My friend Oji Udezue wrote an article recently (“Inequality is a zero-day flaw in America’s source code”) about his experience moving from a “first-class existence in Nigeria (everyone is black)” to becoming a black man in America — which astounded him and made him cringe.
I met Oji and Ezinne Udezue — his equally talented wife — for coffee last year as I was considering a career transition. In addition to being experienced tech executives, they’re also great friends and sounding boards. As I was ruminating on my next steps, I asked them, “should I get an MBA?”
Oji said, “No, you’re fine. But if you were a black woman, I would tell you absolutely yes.”
Code-Switching, Whitening, and other Strategies
When I heard Oji’s words, I was stunned and silent. It made me recall a Harvard Business Review article I’d read years ago about some research findings on race and job searching. 36% of Asian Americans and African Americans “whiten” their resumes, removing facts that would highlight their race, like slightly changing their name, using middle name, or excluding race-focused organizations and awards. And when they make those changes, they are more likely to land an interview. By a lot. Companies are twice as likely to call minority applicants for an interview if they “whiten” their resumes.
Even more surprising is that applicants experienced the same results even from companies who say they are dedicated to diverse candidates and use inclusive language in their job postings.
Shocking. And absolutely, unequivocally unacceptable.
Well, shocking to me. But it sure isn’t shocking to my friends and colleagues who are BIPOC (Black, Indigenous, and People Of Color). Because these are part of their experienced reality, in the workforce and in life.
In fact, my BIPOC friends have become practiced in the art of code-switching, which is described by George B. Ray as “a skill that holds benefits in relation to the way success is often measured in institutional and professional settings.” And for a deeper dive into what that looks like for black Americans, the movie Sorry to Bother You offers a first-hand account and a cultural study on the topic.
“Let me give you a tip. You wanna make some money here? Use your white voice.” — Sorry to Bother You
Code-switching works. During a 1999 study published in the Journey of Language and Social Psychology, researchers found that when calling about housing opportunities in areas of Northern California, standard English — compared to “African American vernacular English” (AAVE) or “Chicano English” — resulted in by up to 50% more “confirmed appointments to view apartments advertised.”
“If you were a black woman, I would tell you absolutely yes.”
Let me pause for a minute to talk about the history of black women in the workplace — which I’ve learned about through simply exploring the question. Black women have always been expected to work and have had the highest labor force participation among all women for years. Why?
Because the foundation of America was built on black labor.
This is an excellent article that walks in detail through the history and present-day struggles of black women in the workplace.
From the 19th century, and well into the 20th century, Black women worked but were frequently relegated to the lowest-paying jobs. Legal restrictions were used to exclude all women — regardless of their race or ethnicity — from many high-paying jobs reserved exclusively for men. Although these outdated views were rejected over time, Black women still face the potent remnants of this historical narrative that devalued their status as women and as workers. As a result, Black women’s greater labor force participation has not always translated into higher wages. It has also not quelled negative stereotypes about Black women’s attitudes and work ethic that assume that Black women do not work hard, resist hard work, must be pushed to perform well, and should be satisfied with any job rather than deserving of the best job.
And the gender wage gap paired with the race gap leaves an even starker picture of black women in the workforce. Even when they have the same years of experience as white men, the wage gap costs black women almost $950,000 over a 40-year career.
Black women face the largest overall cents-on-the-dollar wage gaps in Louisiana (just 47 cents for every dollar paid to white, non-Hispanic men), the District of Columbia (51 cents) and Mississippi and New Jersey (56 cents).
So yeah. That MBA might indeed be a requirement for a black woman to access higher wage, to find more opportunities.
And perhaps it might be an important aspect to being taken seriously at a company full of primarily white executives who might see blackness not as an asset, but as a threat.
Acknowledging and reaching out past discomfort
I’m certain that there are people reading this article who are uncomfortable. In a recent study from job site Glassdoor, 42% of Americans reported witnessing or experiencing racism in the workplace, so many of you likely see it, but don’t know what to do about racism in the American workforce today.
My recommendations are based on my own experience, but there are a huge number of resources being shared, so take this as just a few thoughts on where to start:
Learn about Systematic Racism in America. I highly recommend the Netflix documentary “13th”. Because it addresses and visualizes the brutal reality of race in America, it is not appropriate for children…which, in and of itself, should be telling.
Explore the subtle, subconscious, pervasive, and innocuous biases experienced by BIPOC today. But I believe that foundationally, we — my white and privileged colleagues — must first identify the biases within us so that we can use our voices to fight racism, and become stronger and more effective allies. If you want to understand the biases you might have, I recommend exploring where you might fall on the Racism Scale, or go a step further to see if your internal biases might land you on the White Supremacy pyramid — which might be a surprising reality for some.
Listen not just to the comfortable voices of all of the white journalists, pundits, and allies in the fight against racism, but intentionally seek out the voices of BIPOC. Join a group like Be The Bridge to Racial Unity, and listen to the experiences of people of color in their own words, in a place dedicated to transparent conversation —which has been an incredibly powerful experience that changed the way I interact with the world.
“With privilege comes responsibility, you must understand that. People expect us to lead by example and we shall not disappoint them.” — Ben Elton
I’d love to hear your own thoughts and comments on this post about your experience with racism, learning about your own biases, or fighting against bias in the workplace.
In a time like now, those of us with privileged voices have the opportunity to learn how to stand up for people who have been standing up for themselves for hundreds of years in America. It’s our turn to use our own voices to fight for justice and equality.