The hidden cost of a seat at the table and how to move forward
To be a person of color in the workforce is to live a reality surrounded by good intentions while navigating a world that wasn't created with you in mind. The metaphorical “seat at the table” comes with hundreds of years of racial history that differentiate marginalized people from their white coworkers. With the feeling of being “other” constantly looming overhead, it can be difficult for people of color (POC) to be their true selves while working in predominantly white environments.
Racism, whether outright or in subtle offenses, creates an added layer of complexity to the work experience of POC. Sometimes, an organization’s attempt to combat these issues can have adverse effects, putting even more pressure on an already marginalized group.
This is especially true of the implementation of programs such as unconscious bias training. These programs, while well-intentioned, tend to draw more attention to POC while also increasing their workload; they also have limited effectiveness. Researchers from the University of Pennsylvania conducted a field experiment finding that one-off unconscious bias training raised awareness but did not change the behavior of those in attendance. Another study from the Journal of Organizational Behavior found that these training sessions can inadvertently emphasize stereotypes and increase bias within the workplace.
Unconscious bias training is typically a short, one-time training that is not revisited after its completion. When the only program meant to tackle this issue could potentially make things worse, it inadvertently puts POC in a vulnerable position where they are forced to perform emotional labor. Emotional labor is a concept defined as a form of emotional regulation wherein workers are expected to display certain emotions as a part of their job or to promote organizational goals. This includes moments where a person of color feels the need to laugh at a colleague’s racist jokes or suppress aspects of their culture to make others comfortable. Unfortunately, while this concept is highly applicable to POC in the workplace, research on emotional labor is focused solely on the experiences of white women.
Brianna Henson, Director of Curriculum Development at UK College of Pharmacy, hopes one day to fill the gap, focusing a portion of her work on the experiences of POC. Henson, like many other POC, has performed emotional labor at her own place of work. “When you look at most organizations, people from historically underrepresented groups are typically the ones engaging in the work of making the workplace more diverse and inclusive for everyone. This should be a shared responsibility where everyone in an organization has the opportunity to contribute. Instead, this ‘invisible work’ often becomes a burden,” said Henson.
The additional mental load coupled with pre-existing racial biases can cause stress, depression, anxiety, feelings of loneliness, and more -potentially leading to burnout. This phenomenon is commonly known as racial battle fatigue. Racial microaggressions—small acts of unintentional oppression—are more than just words. These actions and comments build up and perpetually follow those on the receiving end. This experience has been compared to a “death by a thousand cuts.” A seemingly minute remark can be the thing that pushes a person to quit their job or shut down. Ijeoma Oluo, author of New York Times Bestseller So You Want to Talk About Race said, “No discussion about racism is just about one incident for POC, because we cannot divorce ourselves from the past pain of systemic racism, or the future repercussions of current abuse.”
However, some maintain the idea that racism is irrelevant to today’s society – a concept that occurred a long time ago from which we should “move on.” While lynchings, cross-burnings, and slavery may no longer be prevalent in the United States, a more subtle, covert form of racism has evolved that is equally as oppressive as it is harmful.
In her book, Oluo notes the true extent of microaggressions: “Microaggressions are small (hence, the ‘micro’) and can be easily explained away. It is very easy to dismiss a small offense as a misunderstanding or simple mistake.” Microaggressions are displayed when a white coworker comments on “how articulate” a non-white coworker is or is surprised when a POC doesn’t have an accent because of the way they look. These comments are something POC encounter on a regular basis.
Previously conducted research on racial battle fatigue has focused on the world of academia and not the arguably more complex world of work. This research provides us with a solid foundation that can be built upon to further explore the intricacies of the POC experience.
As we wait for the research to catch up and accurately reflect POC experiences, there are many ways people can become allies and create a more positive work experience for their coworkers of color.
The UK College of Pharmacy is leaning in such a direction. Under the leadership of Dean Kip Guy, the College is looking to build and train allies to assist the work of marginalized employees. “One of the most meaningful ways to contribute to a healthy work environment is to listen and have genuine conversations with co-workers. I know people of color and other marginalized groups have different experiences than I do—as a white, heterosexual male—and acknowledging that is just the beginning in making sure employees and students feel heard and seen.”
Henson notes Guy’s strides to turn her workplace into a safe space. “Our dean has really stepped up and acknowledged his privilege. I think he has acknowledged that this is an issue that needs to be addressed. He encourages feedback and listens to understand, not respond.” said Henson. “Even if it’s something little, it really helps.”
The College of Pharmacy is currently looking to train more of its faculty and staff to provide unconscious bias training that will then be coupled with other trainings and conversations to ensure effectiveness. Guy hopes to help meet the growing demands on UK’s campus for vocal allies while pushing the College of Pharmacy toward the forefront of inclusion work. In addition, all College of Pharmacy teaching faculty participated in a curriculum review earlier this year that helped determined areas where their content could be more inclusive and are starting to receive additional training and resources to help with these efforts.
Some faculty now include Harvard’s Implicate Association Test (IAT) to discuss unconscious bias and how it may affect patient care in regard to pain and pain management. Others facilitate a patient-led cultural competency panel to allow students to hear directly from marginalized groups and their experience navigating the healthcare system. The College is taking a longitudinal approach to conversations about race, hoping to help mitigate the potentially harmful effect that can come from one-off sessions that lack follow-up.
“This type of work takes all of us and necessarily involves repetition,” said Guy. “It’s important to provide training and resources, but also allow space and time for people to process and grow.”
The College is also looking into Employee Resource Groups, which are voluntary, peer-organized groups based on common experiences as a tool to move us toward inclusion. The goal is for employees and students to be able to share their experiences in a supportive environment, while also creating space where people have room to learn from mistakes. In many ways, students and employees are moving toward more honest discussions about the impact of bias on patient care, as well as their own experience within the UK community.
While there is still a long way to go before the gap in research is closed, the experiences of marginalized people remain valid and an important part of the culture of the workplace. Until more research is conducted, it is everyone’s responsibility to contribute to a supportive and safe workplace.