The March Centennial Lecture at Fordham GSE was given by Dr. Aisha Holder (Counseling Psychology Ph.D. ’15), a psychologist at Columbia University Counseling and Psychological Services. Her lecture Racial Microaggressions and Coping Strategies of Black Women in Corporate Leadership was based on her own research as well as her experiences in corporate America.
The term “microaggression” was coined by psychiatrist Chester Pierce in the 1970s as “subtle insults (verbal, nonverbal, and/or visual) directed toward people of color, often automatically or unconsciously.” According to research, persistent microaggressions can lead to a variety of symptoms, including anxiety, paranoia, depression, sleep difficulties, lack of confidence, and feelings of worthlessness. Holder mentioned that Black Women are particularly vulnerable to microaggressions and their effects due to their intersectional identities.
From her research with Black Women who had broken through the “concrete ceiling” of corporate leadership, Holder identified several types of racial microaggressions and coping strategies.
Types of Racial Microaggressions in the Workplace
The environmental theme comprises several types of microaggressions: lack of representation, lack of integrating diversity into the company’s strategy or brand, ghettoization, and tokenism. According to Holder, companies claimed that the lack of representation of Black Women and other minorities in senior positions was due to the “organization’s difficult in finding diverse talent,” a notion refuted by her interviewees. Similarly, not integrating diversity into the company’s brand caused products or services targeted at minorities to have “second-class status…implying [they]weren’t as important as those targeted to white people.”
Holder found that Black employees’ roles were similar across organizations saying “Interestingly, the overwhelming majority of the participants in this study were in support functions, like operations, legal, and human resources…and not in what we would call ‘revenue-generating positions.'” She also found that companies often have “poster [children]for diversity,” i.e. a few minority employees who are showcased as the company’s commitment to diversity, even when their experiences do not reflect reality.
Stereotypes of Black Women
Holder discussed various microaggressions stemming from stereotypes including the assumption of intellectual inferiority; the perception of being too aggressive; and the “mammy” stereotype.”
Holder said, “Some of the participants referenced the word ‘articulate’ and described how it’s often used to express disbelief and surprise about [Black Women’s] ability to effectively communicate, ” They had to continually validate their expertise with coworkers and clients. She discussed how Black Women were seen as aggressive or intimidating when showing the same behaviors as white counterparts. Some participants brought up the “mammy” stereotype where Black Women are expected to act as nurturing advisers.
Assumed Universality of the Black Experience
Microaggressions in this category manifested as people treating participants as representatives of all Black Women. Several participants mentioned microaggressions where colleagues were surprised at their interests and activities because they were at odds with stereotypes.
Many participants brought up a sense of invisibility. Participants would not get the same level of eye contact, for instance, as their white and male counterparts. Some noted white or male colleagues repeating their ideas and taking credit.
Participants talked about not being invited to social activities and work events at the same frequency as their colleagues. For some, the fact of being excluded resulted in having to catch up in the middle of a project and appearing uninformed.
Religion and Spirituality
This coping strategy engendered feelings such as empowerment, protection, forgiveness, and feeling grounded.
Holder discussed having “pride in self, family, and culture” as critical coping strategies, as well having pride and confidence in oneself.
“In cognitive, physical, and linguistic ways, Black Women shift their body, speech, and attire to counter images of inferiority and stereotypes in the workplace,” says Holder. Some participants defined shifting as purposefully emphasizing commonalities and deemphasizing differences, or revealing only certain aspects of themselves to coworkers. Others said it is challenging stereotypes by “keeping colleagues guessing as to who she is as a person.”
It was important for participants to have trusted advisers who have been in similar situations and were able to provide guidance, help to avoid internalizing microaggressions, and provide resources that may be otherwise unavailable.
Sponsorship and Mentorship
Similarly, sponsors and mentors empowered women and “validat[ed]their feelings when they encountered racial microaggressions.” Holder talked about the idea of having “air cover,” i.e. colleagues who are not only supportive as direct mentors but will also advocate for minority employees’ success. Holder talked about one participant whose colleague said “You’re in the room for a reason” and told her that her voice is valid and necessary.
Self-care techniques like hobbies or spending time with family are important to decompress.
Holder concluded her lecture talking about the implications of her research for organizations, mental health professionals, and perpetrators of microaggressions. Organizations need to acknowledge that representation matters; incorporate diversity into strategic planning; train culturally competent leaders; have diverse candidates in every hiring pool; and create a clear zero tolerance policy for aggressions, micro- and otherwise. Mental health professionals need to acknowledge their own biases and prejudices; become culturally competent; and recognize and validate the unique experiences of people of color. Perpetrators of microaggressions need to acknowledge their white privilege and dispel the myth of meritocracy.
In the Q&A, Holder discussed how her research into Black Women’s experiences corporate America may be translatable for other minority groups and for other industries. She stressed the importance of continual discussion, assessment, and action around ensuring equity for all employees.