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Black in Corporate: The Double Standard of Being a BIPOC in the Corporate World.

When I started my corporate career experience, I never could have foreseen the many difficult life lessons I would learn that would shape me into who I am today. Most of my time in that world spanned my 20s and early 30s, and while I was definitely mature for my age, I had no idea what I was in for. I unfortunately had to learn the very hard way that not only was I not allowed to make mistakes as a Black woman, any mistakes I did make would live with me in ways it wouldn’t for others. I learned at all times, I was being held to a different standard than my counterparts, as most Black people are in their given professions.

There is no training that you receive in post secondary education that prepares you for the political minefield that is the corporate world. It is a place riddled with social and careers climbers, people who are just collecting a pay cheque and where for others, it is a simple means to an end until something better comes along. When I first started off my career in the financial services industry, I started off as a call centre associate and worked my way up. I learned first hand the power of an associate over a manager and that managers have very limited control over what they can and cannot do, despite appearances. In subsequent corporate jobs at different companies and in different industries, I learned that administrative assistants (admins) are some of the most powerful people in the company, especially executive admins. I also learned that the higher up in title you go, the bigger the target on your back and likelihood of having several rival-colleagues who are jockeying for political clout and position within the company. But most importantly, I learned the very hard way that people will sell you out in a heartbeat if they believe it is going to further them in their career.

I was recently watching an IG Live with Austin Channing Brown where she was talking about the concept that Black women are not allowed to be playful and competent in the workplace. I would expand this to say that Black people in general are not allowed to make mistakes in the workplace, particularly Black women. If we are seen as too talkative or opinionated, we are viewed as less than competent in our roles. If we get too passionate when discussing an idea, we are seen as not having control of our emotions. If we are too quiet in a meeting, we are viewed as not being engaged. In my last position as a Director, which admittedly didn’t last long, I saw how white people and other non-Black POC in senior leadership viewed us. I listened to them speak about people as if they were less than human. I listened to the subtle ways they would describe the Black people on my team they didn’t like versus the white people they didn’t like. There were constant references to “attitude,” facial expressions, being called a troublemaker and the like. With the white people on my team whose behaviour was abhorrent for the workplace, they were described as having “mental and emotional issues.” I’ve seen in other organizations I’ve been a part of where bad behaviour from pretty white girls is tolerated, and the expectation was for me to swallow it and not be angry. I was held to different standards constantly than my white counterparts in the same position. They could mess up and make huge mistakes that costed the company hundreds of thousands of dollars (I personally witnessed this happen) and NOTHING would happen to them. However, if I posted something on my personal social media expressing my frustrations with the lack of equality and poor performance of others, then I was written up and threatened to be fired (this actually happened. The post is still up by the way). In both big companies and small ones, I’ve witnessed first hand the double standards Black people face.

This gets even worse the higher up in title and position you go. I remember a story that was once told to me by a mentor of mine in a company I used to work for a few years ago. He was one of the only Black people in senior leadership. There was once a dinner that he and his wife attended with some other executives and there seemed to be a concentrated effort to test him by being inappropriate towards his wife; intentionally invading her personal space and having inappropriate conversations with her that they would never have with any white executives’ wives. Thankfully this incredibly resilient and loyal queen who had seen and heard it all, handled herself with complete poise. From that dinner on, this man was treated with the highest respect and his opinion was and is highly regarded and valued there. But like all of us, he has had to play the game and endure things that no executive should have to endure after making it to that level. Anyone who knows or has been at a senior management level knows there is a certain amount of bullshit and politics everyone has to manage and move through. However, those politics should never come at the cost of disrespect towards ones family and/or personhood. No one should have to endure their spouse being treated disrespectfully in front of them as a test to see how you manage your emotions in order to prove to anyone that you are the right person for the job.

But as most POC know, white people, white men in particular get away with things that no one else could ever get away with. I was once told a story by a white male colleague of mine a few years ago. He was in a meeting with two men, one who was white and the other who I believe was South Asian. The second gentleman’s wife was pregnant and was Asian. My colleague and the other white gentleman were on a conference call with the South Asian gentleman who was located in one of our other offices in the US. The gentleman was talking about how his wife was overdue and they were trying to find ways like walking, etc. to get the baby to come. The white gentleman then says to the South Asian man, “Your wife just needs to be f***ed by a black man. That’ll get the baby to come.” This was not the first inappropriate comment he had made. Nor was he the only one. There was a situation with an executive at a town hall where he had just come back from India and got on the mic to say thank God he hadn’t gotten “Delhi belly.” This was said in a room full of South Asian and other POC. I had personally been in a meeting with an executive who pulled out a completely inappropriate photo of a naked woman with a female urination contraption in a meeting, showed it to me and asked me my opinion on it in front of my white male counterpart. This was at a multi-billion dollar company in broad daylight. If any person of colour had done a fraction of what these white executives had openly done, not only would we have been fired, we probably would have been arrested for sexual harassment. But white men get away with these things every single day in the corporate world.

This is why “woke” white men need to step up and start speaking up when they see this stuff. White men in the corporate world are the most privileged group of people. They can speak up and say things that not even white women can. White men can curse, scream, have total meltdowns and be looked upon as “strong” leaders. As a matter of fact, more respect seems to be given to a white man who can cut people down the most in a meeting. So for the white men out there who have a conscience and know that there are real inequalities, we as POC need your help. Don’t just relay stories to us of the messed up things you see or hear. Do something about it. Use your privilege and speak up. Go to HR. Report it to your superiors. Demand that changes be made and that people are held accountable. You have a unique opportunity that most of us will never have.

And by the way, it doesn’t make you a good person to stay silent to protect your job. It makes you complicit.




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Whitney Smart

Whitney Smart

Certified Life Coach & Workshop Facilitator specializing in Self-Awareness, Emotional Intelligence and Emotional Resilience coaching. I also write a sometimes.

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