People of color know Nancy Pelosi.
She’s every executive who hired them because their “unique” viewpoint was sorely needed at her organization, but then ignored every new suggestion.
She’s every mentor at a new workplace who suggested that it would be best to learn how things were done and try not to rock the boat.
She’s every manager who bristled at expertise about their own community, target audience or demographic slice and suggested that the prevailing wisdom was more reliable than their lived experience.
Yeah, we know Nancy.
Pelosi diminished the Squad—made up of freshman congresswomen Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez, D-N.Y.; Rashida Tlaib, D-Mich.; Ilhan Omar, D-Minn.; and Ayanna Pressley, D-Mass.—by dismissing their social media clout.
For people of color—and women, in general, for that matter—getting dissed like that is par for the course.
It’s been maddening to watch the whole situation play itself out—from Pelosi’s slam to President Trump capitalizing on Democratic discord by suggesting that the three U.S.-born and one naturalized citizen congresswomen “go back”—because it has felt so terribly familiar.
Trump trotting out the perennial slam—you’re a foreigner, go “back” to some other country—was to be expected.
And Pelosi ultimately responding to it all by simply waving away the whole mess with a terse, “Let’s not waste our time on that,” is also typical.
All “that” is a tailor-made case study on why women of color struggle to succeed in workplaces dominated by white people.
Nothing against white people—they, like any other group of people used to being in positions of authority or seniority over others—don’t usually know they’re belittling others. It’s not like most people of any race or ethnicity wake up in the morning hoping to trivialize someone else’s existence.
Yet, it happens.
“It’s clear that the factors preventing women of color from advancing at work are quite different from those holding white women and even men of color back,” wrote diversity and inclusion experts Zuhairah Washington and Laura Morgan Roberts on the Harvard Business Review’s website. “These include microaggressions, double standards, and unconscious bias to name a few.”
Washington and Roberts conclude that women of color receive less support from their managers and are less likely to have bosses who promote their work contributions to others, help them navigate organizational politics or socialize with them outside of work.
This leaves women like me and like the ladies in “the Squad”—but who don’t have millions of Twitter or Instagram followers—without informal professional networks, meaningful mentoring and the workplace sponsorship that others may take for granted.
Fixing this problem to ensure that talented, ambitious women of color persist in their chosen professions, meaningfully diversify workplaces and pull others up behind them isn’t easy. It is achievable, though.
First and foremost, recognize the problem. What’s happening between these freshman legislators and the white power structure in Washington is more than just a juicy political soap opera. It’s emblematic of how people of color finally make it into rarified spaces only to be told to shut up and go back to wherever they came from.
Second, commit to combating unconscious biases. We all carry stereotypes, biases, understandings and assumptions about others. There’s no need to beat yourself up about them or feel guilty, just acknowledge that they exist, and understand that they guide your behavior.
Lastly, understand your privilege. Everyone has privilege—and don’t assume it’s just about skin color and income level.
An individual who grew up in poverty might have the privilege of excellent health. Someone with a visible physical disability may have grown up in a loving, two-parent household.
The examples are nearly endless, so let’s make all of this simple: When you’re interacting with a person of color, ask yourself, what would Pelosi or Trump do in this situation? Then, make a better choice.