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The Masks We Wear: Covering Race And Identity At Work

October 6, 2016

I recently sat on a panel hosted by the Council of Urban Professionals with NYU Law Professor Kenji Yoshino, following Yoshino’s conference remarks regarding his work on “Covering.” In his book and following studies with Deloitte, Yoshino brings attention to how we “modulate our identities in order to be accepted by the mainstream.” He calls out the dismal figures in senior leadership, as well as in the C-Suite, where with Ursula Burns stepping down from Xerox, there are no Black women leading a Fortune 500 company, where Tim Cook coming out as openly gay makes him the only leader of a Fortune 500 company to identify as such. The lack of diversity in corporate leadership is staggering and as our country’s population and workforce are increasingly diverse, leadership is not reflecting any of this growth.​

Yoshino notes that while even white men “cover” to thrive at work, the tax placed on people of color and other minority groups is much higher and can contribute to the isolation, stagnation and failed retention of minority groups at companies. By discussing how we cover and why, Yoshino drives a conversation around how companies can strengthen their inclusion efforts and hopefully a pipeline for leadership that is more reflective of today’s workforce.

 

Yoshino’s research really resonates with me because it not only validates my life’s work, it also affirms my personal experience of growing up between two worlds. My mother was very persistent about finding me opportunities to grow and make sure that my life would be different from hers and others in our community. At the age of 12, I began to commute nearly two hours from East Flatbush, Brooklyn to the Upper East Side to attend a wealthy private school. Every day, I was faced with living in two different realities— that of my low-income neighborhood and that of my very wealthy Fifth Avenue “Gossip Girl” world. At school, almost all of the people of color I interacted with were employed in service positions, i.e. cooks and cleaners, and at home, I interacted with no White people at all. I learned to navigate this double life at a pretty early age, way before I knew “covering” was a thing. At best, the only term I knew for managing my two worlds was “code-switching,” and that skill was critical to my success in each world.

 

As a teenager, I quickly realized that straightening my hair would mean less questions about my hair care routine, or that saying my father had passed away would raise less eyebrows than admitting he wasn’t present. I also realized chatting about Mock Trial and AP Portfolio Art class in the Met did not gain me cool points in my neighborhood. So I learned, without knowing, how to manage different worlds, and make whoever was around me feel comfortable even if at the expense of my own discomfort.

 

Read the full article in Huffington Post Business News here.

 

 

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