Microaggressions: Why Mindfulness Training Beats A Harvard MBA
We can’t wait for implicit bias training to have an impact; we need to take care of ourselves today, and mindfulness is a powerful tool.
January 20, 2021 at 2:20 am
At Harvard Business School, I received best in class training in marketing, finance, strategy and management, but they left me utterly unprepared for the microaggressions I was going to experience at work after I graduated. They didn’t teach me what to do when I watched young tech bros in Silicon Valley with significantly less experience get promoted faster than me. They didn’t tell me what to do on the first day of a new job, when my manager pulled me aside and said, “I just want you to know that I didn’t hire you because you’re Black.” They didn’t offer any guidance on how to handle getting called “aggressive” in performance reviews when others were applauded for their assertiveness. Since I was usually the only Black person in the building, I had no one to ask and I had to figure it out myself, making lots of mistakes along the way.
Mindfulness has been the key to my sanity. Mindfulness has been the key to my success. And, it was markedly cheaper than my MBA. In the last year, companies have been patting themselves on the back for their newfound prioritization of diversity, equity and inclusion. The implicit bias training industry has blown up. While I think this is a necessary step on the journey, it’s going to take a long time for our white colleagues to transform generations of inherited bias and the structural racism that continues to exist. I challenge companies to ask themselves — what are we doing for the Black people in our workforce today?
We can’t wait for the outcomes of these trainings, because the impact of our pain today is real. Microaggressions cause a fight or flight reaction in our bodies. It activates the survival-mode, lizard brain; our cortisol levels shoot up, and the stress, whether we acknowledge it or not, shows up in our physical well-being. A Harvard Medical School publication explains that, “It has been well established that African Americans have a higher risk of hypertension compared with other racial or ethnic groups in the United States.” They reference a hypertension study that suggests that discrimination is the cause. In addition, “African American women face both disproportionate exposure to breast carcinogens and the highest risk of serious health impacts from the disease,” according to Breast Cancer Prevention Partners.
While there are physical impacts to the stress caused by microaggressions, it can also have a direct impact on our performance at work. I suffered from severe anxiety when a boss told me that he couldn’t promote me in the HR system or in compensation. Instead, he told me to change my title on LinkedIn and on my business cards so that “senior level clients would take my sales meetings.” While I took the facade of a promotion, I couldn’t feel confident knowing that I was living a lie. My manager acknowledged that I deserved it, yet he wouldn’t take real action.
It was at this point in my career when I started applying breathwork, meditation and mindfulness tools to get me through my workdays. I was tired of feeling depleted, anxious and reactive every time something awful happened at work, especially when it was race related. I started going to regular meditation classes. I studied different types of breathwork. Eventually, I traveled to India to take my training to the next level, and learned the true sources of these techniques which have been used for thousands of years.
Belly breaths were the easiest and most effective tool when I felt triggered in the moment of an offensive comment at work. Belly breaths stimulate the parasympathetic nervous system. While the sympathetic nervous system is the flight or flight reaction, the parasympathetic nervous system is the opposite, responsible for rest and restoring homeostasis. Stimulating the parasympathetic nervous system will undo the work of the sympathetic nervous system in a stressful situation, resulting in a reduction in heart rate and providing a sense of calm. So when a colleague says, “When I see you, I don’t see color,” or “Wow, you’re really articulate! You’re not like the others,” I do a deep belly breath to calm myself, rather than react with my previous possible approaches — thinking less than positive thoughts towards them or reacting with what some might call a "career limiting move."
There was a period in my career when I woke up everyday thinking I was going to get fired. A Black woman at my company had been dismissed for speaking up about racial disparities, and while I had not been so vocal, I felt like I was walking on eggshells. To manage this intense anxiety I started to leverage the technique of 4-7-8 breaths, and I continue to use it today for anxiety around watching the news, the safety of the Black men in my life and my own safety. It helped me go to sleep recently when someone wrote “F– You” on my car parked in a cabin driveway in the mountains of Colorado.
There are many moments when I experience incredible anger, and I know that if I don’t release it, it will accumulate and eventually cause some of the health issues I am more prone to as a Black woman. Last summer, a Black woman who was the only person at her company with diversity and inclusion in her title, came to me upset that her CEO didn't consult her in the development of the company’s anti-racism initiatives list. An email went out to the entire company, and he excluded the only person whose expertise and role was inclusion. I was livid, and what got me through it was the breath of fire technique. Not only is it effective in releasing anger, it’s also a powerful detoxifier, ridding the body of toxins and other substances.
We can’t change the behavior of our colleagues overnight, but we can change how we react to them. We, Black people, have the power to take back ownership of our well-being, and the time is now.
Zhalisa “Zee” Clarke, is a Harvard Business School graduate and founder of Reclaiming Flow, offering mindfulness training workshops tailored specifically to address the unique challenges that Black women and people of color face at work.