Companies often ask minority employees to lead diversity initiatives, like schedule Black History Month events or plan the float for the annual LGBTQ Pride parade. Often, these employees know that if they don’t work on these initiatives, no one will, leading to an internal conflict where people have to decide between stepping up to represent their minority group and taking a back seat.
The question is: do minorities have a responsibility to be ambassadors for their demographic? So, does a Black person need to be a good representation of other Black people? Does a woman need to speak up about issues that she and many other women face?
Toby, how do you feel?
Growing up, I both looked forward to and dreaded Black History Month. While it was really cool to learn about historical Black leaders, there inevitably came the questions from teachers and classmates alike. “Toby, how do you feel about <insert historical Black figure’s name here>?” They’d ask me because I was usually one of the few, if not the only, Black person in the class, which made me the best suited student to speak towards the Black experience.
This same sentiment is felt by minorities in the workplace. Black History Month just started, and it’s automatically the responsibility of the Black employees at my company to set up events, send newsletters, and raise awareness of the history of Black people in America. Like my experiences in school, if the Black employees don’t do things for Black History Month, it will not be celebrated or even acknowledged. Our Black Employee Resource Group puts a lot of effort into the BHM schedule because we know that this is likely the only time of the year our non-black co-workers will be exposed to this material.
In her article No Pressure: You’re Just Representing Your Entire Race And Gender!, writer Angela Gray highlights the stress she feels to represent all black women in and out of the workplace:
“Being black… you always have to be better, work harder, not be too threatening/be on good behavior (to an extent) and are a representative of your race.”
“There is a weight that I carry around because my words, actions and interactions are frequently perceived on behalf of my race and gender.”
A successful Black person is a testament to his race. On the flip side, a loud or ill-mannered Black person is just what the majority expects.
Interestingly, the pressure to represent one’s entire race can have both positive and negative effects. The negative effects are fairly straightforward — the idea that every move I make is not only a representation of myself but of other Black people can be a huge mental hurdle, and can ultimately lead to impostor syndrome.
Unfortunately, a lot of people — both white and Black — don’t interact with people outside of their race. According to a by the Pew Research Center, 81% of white adults say that all or most of their close friends are white. The numbers, while not quite as high, are similar for Black people, as 70% say all or most of their friends are Black. For the same reason Black employees know the importance of BHM for educating their co-workers, I know that sometimes I am the one of only a few interactions that a non-Black person will have with another Black person. With that in mind, I work to make sure that I’m not fulfilling any negative prejudices that person might have about me. If my interaction is likely going to be used as a contribution to the generalization of all Black people, I want to make sure that it’s a positive one.
Both of these pressures can be a burden, especially in the workplace. If I’m interviewing with a manager for a spot on a project, I want to make sure that I put forth the very best version of myself so 1. I get the role, but also 2. I create a positive memory for that manager, and hopefully she remembers that positive memory the next time she interacts with a Black person.
While these pressures can be heavy, there are positive externalities as well. Referring to the example above with my interview, if I am offered the role and I excel on the project by delivering on my responsibilities and bringing value to the client, I feel a double sense of pride. Part of it is being proud of myself for working hard and succeeding, but I’m also proud because I know that I’ve put forth a great example for my Black peers. Representation is important, and successful representation is even more crucial. When more junior Black employees see me succeed, they believe that they can do the same.
In short, the answer is yes. Minorities do have a responsibility to be ambassadors for their peers.
I want to qualify this belief a bit. We don’t all need to serve as President of our ERG or start a non-profit benefiting people that identify similarly to us. As I mentioned before, being a minority, especially in the corporate world, comes with a lot of inherent pressure. We aren’t all built to be diversity champions. However, as minorities, we do have a responsibility to do our parts. Here’s an example that may or may not be (but most definitely is) based on a personal anecdote:
You’re back in your hometown for the holidays. Some of your high school friends are getting together for dinner and drinks at the local bar. You haven’t seen these friends in a few years, so you decide to go. At dinner, things are going well. You’ve caught up with most of your friends, and you’ve managed to get totally up to speed on John’s time in a fraternity in college and the “totally wild” parties they threw. Things are winding down, and as you’re gathering your things to leave, one of your friends makes a racially-offensive joke. It’s clear that the friend doesn’t think you heard the joke, but you did, and now you have a decision to make. Do you confront your friend, or do you just leave?
It would be very easy for you to walk away and act like you didn’t hear the joke. You don’t see these people that often anyway, and you could very easily just never speak to the person again. But, you have a responsibility as a minority to speak up for your peers and confront the person. Remember, most people don’t interact with people outside of their race (or other demographic groups). If you don’t say something to the person that made the joke, it’s likely that no one will, and that person will continue that making that sort of comment is acceptable. You must do your part to prevent this perpetuation by telling your friend that his comments were not okay. Once this is done, it’s ultimately up to him to take your comments and check himself, but he probably won’t do so unless you say something.
As a minority, we often feel like we don’t belong, especially in the corporate setting. There is an amount of emotional labor that comes with this feeling, and it’s something that many of us carry all our lives. The duty of being an ambassador is just another component of that mental labor. I am in no way saying that we need to go around checking everyone that says something offensive and start teaching classes about the best way to interact with people similar to us, but in those moments when no one else is there to do so, we need to step forward. There is a blessing and curse that comes with being a minority. We want and need people different from us to be allies, but we should also speak up for ourselves.