In Spaces That Weren't Designed For You, It's Important To Bring Your Whole Black Self To School And Work Anyway.
Black excellence IS excellence
Recently, I was invited by the New York City Department of Health to be a part of a panel of African American mental health and wellness experts to work on designing programs to address inclusion in mental health education and the mental health workforce. New York City is following a popular trend of aiming to tackle issues of inclusion in predominantly white education and professional settings. The city appears to be taking seriously the task of getting more black folks into mental health fields in hopes of improving outcomes for black community mental health.
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We are seeing similar attempts at many institutions, from major tech companies like Google, trying to improve their 2%-3% African American employment rate, to prestigious universities like Harvard University assembling an inclusion task force stressing their wish to improve and maintain their diversity numbers. Often when organizations speak about inclusion and increasing African American presence in professional and academic spaces, the sole has been on improving the recruiting pipeline. Hundreds of great programs across the country have sprung up in recent years with the focus of improving the number of people of African descent matriculating into elite schools and choosing underrepresented career paths. Two of which I have had the pleasure of working with have been MIT’s MITES program and Google’s Code Next program respectively and there is no denying their commitment and participant’s enjoyment. Despite these robust efforts, retention rates of black folks in elite academic programs remains a challenge and despite the efforts in the business sector, African Americans continue to report high levels of job dissatisfaction, stress, and discomfort in many American work settings.
While focusing on the recruitment pipeline is certainly important, I believe we are missing an important piece of the puzzle. An equally valuable factor would be transforming not only how people come to the spaces, rather the very spaces themselves. We must make the professional and academic spaces we are recruiting into, genuinely and consistently, more inclusive. Part of the dissatisfaction had by black students and employees in predominantly white spaces stems from the feeling that they cannot bring much of their whole selves, including cultural styles and norms, to these spaces. It is wholly insufficient to simply target members of a particular social identity to give guidance and tools to get those folks into academic and professional spaces and then have that space be invalidating of that very social identity and all the various cultural norms, mores, and history that come with it.
It is important to remember that the current norms of so-called elite academic and professional spaces in America were forged at a time when the only people with real influence on their makeup and essence were wealthy white men. Everything from style of dress, to what and how things are spoken about, to what is viewed as valuable, to what hangs on the walls was reflective of the dominant white male culture. As we fast forward to the present day, while the individuals in these spaces look a lot more diverse, there is not much diversity in terms of what is deemed appropriate and valuable in those spaces.
In my academic and professional journey, whether I walked through the halls of Tulane School of Medicine where I attended medical school or the prestigious medical institutions where I did my residency and fellowship training, they were all adorned with nothing but symbols of whiteness and wealth. From the pictures on the wall being entirely composed of white men to the vast majority of people in positions of leadership, to the styles of dress and lingo, topics and style of communication; there appeared to a very narrow definition of what it means to be valuable and valid in these spaces. There were absolutely no signs, whether speaking of the physical space, the interpersonal interactions or even topics celebrated and supported, that I was welcomed to bring my full and brilliant black self, culture, and experiences. What did exist were a bevy of subtle and not so subtle signs that I would get along much better if I merely conformed to the status quo and learned how to morph myself into a carbon copy of the space. In discussions with friends of color from all sectors of educational and professional spaces, I came to learn that they too, in large part, faced the exact same invalidating experiences that I did in my medical journey.
Heteronormative, cis-gendered, classist, male, white supremacy permeates these spaces and covertly set the tone that if one is to stand a chance to achieve success in these spaces that they must internalize said supremacy and try to fold themselves into it. These systems are asking black folks and others to somehow find solace in the solitude of being black shaped pegs being forced into the white shaped holes of the dominant culture. One cannot truly be successful or at peace in a space if one can’t truly be their authentic self there. This is a part of the subtle yet significant racial toxicity of America. To have only one way to be viewed as excellent in a space and other productive styles of excellence be damned or ignored is dehumanization made new world normal and is not now, nor should it ever be acceptable.
In psychiatric medicine, we speak about how damaging an invalidating environment can be for the individual, often leading to mental health issues and even personality disorders. Imagine how damaging the environment when entire systems, including academic and professional, invalidate the full humanity of a whole group. In his book “Whistling Vivaldi”, Dr. Claude Steele writes about the struggles of stereotyped minority groups in environments that don’t take the representation of that group into account. Not only is enjoyment and satisfaction of members of that group affected, their performance as a whole is also negatively affected. Too often have I heard my friends and colleagues take great pride in how well they conform in predominantly white spaces, bragging about how well they “code switch”, without ever even questioning whether it should be necessary or that it might be damaging to have to perform.
If there will be resources and attention allocated to improving the attainment and retention of black individuals in professional and academic spaces, that energy should be focused on transforming those spaces with symbols of cultural inclusiveness and supporting people of color in bringing their various styles of black excellence with them. There must be support in allowing the various black American cultural norms and mores to be included into what overall academic and professional excellence looks like. There should be diverse representation in the physical space as well as in what’s explicitly valued and welcomed to be celebrated and discussed. There should be ethnic, cultural, and gender diversity in the people both past and present being celebrated in the physical space. There should an inclusive celebration of various important dates and holidays important to varying ethnic and religious communities. If the use of colloquialisms deemed appropriate by our white counterparts aren’t met with disdain and scoffed at, nor should the use of colloquialisms common in black communities. If there is an Independence Day Party, there should also be a push for a Juneteenth party in which all members of the institution are seriously encouraged to engage. If an institution gives an announcement about a particular social issue that affects Americans in general, then they should very well share a word on issues that greatly affect marginalized American communities as well. These are examples of true inclusion in spaces and only the tip of the iceberg of the kinds of transformations necessary to help folks in the minority feel truly welcomed as their true and whole selves.
Of late, many articles like The Atlantic’s “Being Black in America Can be Hazardous to Your Health” have surfaced, detailing the effects of simply being black on the health and wellness of individuals. This tendency to smother one’s authentic self and culture at work is also an unhealthy part of that racialized stress that often comes with being black in predominantly white academic and professional spaces. We must absolutely be more intentional about expanding the notions of acceptability, value, and excellence in these spaces to include black excellence and excellence outside the scope of heterosexual, cis-gendered, wealthy, male, white excellence, if black folks or anyone outside that scope will have our opportunity to truly live our best lives.