Holding Our Breath: An Open Letter to Ambitious Underrepresented People of Color
During my first week of business school, my classmates and I played a game that caused me great inner turmoil. The game left me wanting to say things I knew would ruffle some feathers.
The game was StarPower, which involves collecting points by negotiation. We drew chips from a bag, and based on the value of those chips, we were sorted into three groups: triangles, circles, and squares. The highest-status players were “triangles” and the lowest were “squares.” As each round progressed, we either remained in our original group or transitioned to another group based on our negotiations.
Occasionally, the triangles could modify the rules of the game. For example, they could limit the number of bonus chips the other groups received. So, before the final round, the triangles would determine the rules of the game for the last time. Unexpectedly — and unlike in previous rounds — the triangles changed the rules such that the circles and squares benefited enormously.
In that instance, the triangles demonstrated generosity.
Once the game ended, the professor disclosed its true nature. The bags from which we drew were not identical. In fact, the triangle group’s bags consistently held chips of higher value than those of the circles and squares. It was also revealed that, in most cases, the triangles worked hard to not be removed from their group, having achieved the upper hand. Their status led them to becoming socially risk-averse so as not to be ousted. We further learned that the square group members incorrectly attributed the success of the triangles to personal competence instead of situation or luck, proving that perception isn’t always reality.
In that moment, I wanted to state two things.
First, I thought all of us at the Stanford Graduate School of Business (GSB) — and at elite institutions like Stanford — are triangles. Most of us were accepted as Stanford students by a greater dose of luck than we would like to admit. Some of us have been triangles our entire lives. Others have fought tooth and nail to become one.
Second, I felt conflicted about thanking “triangles” in real life. I was reminded of this feeling when the triangles in the game implemented their generous rules, and I suspected that they expected gratitude in return.
On both points, I feared my classmates would judge me. For this reason, I was torn about whether or not to filter myself.
We filter our thoughts and, more often than not, share only what we believe would be perceived as socially acceptable. Consciously choosing what to say requires us to be “on” and attentive at all times, leading to emotional, mental, and sometimes even physical exhaustion, just like an introvert would feel after interacting in a large group. Soon, we reach a point where constant censoring and silencing of self becomes habitual and subconscious. We become numb to the emotional and mental toxicity of covering.
In fact, censoring oneself is like holding one’s breath — it can be visceral and uncomfortable. But, as highly motivated people of color, holding our breath is almost innate. The more we hold it, the better we become at doing so, and the more accustomed we become to the silencing nature of the act.
We hold our breath when we code-switch, or adjust our demeanor, speech, and even our attire to match the social norms of a specific context. We code-switch to fit in. And we do so because we care about how we are perceived by those around us, particularly those with tremendous influence in our desired fields and society at large. We care because, especially in business school, our interactions can significantly impact our future. So, we deliver a version of ourselves we believe appeals to others.
Some of us, however, have gained the luxury of bringing our true selves to professional settings more often than not. We have employed our filtered selves so well that we have developed the safety net to weather the possible negative repercussions of unveiling our “authentic selves.” And we strengthen this form of social capital whenever we achieve professional accomplishments that matter to those whose perception of us we value.
At the same time, even those of us with a strong safety net must occasionally engage in self-censorship and portray a muted version of ourselves. We must still be somewhat socially orthodox to mitigate any possibility of being ostracized.
Yet, ironically, the moment we care about what others think of us, we relinquish some control, disempowering ourselves; we give others leverage over our actions, our thoughts, our expressions, our acceptance of ourselves. Unfortunately, we usually bestow such power upon those who have historically benefited from (and continue benefiting from) systemic advantages.
So, here’s my main point: As people of color, we are caught in a Catch-22. If we care about creating a better future for ourselves, for those we love, and for the communities we cherish, we must prioritize what others think of us to some extent. Yet, by doing so, we often reinforce the very power of those who have been unjustly accommodated and privileged by social and economic institutions.
In short, if we want to dismantle inequitable systems of power, we must accrue power and privilege. But to amass that level of influence, we must perpetuate the power of the unfairly privileged.
That’s one cost of caring about what others think of us.
Aaron Samuels, a GSB classmate, recognizes another cost of caring, as well as the cost of not caring: “At business school, many people diminish their authenticity. That’s partly because they want to keep doors open and not burn bridges, so they project a sanitized version of themselves. But it’s also because — at the GSB, at least — we’re taught to respect each other’s emotions. When we’re all doing that, people of color end up working extra hard to respect white people’s emotions because we must also cater to white fragility. For example, before I say something racially charged in a room full of white people, I have to think, ‘How do I avoid white tears?’ So, it costs me more mental energy to consider their emotions than it costs them to pay attention to mine. But, honestly, I’ve stopped caring: I keep it real and say it how it is. And I suffer the ramifications of doing so. My white peers may not invite me to their weddings anymore, but they also won’t forget what I say. And I’m okay with that tradeoff.”
He clarifies, however, that he has no qualms with folks of color who opt to filter themselves in pursuit of “playing the game”: “Being a person of color at a place like business school is hard enough, so I don’t want to mandate that you ‘keep it real.’ Sometimes it’s just too much to say the truth — it may cost too many friendships. So, I’m not criticizing people of color who assimilate or sugarcoat their speech. I get it. It’s a choice we must make multiple times a day. But that approach just doesn’t work for me.”
But maybe embracing your unadulterated self is irresponsible, or even selfish. After all, you get to enjoy the benefits of being yourself. However, being your full self can seriously damage your chances of earning a seat at the decision-making table or of transferring resources to a community that’s dear to you. Thus, that would mean one fewer person of color who advocates for underrepresented needs and interests from a position of leadership.
So, should you forego rocking your natural hair? Should you refrain from using the “ghetto” phrases you may have grown up using? I asked Kamil Saeid, a Sudanese first-year GSB MBA student, to lend his opinion. He doesn’t think so. “When you’re yourself, you accustom the people around you to perceive your ‘ways’ and ‘sayings’ as normal. Therefore, in the future, when they’re at the board table, they won’t be as unsettled by mannerisms that resemble the ones you displayed. Moreover, you make it easier for others who see you as a role model and who share your social identity to be themselves, too.”
Ultimately, there are two approaches: go unfiltered or filtered. One is not better than the other, and people fall on different points along the continuum. Awareness of pros and cons for each approach has helped me to thoughtfully decide my modus operandi.
So, where do I land on this spectrum?
When my classmates and I debriefed StarPower, I loudly voiced my thoughts. I shared that, while I deeply appreciate the triangles’ generosity, I feel conflicted about thanking lifelong “triangles,” since they can often donate their resources in the first place due to unearned privileges. Such privileges are afforded by a history of oppression or present-day institutionalized biases. So, if I can trace someone’s resources back to the abuse of power, should I praise him for sharing them with me? By thanking the person, I feel like I would be indirectly acknowledging that the resources were rightly his to begin with.
Although I didn’t hold my breath in this instance, that does not mean I veer towards the “unfiltered” end of the spectrum. I do not; as mentioned earlier, my self-censorship has become innate. It’s just that, sometimes, it’s worth enduring the cost of breathing.