So I learned something interesting this week. Actually, interesting probably isn’t the right adjective. It was more disturbing. A colleague and I were talking, and he revealed that for the first six months he worked at our company — we’ve been working together for many years now — he was scared of me.
I asked him why. Apparently he’d been watching me, and seen this, that and the other and drew X conclusions. But, long story short, after he interacted with and talked to me, his “fear” went away. Now, I confess, some of what he was talking about I thought it was silly. But that doesn’t mean it wasn’t valid, or that I didn’t need to take what he was saying seriously.
First impressions are important, and I imagine the situation I just described is a fairly common scenario for newbies in an office; for minorities, things take on a more serious dimension. We are scrutinized and judged far more quickly and more heavily, and people are far less likely to change their opinion of us once it’s been formed.
Most minorities know this, and as a result, we develop an edge — a kind of second skin, if you will. But it’s not hard. This skin is almost porous, and it’s not protective because, despite the existence of this skin, you can still be hurt quite easily. But this skin is visible. Very visible.
I’m about to change tense, here, so bear with me because this is a little personal.
Your supervisors can see this skin when they try to give you feedback. It looks defensive. And when you crack jokes that sound hilarious in your head but draw blank or uncomfortable stares in the office, it looks shiny and garish. Bosses and managers whisper about its dents, lint balls and wrinkles when you’re too tired from doing twice as much only to be thought of as half as good, and your appearance slacks.
The higher ups don’t know or care about all the extra drama that comes with this skin when you’re walking in the street, peacefully, but still eyed as a potential threat. They disdain this skin when they’re considering — and discounting — who might be the right fit for that next promotion or development opportunity. That skin holds every mistake you’ve ever made, all highlighted in bright, neon colors that show up brilliantly, but somehow don’t reveal the scabbed scars of each little battle you’ve encountered and survived while trying to do your best work.
This skin — this changeable, visible, not particularly attractive skin made of defensiveness, forced gaiety and inauthentic smiles — will not only keep people away from you but also will ensure that you don’t progress, or that you only make it so far. You see, supervisors don’t give minorities as many chances to fail on their feet. They’re often not viewed with the same level of high potential or given the same freedom to grow into a role, or rise to the occasion with the right coaching.
Some of this isn’t your fault. Remember, minorities are judged far more quickly and harshly. You’ve only to look at comparative criminal justice statistics to see that. Or, read some of the responses to #criminwhilewhite to confirm how much easier it is for non-minorities to get out of trouble or be forgiven when they make a mistake. For you, a mistake isn’t just a mistake. It’s not temporary or situational. It’s a character flaw, a blemish that nothing can erase.
The scrutiny is thick, sharp and vigilant, and it’s often unfair. But minorities, whatever your particular persuasion, know this: It’s up to you to buff away this skin.
I know where it comes from. It comes from being called on the carpet for every little thing, even while you watch your white co-workers get away with worse. It comes from not feeling welcome, from routinely absorbing smilingly delivered slights that reek of unconscious bias and pretending like you don’t care. It comes from having no one to talk to, from not getting the help and support that you need. By the way, criticism and fault finding is not support.
After a steady diet of those things, you lose the ability to trust. Your ability to communicate effectively and to pick up social cues suffers. The defensive armor you develop just to make it through the day may get so thick, your actual personality is obscured. That brings its own drama and hardship inside the office and out.
This skin can also keep good people away from you. People who want to mentor and help you, but who are tired of facing your “who the —- do you think you are?” expression whenever they offer constructive criticism. It will alienate the same people who are willing to be honest with you about how things really are and to give you chances they don’t give others because they know the extra load you’re carrying. It will make those people who could provide a different kind of edge, one that will propel you higher and farther, turn away. And you’ll lose something really important: help.
Minorities need every ally they can beg, borrow or steal. There is often a gap between where many of us are in the workplace and where our peers are, at least at first. This gap, or lack of grooming, may come from a lack of support and development, from missing experiences, from lessons learned at dad’s knee as you played under his desk.
Oh, but I didn’t get those experiences. My dad was a butcher.
No? Well, some of the missing experiences come from lessons learned in social situations. You know, galas and such where you had to make small talk with strangers.
We didn’t go to fancy parties like that. My parents are immigrants, and there was no money for that kind of social activity.
You get the point.
So, beware your rough edges. Don’t let those sharp corners you’ve acquired navigating the trials of the average workplace harden you to the point where you block valuable help from those who mean you no harm.
Do yoga, exercise, meditate, volunteer, cook. Do whatever positive activities you must to shake off the negativity you encounter at work so that it doesn’t ruin your ability to interact with people in a genuine, positive, caring and reciprocal way. You need to continuously build and renew that strength because in today’s workplace, a minority has to present their best self consistently.
Take care of you. Solidify your foundation. Find what work-life balance means for you because people are watching.
Now, everyone’s opinion of you doesn’t matter. You could do everything “right” and still be mistreated. You can’t please everyone, and you shouldn’t waste energy trying — whether you’re a minority or not. One person’s champagne is another person’s weak tea. I think I saw that phrase on an Instagram post. But this isn’t about pleasing people. It’s about being your best, healthiest self.
Don’t let ego convince you that everyone who says the same negative thing about you is wrong. When the only common denominator in a given scenario is you? Well. You might want to get your buff puff or acid-based exfoliant ready. You may have some self-work to do.