Men of Color at Work: If These Stories Surprise You, You Haven’t Been Listening*

February 27, 2018Stories of Sacrifice and Resilience 

Sometimes being on the forefront of diversity work, it’s hard to “unsee” the effects of bias, discrimination, and exclusion in the workplace.  

I try to leave work at work and avoid diversity talk when out with friends and family. I want to be “fun,” not the bearer of bad news. But despite my attempts, these insights seem to creep into our conversations. 

I’ve had a friend reveal she was suffering imposter syndrome at her new job. Despite being talented and bright, she feared she didn’t belong within her work team and that she would be viewed as a token hire.  

Another friend told me she was debating a transfer to a more diverse department to avoid having to be the “voice of her people” for her peers. 

Yet another friend approached me to find tactics to address the daily microaggressions she faced at her office.  

All three of these women felt a heightened need to be “on guard” in their less-than-diverse workspaces, and often found resolve when sharing their experiences with someone who understood them. These experiences—and related consequences—were highlighted in Catalyst’s 2016 report, Emotional Tax: How Black Women and Men Pay More at Work and How Leaders Can Take Action.
This month, Catalyst released a new report, Day-to-Day Experiences of Emotional Tax Among Women and Men of Color in the Workplace, which further explores the cost of the Emotional Tax for Asian, Black, Latinx, and multiracial employees.

Of particular note for the MARC community, the report found that a quarter of men of color respondents said they are on guard in anticipation of bias against them because of their gender. While I have had women tell me about performing a balancing act of gender politics and racial/ethnic identity at work, I haven’t had the same experience with men. 

To explore this parallel, I recruited men of color to further delve into their experiences at work. What they shared with me was hard to hear.

“That’s diversity right there.”
Imagine being in a company meeting and somebody says that to you and another colleague of color. And it’s not just anybody making this comment—it’s an executive vice president at your company. This happened to one of our interviewees.

“It was one of those moments where we had smiles plastered on our faces,” said the man. “Everything I thought I was after eight years with [this company] got reduced to one word.”

Later that day, the man said he was “wracking his brain trying to think about what he meant to call us. There was no other word that rhymes with diversity that made sense.” 

Then he made an important realization: “I was being an apologist for his behavior and thought process.” 

Acknowledging what really happened helped him to cope, but the damage was done. “I'd grown up in this organization and been touted as somebody who brings people together. That’d been the story of my career, and then to have that moment happen… It totally threw me. To this day, I still don't understand it.”

What it Feels Like to Be “On Guard”
Other interviewees shared with me how they’ve take steps to prepare for bias in and out of the workplace. 

Not only do they carefully choose their words for fear that their opinions will be attributed to their entire race or ethnic background, but they are also careful about their appearance and even their personal purchases. 

One man was advised not to buy a certain car due to what others might think. Another purposely wears loud shoes to work so that folks won’t be startled by his presence. 

Perhaps most troubling to hear was that despite the advancements made in the area of diversity and inclusion, some organizations still have trouble maintaining a diverse workforce.

“I’ve always had to deal with being one of a few as a Black man in my organization. Twenty years later and there are still not that many people that look like me.”

Another powerful example illustrated the lack of diversity for expatriates working globally. One individual was told, “I didn’t know people like you had jobs like this.” 

Support Systems for Men of Color
While being one of a few seemed to be a shared theme among these men, their experience of support varied. While one individual in particular felt he was silenced by his organization because of the perception that he was making a big deal over nothing when addressing issues of bias or discrimination, another’s manager provided a listening ear. 

What happens when support systems aren’t in place?

“The corporation loses value,” said one man. “[These employees] could have delivered better value if you removed the challenges for them.”

He knows from first-hand experience. Faced with barriers at his previous organization, he made a difficult, but necessary choice. “I could see there were limitations built into the system no matter what I did, and there was nothing I could do to change that.” He left.

In gathering these stories, I began to question how much we have really moved the needle on diversity work. While some of the men interviewed have credited their success to mentors, sponsors, and development programs, it was clear to me that more could be done at the organizational level. 

Do companies actually take the time to listen to the experiences of their diverse workforce and learn from them? Or have they avoided hearing these sometimes harsh truths? 

Hopefully, by sharing these stories and report findings, we can provide a look into the experiences of talented, resilient men of color, who have arguably sacrificed a portion their identity—and paid a hefty Emotional Tax—for a seat at the table.

So how much will your organization invest in them?

For more, check out Catalyst’s report, Day-to-Day Experiences of Emotional Tax Among Women and Men of Color in the Workplace.

*This article first appeared in the MARC blog.