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The psychological cost of being the only woman of color at work

The first time I was seriously bullied at work, I convinced myself it was no big deal. As the first woman in my family to graduate from a four-year college, I thought she could handle anything.

But my body knew something was wrong. My heart was beating faster as the elevator was about to open to my office floor. I would have trouble getting out of bed in the morning, despite being an early riser all my life. I stopped wanting to socialize with friends, despite being outgoing. Most of the time, she was too tired to go anywhere.

Then the dark thoughts appeared, out of place. No one can see me here anyway, I kept thinking. I would replay scenarios in my head from interactions with co-workers. Initially, I would feel embarrassed about not knowing how to respond to subtle acts of exclusion (also known as microaggressions), such as my name being mispronounced and my English being complimented, as well as being the only woman of color in my department. But I soon felt self-loathing and anxiety when I risked being fired after a senior leader complained about how difficult it was to work with me, without giving any reason or example to back it up.

Having no women of color to turn to, I felt like I was living in an alternate reality. Today, I know there is a word for what I experienced: racial gaslighting. But back then, I questioned myself literally every day. Eventually the burden became too heavy to bear. I could see myself becoming a cynical and bitter shell of myself. I saw up close how the rules were different for my white peers: the white men and women who got promoted despite poor performance, the male leaders who hired only attractive white women. I was shut out of meetings, social gatherings, and inside jokes, and I never saw anyone who looked like me.

It took its toll, not only because of the harassment, but also because of the daily acts of exclusion. I eventually quit, despite advice from family and friends that I shouldn’t walk away from such a lucrative opportunity. But I was mentally and spiritually shattered.

“It is common for victims of workplace discrimination to conceptualize how they are the problem. That conceptualization takes the form of guilt and shame, severe anxiety, panic and worry, in such a way that she can no longer be effective in her role,” says Danielle Jenkins Henry, Licensed Associate Marriage Family Therapist (LMFTA) and founder of dream life out loud, a psychotherapy practice for black women. “You’re isolating yourself because of the embarrassment and embarrassment you might feel for raising these kinds of concerns or trying to protect yourself from scrutiny,” she notes. The cognitive distortions that I began to experience, where every interaction with my co-workers made me feel stressed or anxious after the bullying incident, are common. “It becomes a cycle, and there is no way out.”

I interviewed hundreds of women of color for my book, inclusion on purpose. What I found was that my story was not unique. and due to a variety of factors, including a lack of mental health providers of color, women of color are not getting the mental health help we need. It is a crisis where individual women of color are beginning to blame themselves for systemic bias.

“There is no coverage or security. You don’t know who to trust. You feel ashamed and embarrassed: How did I get into this? What could I have said or what did I do? Or maybe I can try harder? Or maybe I can contort myself so that they see me and recognize that I am a high achiever? And that’s just one cycle of abuse,” says Jenkins Henry.

That’s why she established her psychotherapy practice to ensure Black women get the mental health support they need. The genesis of it was personal. Jenkins Henry struggled with her own mental health after facing severe workplace discrimination in her previous career in marketing.

“After five years as a top performer, I’ve taken on a new role. I felt powerful and strong,” she recalls. But soon after, a white woman on the new team publicly humiliated and ridiculed her. When Jenkins Henry brought it up with her manager, she said the woman had a history of making racist comments, but she shouldn’t “pay attention to it…she’s just toxic.”

When Jenkins Henry was deliberately excluded from meetings and emails related to a project she was managing, her boss suggested she take a different approach. But nothing worked. Instead of taking it up with the white woman, Jenkins Henry’s manager decided to move the project from him to a less experienced white man and emailed the team with the announcement, stating that Jenkins Henry had not been “effective” in the project. Project.

“I was devastated,” Jenkins Henry said.

After confronting an even more egregious incident of racism from a high-ranking leader in the organization, Jenkins Henry complained to Human Resources and an investigation was launched. But the black researcher “laughed at [her] and basically said [her] This was going nowhere.”

That’s when Jenkins Henry knew he had to get out. “I didn’t even know what support was like, I never needed support. I never experienced anxiety. And then when I left… I realized that I needed to heal. I needed to heal parts of myself that I had never seen or considered,” he said.

So she decided to get her degree to become a licensed therapist. “Now I can support other women who are suffering in their workplaces, who are struggling to find support and break generational patterns they don’t even know they can heal from.”

Women of color facing prejudice and discrimination in the workplace need to take care of their mental health first. That is how.

1. Know that you can go.

“You don’t have to keep going in there and getting abused,” says Jenkins Henry. Many women of color feel they have to “come in and fight,” especially if they are the first in their family to have a corporate career.

But she urges women to experience discrimination or the cumulative impact of microaggressions and prejudice that “can fight a different battle.” While many of her clients feel they have to prove they have what it takes to prevail on the job, Jenkins Henry urges them to think about what it costs to do so. “There are parts of ourselves that we need to protect,” she says. Parts that we forget when we are caught up in distortions, anxiety, depression and isolation. “There are parts of our spirit that are being damaged, and that’s what needs protection when we experience discrimination in the workplace.”

2. Find adaptive coping strategies.

Jenkins Henry points out that often, even when faced with prejudice or discrimination, his clients may not be able to leave for financial reasons, or may need to stay on while a promotion is proposed or to wait for stock or benefits to be awarded.

“So I always tell my clients that we need adaptive coping strategies so they can continue to show up and do their jobs, if that’s what they want to do.” These include meditation practices or other strategies to ensure they get enough rest, eat and exercise. Building internal reserves is key to navigating the external challenges of biased workplaces for women of color.

3. Find a support network.

Jenkins Henry encourages women of color to reflect on who is in their support network. “Is it a church organization? A sorority or a fraternity? A network of colleagues, perhaps in an employee resource group? Identify who can support you, who’s aware of what’s going on, and where you can go so you don’t feel so isolated,” she says.

A support network can help you find your power, strength, and healing. Other support partners can be a therapist, a coach, friends, or your partner. A town is needed. Most importantly, Jenkins Henry urges women of color not to isolate themselves.

4. Plan your exit strategy.

Some of the questions women of color should ask themselves are: Is it the right time to leave? Should I be making a plan B? Am I in so much pain that it’s time to go right now?

If women of color need to leave immediately, Jenkins Henry advises them to consider options like applying for medical leave or seeking a clinical diagnosis. Other exit strategies could be finding a new role within or outside the company, or taking a break such as a sabbatical.

Of course, it’s important to look at your financial resources to understand the options and support available to you. “What I try to avoid for my clients is what I’ve experienced, which is you go to work one day and you just can’t come back,” she says.

. . .

It is only more recently that we are understanding how mentally healthy it is to confront racial bias and discrimination at work, so it is critical that women of color prioritize their own well-being. Develop coping strategies, find a support network, and develop an exit strategy. The most important thing is that you understand that you are not to blame for systemic bias at work.


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