I recently accepted a management position at a corporate consulting firm where I finally have an opportunity to implement and execute new strategic organizational initiatives. I'm the only African American in my department, which is nothing new, given that it has been a reoccurring reality throughout my career. Generally, I've grown accustomed to operating in this space, however, within the past year, I feel as if I reached my threshold of tolerance.
I have a work colleague, another manager at the same level, who happens to be Caucasian with less industry experience. She consistently questions my work, often publicly in meetings! She also barks commands as if I were her subordinate, leaving me feeling both internally angered and frustrated. I never react or match her communication methods, but instead respond calmly and professionally, providing her with explanations of my work (which I feel I shouldn't have to do). I approached our supervisor regarding my colleague's episodes and asked him if I should report my progress both vertically and horizontally to other departments. Maybe I was missing something? Alternatively, I was accused of being overly stressed from my workload! He even indicated, in an indirect way that I was overreacting. Am I? I quickly reassured him that I enjoyed working for the firm and wanted to explore ways that I could be a more effective team member and reinforce better communication amongst my peers. I left our meeting feeling helpless and defeated without a voice. Is it possible to stand up for myself without being labeled as the "angry black woman" at work? Is there a way to effectively communicate my frustrations without endangering my position at the firm?
Silenced at Work
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Dear Silenced at Work,
You are not overreacting to your situation. What you are experiencing is unfortunately a common experience among women of color in managerial positions in a predominantly white workspace. If you choose to stand up for yourself, you may or may not be labeled the “angry Black woman.” Unfortunately, we do not have control over other’s perception of us, but we can control our own behaviors and how we choose to present ourselves in a work setting. Thinking of a way to effectively communicate your frustrations without endangering your position at the firm, may cause you to engage in negotiating your identities (shifting your language or behaviors to fit the cultural norm and/or to refute Black woman stereotypes). Identity negotiation requires a lot of mental effort and can become mentally exhausting. Once we are exhausted due to negotiating our identities, we may develop strategies to avoid negotiating through signs of resistance and denial, such as being silent in conversations, limiting professional contacts, and restricting participation in social environments.
When we engage in identity negotiation, it is important to note that it comes with benefits and costs. As a case in point, if you value being your authentic self in the workplace and decide not to shift your identities in the workspace, then that may result in others viewing you as “unprofessional,” which may lead to unfortunate consequences. I encourage you to think about what you value, what is non-negotiable, and what you are willing to negotiate. If you feel that the job you are in overall is a positive environment and will allow for personal and professional development, you have to feel out the environment and perhaps cannot respond to microaggressions (subtle insults) in a way that will cost you your job.
Ultimately, we have to learn to pick and choose our battles. I encourage you to find an ally at work, someone who knows the work politics and who you can go to when you have these negative experiences. If there are others that you can go to who will listen to what you are saying without negating your experiences, those are the people who you should speak to about your situation.