Better Together: Race and Feeling “Othered”

I remember playing outside in my neighborhood on summer break as a child. I was about six years old when one of my friends asked me if I was black. I remember feeling a pit in my stomach like my secret had been discovered and I didn’t know how to answer the question. Yes? Kinda sort of? Partially? No? I was only six years old, yet I somehow knew that I was less because of the color of my skin.

It’s an interesting dichotomy to be of mixed race; people often don’t know how to categorize you based on your outward appearance. And, as a young person, I found myself struggling to be “enough” of any one race to truly fit in and feel like I belonged.

I experienced the struggle at home, too. For example, my mother wrestled with my hair as a child because it’s thick, course and very curly, which was something she had no experience with. I would be in tears as she tried to brush and style my hair until one day when I was about 11 years old, I picked up a magazine and saw a beautiful white woman with a straight bob cut. I wanted to look just like the woman on the page, so I showed my mom the picture and, without hesitation, she took me to the local salon where I proudly shared my future ‘do with the stylist. The stylist explained that my hair was “kinky” and that I would not look like the woman in the picture. But that didn’t stop me from trying. Thirty minutes later, I walked out with a big, frizzy triangle on my head — looking nothing like the picture and feeling every bit embarrassed about my appearance.

Race and Limiting Access

While appearance might seem superficial, it serves as the basis for how society defines us. Race will single-handedly determine your future and the level of access you will have to food, healthcare, education, income and wealth. As “White Fragility” author Robin DiAngelo explains, we learn at a very young age that “whiteness” has advantages that translate into material returns. As a female, I was also taught early on that the way to survive in a “man’s world” was to think, act and behave like a man.

I chose a career in technology and have grown accustomed to being the only woman of color on the various teams that I’ve been on. Most of the time, I’m also the only woman. It wasn’t until recently that I realized how comfortable I’ve become with being uncomfortable in my surroundings at work. I’ve only had white men as managers — with a couple white women sprinkled in — but not a single person of color has ever been my manager. I can count on one hand the number of peers that I’ve had over the years that identify as Black, Hispanic, Asian, LGBTQ+ or Indigenous, but I could always count on the hired help, such as the janitors in the office, to be people of color. What type of message does this send to us people of color in the workplace?

Diversity for Inclusivity

According to a Mckinsey study, a more diverse workforce will naturally lead to a more inclusive culture. And when a company’s culture feels fair and inclusive, women and underrepresented groups are happier and more likely to thrive. My call to action for anyone who reads this is to participate in the change that’s needed to create a culture of inclusivity in your various personal and professional circles.

While your token friend or colleague might seem okay, it’s because they’ve been taught how to survive. Everyone deserves an opportunity to thrive — and it’s our job as a collective to create this opportunity for our friends, family members, colleagues and children of tomorrow.