Deisha Barnett, the Metro Atlanta Chamber’s chief brand and communications officer and head of diversity and inclusion, had a simple question for her panel at PRWeek’s Racial Equity Summit: How hard is it to show up as your true self at work?
The answers reflected a diverse range of experiences.
Andy Checo, associate VP at Havas Formulatin, noted that he works at a firm with a multicultural focus and said he “basically gets paid to be myself.”
Shawn Smith, director of worldwide public relations at Warner Bros. Consumer Products, said she had a similar experience at a multicultural shop, but got a much different vibe as she advanced in her career.
“At the very beginning, I worked at multicultural PR agencies, so I was around people who looked like me, and that made it easier, because there was a shorthand we could use with one another,” she said. “As I began to progress, I was at a large agency that was predominantly white and was in-house and didn’t see many people around who looked like me.”
Other panelists’ experiences were also disheartening at times.
In past roles, Rebecca Chen, VP of marketing at Action Button, worked with leaders from countries such as Belgium, Ireland and Brazil, and noted that DEI initiatives and awareness are more advanced in the U.S. than in those countries.
Meanwhile, Taylor account director Sade Ayodele noted that in previous jobs, she would even feign interest in pop culture to fit in with a mostly white staff.
“It had been super-challenging in the past as a Black woman who works in sports. There are a lot of white men, and for a long time, I tried to blend in and shrink myself to be more conforming with the environment. I wouldn’t wear braids in my hair, I would talk a certain way and I’d even say I liked certain shows,” she said. “I’ve learned I attract more opportunities and show up better for clients and myself when I show up as myself.”
Chen also discussed the workplace dangers of being perceived as “too woke,” something she was called by a former colleague in a situation she described as happening “in the face of white fragility.”
“I’m always navigating the fine line of how do you move the culture forward but also meet people where they are in terms of receptiveness to this change,” she said.
Ayodele also said that leaders should take note of words and terms that might be offensive to BIPOC employees, even if they are not intended as such. For instance, in a previous role, human resources advised her to “blend into the culture.”
“What people may not realize is that term is wrought with a ton of bias. If there’s a culture, but there’s only one Black person on the team and you look around and see 19 or 20 people who don’t look like you, basically what you’re telling me is that I’m the outsider, that I don’t belong,” she said. “That not only lessened my confidence but it had me coming to work as someone who I wasn’t.”