Navigating Predominantly White Organizations
These experiences were made more challenging because of stereotype threat, microaggressions, imposter syndrome, and code switching.
As a Mexican American, son of immigrants, first generation college graduate, and Pell recipient I have had to navigate my way through challenging experiences as a leader in higher education. These experiences were made more challenging because of stereotype threat, microaggressions, imposter syndrome, and code switching. At times these feelings were compounded because I was working at a predominantly White organization with only of a handful of leaders of color. These feelings are real and can get in the way of finding success in an organization.
Stereotype Threat – Steele and Aronson (1995) define stereotype threat as a “socially premised psychological threat that arises when one is in a situation or doing something for which a negative stereotype about one’s group applies.” A common stereotype in the workplace is that people of color do not have critical leadership attributes to be successful (Chung-Herrera & Lankau, 2005). If your organization has very few or you are the first person of color to serve in a senior leadership role this could reinforce this stereotype and can negatively impact your performance.
Microaggressions – Chester Pierce, a Harvard psychologist, coined the term in 1970. It was defined this way by Dr. Derald W. Sue in 2010: “Everyday verbal, nonverbal, and environmental slights, snubs, or insults, whether intentional or unintentional, which communicate hostile, derogatory, or negative messages to target persons based solely upon their marginalized group membership.” Microaggressions unfortunately are commonplace in many organizations and can have negative impacts on professionals of color. In his book, How to be an Antiracist (2019), Dr. Ibram Kendi finds the term inadequate: “I do not use ‘microaggression’ anymore. I detest the post-racial platform that supported its sudden popularity. I detest its component parts – “micro” and “aggression.” A persistent daily low hum of racist abuse is not minor. I use the term “abuse” because aggression is not as exacting a term. Abuse accurately describes the action and its effect on people: distress, anger, worry, depression, anxiety, pain, fatigue, and suicide. What other people call racial microaggression I call RACIST ABUSE.”
Imposter Syndrome – Clance and Imes (1978) defined imposter phenomenon as “an individual experience of self-perceived intellectual phoniness.” Similar in some ways to stereotype threat, it leads to questioning whether one belongs, including in a particular leadership role.
Code Switching – From the Code Switch NPR podcast: “So you’re at work one day and you’re talking to your colleagues in that professional, polite, kind of buttoned-up voice that people use when they’re doing professional work stuff. Your mom or your friend or your partner calls on the phone and you answer. And without thinking, you start talking to them in an entirely different voice — still distinctly your voice, but a certain kind of your voice less suited for the office. You drop the g’s at the end of your verbs. Your previously undetectable accent — your easy Southern drawl or your sing-songy Caribbean lilt or your Spanish-inflected vowels or your New Yawker — is suddenly turned way, way up. You rush your mom or whomever off the phone in some less formal syntax (‘Yo, I’mma holler at you later,’), hang up and get back to work. Then you look up and you see your co-workers looking at you and wondering who the hell you’d morphed into for the last few minutes. That right there? That’s what it means to code-switch.”
These experiences can lead to feelings of isolation and loneliness. In the presentations that I have given about these challenges, I am often thanked for giving a name to what participants have been experiencing. After reading this, you too may find yourself feeling this way. What can you do as a leader of color to push through these feelings and experiences so that you can achieve your professional goals? If you believe these experiences are impeding your growth as a leader, you may want to take advantage of hiring an executive or leadership coach. A coach can assist you in identifying what you already know to be true: you have the ability to successfully navigate these experiences. You just need someone to ask you the questions that will give you the tools to push through what you are experiencing.
Coaching is a structured and formal process that is used to achieve the goals the client sets. It can be used to build confidence, identify strategies, and provide the accountability a client needs to move through the challenges they are experiencing.
Chung-Herrera, B. G., & Lankau, M. J. (2005). Are we there yet? An assessment of fit between stereotypes of minority managers and the successful-manager prototype. Journal of Applied Social Psychology, 35, 2029-2056.
Clance, P. R., & Imes, S. A. (1978). The imposter phenomenon in high achieving women: Dynamics and therapeutic intervention. Psychotherapy: Theory, Research & Practice, 15(3), 241–247.
Kendi, I. X. (2019). How to be an antiracist. First Edition. New York: One World.
Steele, C. M., & Aronson, J. (1995). Stereotype threat and the intellectual test performance of African Americans. Journal of Personality and Social Psychology, 69(5), 797–811.
Sue, D. W. (2010). Microaggressions in everyday life: Race, gender, and sexual orientation.