism paralyzes.

I think internalized imposter syndrome can drive us to create unrealistic standards. We believe that if our work is flawless, others won’t question us. The reality is, others will question us no matter what, so set that extra layer of anxiety aside.

Sometimes the assignment is volume, not perfection. You’ll be more productive if you can be comfortable with being good enough. Set realistic performance standards for yourself.

Get comfortable with discomfort

I get asked this question often —what’s it like to be the first and/or only Black woman in the job? You could be the first woman and the first Black person in that seat, and it will be difficult at times.

You won’t find anything useful in the existing canon of books on leadership, which coincidentally happen to be written mostly by White men. They all fail to consider what a leader should do when they show up on day one where no one can process that someone who looks like them can be the leader. (Hopefully, that addendum is forthcoming!)

I started my career in heavily White male-dominated settings. When I went into criminal justice work, I was often the only Black woman in the room. When I was director of a youth prison system, I went into a meeting and waited until someone finally said, “We’re just waiting on the director.” I replied, “She arrived five minutes ago, so start.”

That kind of thing is the bald face of bias. It can get under your skin. Guard against internalizing it.

Compromise wisely

No one ever looked at me and said, “You’ll need to assimilate to be heard.” It’s just expected – demanded even – of women and Black people in professional settings. It’s highly detrimental to all involved.

First, it rejects authenticity, and this erodes enthusiasm and creativity. Furthermore, assimilation does nothing to evolve organizations toward greater racial equity. It just fortifies a comfort zone so blinkered that it’s literally provoked by hair.

I’m sticking with my nose ring and natural hair for the generations of women who follow us (and because it is a testament to great style!). I will also continue manspreading in meetings to thoroughly inhabit that space — not just for myself, but for all the Black women who preceded me in sacrifice and service so that I could inhabit that seat. In small and large ways, I am pushing the conventional boundaries of professionalism to truly include Black women leaders.

This Women’s History Month, let’s identify the baggage we carry from toxic socialization and racial bias, and set it aside. We might just find that overwhelming feelings of anxiety start to subside when we drop the burdens that weren’t ours to begin with.

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