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The experiences of my entry into the college and business environments were extremely stressful. To a black girl who grew up in a single-parent, low-income household in the culture of Compton CA in the 50s, 60s, Northrop University, IBM, and Century City felt like foreign countries. I was a stranger in strange land and all eyes on me. I was a contrast to everything I saw and heard. And while I was watched, I was seldom engaged. Professors and classmates offered no help when I struggled. My IBM (affirmative action) internship felt like cheap labor for menial work[1] and I was reprimanded for my style of dress. My first job after finishing college in June 1973 was located in Century City. Bordered by Beverly Hills to the east and Westwood on the west, back then it was one of those areas of LA where Black folk were treated like we must be just passing through.

I was very fortunate that my first employer was a forward-thinking, disruptive organization. That became apparent immediately when I learned that a white male hired a month after me was given a salary almost 10% higher. I asked my manager why and it was immediately corrected. Wow! Here was an environment, a culture, where I could now experiment with what we today call code-switching. I didn’t like how I had learned to behave at NU and IBM – even though it was how I persevered and survived. Letting insults and ignorance I wouldn’t put up with in my personal life just slide by in interactions in class and at work was wearing on me – big time. That phrase being one example of how I couldn’t express myself in terms meaningful to me. I felt unauthentic, changing my persona like a chameleon depending on the door I walked through. I had to find a way to show up as me. Looking back, I realize it was the beginning of my battle with imposter syndrome.

Code switching in the workplace has become normalized for Black tech professionals. We are expected to switch the way we speak, act, and interact with colleagues within the companies we work for as a survival tactic necessary to advance and be considered as valuable. Basically, don’t be your blackness and help your white coworkers stay color blind. But code-switching takes a mental toll and as I mentioned above it makes one question their authenticity. When we’re not sure who we truly are, we wonder which one of us showed up for that accolade or that gaff. All the while, we’re dealing with the workplace land mines of familiar and unfamiliar racism, feeling un-welcomed and unappreciated.

Within our authenticity are the strengths developed from our life circumstances, which show up as grit, adaptability, and persistence. A code-switching new tech may begin to question and maybe devalue ways of being that got them this far in life. It’s hard to bring value to any work uncertain about what one truly has to offer.

Organizational leaders espouse equity but can’t seem to accept that being equity-minded means doing more for the people that need it most. In all fairness, some white managers of Black employees (and white faculty with black students) may struggle with a similar phenomenon. Since the summer of 2020 social justice uprisings, I’ve facilitated many conversations about anti-racism and almost every white participant questioned their own authenticity relative to racism. Am I a racist? Is that how I’m showing up? My answer is “Yes. We are all racists, white and black, because we’ve lived our lives in a dominant culture of embedded white supremacy. Only self-awareness of our unconscious biases will begin the change.” White managers who lead, coach, or mentor Black, Latinx, and other minoritized employees, may also face authenticity issues because, unconsciously, they’re also code-switching between how they interact with “others” vs. their white associates.

When code-switching is unconscious, it’s frame-switching. Both are the same process except for minorities, it’s a conscious behavior, but for individuals of the dominant race/gender/culture, it shows up as unconscious bias, stereotypes, micro-aggressions, and inequitable treatment. Both result in a double-whammy for black workers – our own code-switching messes with our self-efficacy and white frame-switching creates those racist land mines. For those of us who find the true north we wish to be in both worlds, we often encounter racism in our own because of the ways we speak, dress, behave, and make decisions; because we’ve become successful.

A 2017 Kapor Center study of tech leavers found that unfair treatment is the single largest driver of turnover affecting all groups, and most acutely affects underrepresented professionals. Based on my experience, the situation becomes acute because of the mental stress of dealing with uncaring managers and toxic cultures while struggling to be true to myself. People don’t leave their jobs, they take leave of their managers. Talent management research has long shown this to be the #1 reason for resignations and in these times of pandemic, it is increasingly so. Similarly, the disconnect with teachers is the main reason under-represented college students don’t persist.

So what’s the solution to this multi-faceted dilemma? Personally, over time I’ve become quite comfortable being a chameleon. A chameleon, while it changes and adapts to its environment, is still a chameleon. I was fortunate to work for two exemplary organizations (National CSS and Tandem Computers) where leadership put people first. When people truly come first, diversity and inclusion follow. We worked hard, played hard, and as a result, grew to really know and appreciate each other, developing relationships that endured beyond our time working together. Most important, at those companies I had managers who, in addition to wanting to help me grow, were curious enough about me to mine the strengths I brought as well as the lessons of my weaknesses.

Organizations that truly intend to create inclusive, welcoming work environments for under-represented employees must train leaders on how to develop and apply cultural humility. The same applies in educational institutions. Cultural humility is being curious about, and honoring, cultural differences. Managers must maintain a willingness to suspend what they know, or what they think they know, about a person based on generalizations about their culture. Cultural humility removes labels. Granted, knowledge of diverse cultures and their assumptions and practices is indeed important, but difficult to achieve. It is virtually impossible to become culturally fluent without complete immersion over an extended time. However, approaching any encounter with others with the knowledge that one’s own perspective is full of assumptions and prejudices can help a leader keep an open mind and remain respectful of others. It can positively change how they interact with different others with mutually beneficial results. It can be learned.

In 1994 when I interviewed for my last role at Tandem Computers to be executive assistant for the VP of Marketing, I told her “I’ll have your back.” In 2021, that term is a common idiom, but back then it was a phrase I only heard in black conversations. She asked me what I meant. After I explained, she told me “THAT is what I need.”

[1] Only for the first summer. I drew the straw to protest to management on behalf of our cohort of black and latinx engineering students. That’s another story, but we got the change for the more challenging work we wanted.