Ask JKE is our monthly advice column written by Jackie Kai Ellis. Submit your questions anonymously here.
How would you handle an employer doubting your ability to manage projects when you know it stems from internalized racism and unconscious bias?
Dear Hopeful Employee,
Internalized racism is crude and tragic, to put it lightly.
I haven’t had a lot of personal experience with opportunities being withheld from me due to me being Chinese Canadian (at least that I know of), but I have dealt with internalized sexism. These “isms” are perpetuated everywhere. They are built into the systems of our everyday lives; into the algorithms of what we consume; into the subtle language we use; into our humor; into the “norms” we don’t think to question.
We all have unconscious biases in some way, making it more complex. I know that I must. Even those who work hard to be conscious about their own biases simply don’t know what they don’t know. We all have blindspots. This doesn’t mean we can use our blindness as an excuse—it means that we need to be open when others bring new perspectives to the table, to reflect on how these perspectives could be true in our lives, and to think about what may need to change.
Unfortunately, it seems to be a common story that when “isms” are challenged, it’s often the victim who is blamed as a way to deflect inexcusable behavior, further strengthening these biases. And the biggest difficulty is that these behaviors can be very tricky to pinpoint, to call out, to prove, and sadly, to fight against.
I would like to believe that, as with all the battles that have been fought over lifetimes, change is slowly inching forward. Regardless, if you find yourself in a situation where your lived experience is causing opportunities to be withheld without much choice or a forward path, it can feel like you’re being backed up against a wall.
As with any multi-layered problem, there are many possible ways to move through this one. Some would suggest fighting racism directly in the workplace; others might suggest walking away and looking for another (more inclusive) environment. In my opinion, there’s not any particular solution that is better than another. How you choose to tackle this enormous challenge is very personal and is for no one else to judge; you are the one weighing the consequences of your actions and experiencing circumstances that no one else is privy to.
Maybe what you’ve tried hasn’t worked yet, causing you to feel as if you don’t have any control over the future of your career. So perhaps the most helpful suggestion is for me to share what I might do to exhaust what little control you may have, from the perspective of having been both an employer and an employee.
- Set aside a dedicated time to meet with your employer to talk about your goals at the company. Express your passion, what you love about your work and about the company, and what you gain from your role. Outline the areas you know you need improvement in, as well as the value you know you bring to the table. Then be explicit about where you are and where you aim to be. In my experience, employers love passion, dedication, ambition, and proactivity; they want to invest in people who are willing to invest.
- Prepare yourself for this meeting by doing informal reviews with colleagues, clients, and those who work under you. Ask them what they feel are your greatest strengths and your biggest areas of improvement. Having this written feedback will arm you with a clear understanding of your perceived value to the company during this meeting, coming from voices that are not as easily dismissible.
- Ask your employer for clear, definable feedback regarding what you need to do in order to reach those career goals. What skills are currently keeping you from being ready to take on the challenge of managing projects? Ask them to provide a list of measurable skills, deliverables, and milestones with realistic timelines in which to achieve them. Keep in mind that each item should be clearly measurable so that it keeps the results factual and with no margin of ambiguity. In situations of unconscious racism, clearly defined results cannot be easily refuted.
- Make a plan to set monthly or quarterly reviews of these measurable milestones with your employer. If some milestones require action or permission on their part, ask them if you can hold them accountable to their role in this plan in order to set you up for success. Take notes during the meetings and send recap emails on what was discussed, action items, and timelines so that you both have a clear understanding (and a record) of your plan.
- Where there is unconscious, unintentional bias involved, you may consider asking your boss to become your mentor, depending on your comfort level. Sometimes giving them a deeper personal investment into your success can motivate them to support you. If you don’t feel this will be possible with your specific employer, I would suggest having another mentor in mind, explaining that having one will give you the best chance of succeeding for the company.
- Apply for positions within the company that might be above your experience level. Depending on the size of the company and who reviews the applications, vying for higher positions can show your seriousness and ambition. It can also land you a meeting with someone above the person you report to. Additionally, you can send an email or cover letter explaining that you know you may not be qualified for the position, but that you want practice applying for something you want in the future. You can use that time to connect and ask about the skills they are looking for so you are prepared to demonstrate and learn them. By applying for other positions, you may also be able to find other influencers in the company who can champion you.
- Finally, if your boss ignores your earnest effort, refutes facts during your reviews, or doesn’t give you those opportunities despite your undeniable accomplishments, their actions will paint a sober picture of the ineffectual management under which you cannot possibly grow, or perhaps the not-so-unconscious racism and bias at play in your workplace.
My hope is that your employer sees your passion and supports your growth. Even if that doesn’t turn out to be the case, and even if you find yourself again at a crossroads, you’ll be more prepared for, or at peace with, your next step.
Whatever you decide, you will now have documentation of your efforts, your measurable accomplishments, and your employer’s actions (or lack thereof). And you will also have proven skills and value that you can confidently speak to when interviewing at a company that will properly appreciate you.