Panelists share challenges of being Black in the workplace

In the cozy atmosphere of the Cahill Career Center office, five panelists sat on the purple couches for a vibrant discussion about their experiences as Black people in the workplace.

The Black in the Workplace Panel, co-sponsored by the Career Center, the Office of Equity, Diversity, Inclusion and Compliance (EDIC) and the Women’s Center & LGBTQ+ Services, was an open conversation among the panelists, moderators and audience as they talked about feeling fulfilled within their careers, being authentic in the workplace and how they handle discrimination and bias.

The panel was comprised of Rachel Sawyer-Walker, associate director of EDIC, Ramon Rodriguez Jr., talent acquisition specialist at Prudential, Katherine-Clarke Britt, corporate wellbeing specialist at Gympass, Angela Maceda, director of college ministry & internships at Christ Church and Timothy Greene, Internal Revenue Service, Criminal Investigation special agent.

The event began with the panelists discussing their definitions of diversity within the workplace. Rodriguez said that diversity is about creating communities by bringing together people of various ages, abilities, racial backgrounds and sexual identities.

“I think a diverse workplace is one that can welcome all those and also enable different perspectives… and encourage conversations,” he said.

Sawyer-Walker shared that for her, diversity goes beyond having representation from all intersections and includes equity, inclusion, justice and co-conspiratorship – which is “rejecting the benefits you might receive from different privileges.”

Maceda went on to highlight how necessary it is to work for a company that reflects and aligns with one’s values and beliefs.

“If diversity is something that is extremely important for you… whatever organization you work for, you want to make sure that that is their core value,” she said. “That way you will have alignment from the beginning.”

The discussion then focused on how seeing Black leaders in power can shape young Black people’s outlook on their future workplace. Maceda shared that during her childhood she saw many Black leaders in her community as city officials and running the Boys & Girls Club, which informed her perspective.

The event was rooted in sharing experiences and advice, creating an atmosphere of community. Photo by Rebecca Gathercole

“When I actually entered into the workforce, I primarily saw white males, but it wasn’t a threat to me because I had already seen the opposite,” she said.

Rodriguez pointed out, however, that even when Black people make it to leadership positions, it is usually only to a particular level in the hierarchy.

“I do see leaders of colors, but it reaches a certain point and there is someone above them that is a white male,” he said.

The panelists offered advice to the Black student attendees on how to handle discrimination, bias and microaggressions in the workplace. 

Sawyer-Walker advised considering the power and privilege at play and the person’s intent and impact in these situations. She also suggested acting confused and asking “What do you mean by that?” because that can make people conscious of their negative impact.

Britt suggested that it’s okay not to engage and educate every time someone says something harmful. “Don’t feel like you are obligated to do that. You have to take care of yourself,” she said.

Greene countered this idea, though. “If you don’t let them know… If you don’t put a stop to it, they will continue to do it.” 

The group came to the consensus that a person’s reaction should depend on how they feel in that moment and that sometimes it can be healthiest to walk away and revisit it later through a productive conversation.

Sawyer-Walker’s biggest piece of advice was that, especially when working in places with mostly non-Black employees, it’s essential to find safe spaces with other Black people where one can decompress. 

“A lot of people always joke, I’m always in the Educational Opportunity Fund office, ‘Oh, you’re like a seventh staff member’ and I’m like ‘Yeah, I’m there because I’m decompressing,’” she said. “It’s a lot… especially in a high position and to be around a lot of people that microaggress you.” 

As the event concluded, Britt offered some inspirational words from the 13th-century poet Rumi to remind attendees of their worth, especially as they embark into the workplace in the coming years: “Live life as if everything is rigged in your favor.”

Featured photo courtesy of Alex Woods