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Why I’ve decided to stop playing the ‘safe’ Black professional role in corporate America

August 28, 2020, 4:30 PM UTC
Working While Black-Katherine Thompson
Katherine Thompson is a Business Transformation and Organizational Change Management Expert at Grant Thornton LLP. Courtesy of Katherine Thompson
Courtesy of Katherine Thompson

At an early age, I learned to alter my Blackness through the art of code-switching. My mother was a lawyer and knew what it took to thrive and survive in a world not always equal or equitable. I took her generational lessons, culturally adapted, and evolved into what I call a “Black Corporate Chameleon.”

I grew up on Chicago’s South Side in Gresham. For better educational opportunities, my father drove me and my sister to a predominately White elementary school out of our neighborhood. At 8, I discovered the importance of adapting to my surroundings—from style of dress, to language used, to music listened to, to extracurricular activities. I was living between two worlds trying to keep the beat—Madonna and New Kids on the Block by day, and Salt-N-Pepa and Janet Jackson by night. I’d learn to apply these skills to all facets of life, especially as a Black professional

Read Fortune’s special report, “Working while Black: Stories from Black corporate America.”

Being a Black Corporate Chameleon has enabled me to work consistently alongside C-suite executives and high-level officials throughout my career. I’ve led and managed high-profile initiatives and projects domestically and abroad. However, now in my late thirties, I’m wondering if my lack of authenticity to my Blackness throughout my career has hurt more than helped me. While my ability to shield my Blackness has enabled me to fit in and work with corporate leaders, it’s come with a tradeoff. I’ve not been able to fully embrace my Black identity at work, and my employers have lost the opportunity to benefit from the diverse experiences and background I bring their organizations as a Black professional.

Forget that I graduated at the top of my undergrad class at Virginia Union University, a historically Black college and university (HBCU), that I have two advanced degrees from Johns Hopkins University, or that I’ve earned a wealth of experience in business transformation and organizational change management. My ability to build a demeanor that takes into consideration the negative stereotypes and biases I face as both a Black woman and professional has been just as important to my career. I can be assertive but not too aggressive, be strong yet not intimidating, be vocal but not too overbearing. For Black professionals who don’t strike this balance, colleague engagement, career advancement, and corporate alliances prove to be more challenging, because they may be labeled as individuals who are “hard to work with” or as “strong personalities.”

I’m educated, poised, articulate, and know how to blend into any corporate culture. I’m that sprinkle of Blackness that makes my White colleagues comfortable and leaders confident they’ve met their diversity quotas. From inappropriate jokes to racist comments and microaggressions at work—I’ve been taught to take the high road to ensure there’s no backlash or uncomfortable conversations. 

I work hard to be viewed as a valuable asset while looking for uncharted paths to climb the corporate ladder. I’m optimistic, but I realize that although extremely qualified, I’m not on leadership’s short list of employees to sponsor or position for corporate advancement. There are unspoken but understood molds these leaders envision running their companies, and those molds do not look like me. The only way to break these molds is for Black professionals like myself to focus more on bringing our strengths and authentic selves to combat unconscious biases and stereotypes that often exist among corporate leaders and their organizations. 

All of this, now layered in with the recent tragic events surrounding social unrest and racial inequality, has caused me to deeply reflect on the stances organizations are taking to improve their diversity and inclusion programs. I realize meaningful change starts with a united front from both corporate leaders and Black professionals like myself.  

Here are five principles I’m following in order to stop being the Black Corporate Chameleon and enact real change in Corporate America. 

Be intentional

It’s easy to rest when you finally earn the promotion to VP or partner; however, the journey has to continue. We must find ways to bridge diversity gaps. I plan on driving change by building solutions to enhance hiring strategies. I’ve observed organizations consistently hiring college graduates from the same educational institutions, which limits the talent pool. Hiring for diversity should be intentional (e.g., targeted recruiting at HBCUs). Additionally, I’ll be dedicating time to revamping coaching/mentoring programs to better align experienced employees of color with corporate leaders to enhance growth opportunities. 

Make it uncomfortable with accountability

Change comes when people start feeling uncomfortable. Quick-fix solutions to address hundreds of years of racial inequality will not make change sustainable. From corporate funding being pulled from Facebook, to listening sessions, to social media postings about racial equality, it’s suddenly hip and cool to be perceived as an organization down for the cause. I’m using my voice to speak about uncomfortable issues, and challenging leaders on diversity action plans. True transformation happens through collaboration, education, understanding, and acceptance. From there, we can address the systemic racial issues embedded in the fabric of many corporate cultures.

Be honest

It’s been challenging to work with an elephant in the room. Topics around race and how they are affecting Black professionals get buried as COVID-19 takes the limelight. My feelings of anger and sadness have been suppressed as I put on my game-day face like it is business as usual. Moving forward, I’ll carve out a safe space to address issues impacting Black professionals in an effort to build and cultivate a culture of awareness, understanding, and growth.

Educate and build awareness

Conversations with emphatic allies who want to learn, understand, and evolve will go beyond diversity and inclusion and center racial equity. I recently educated and built awareness with senior leaders at my company regarding HBCUs and corporate partnerships. I was able to share the value of these institutions and set the tone for future conversations.

Embrace authenticity

Code-switching, though necessary for survival for many Black professionals, threatens true diversity. When you alter your Blackness or identity to make others feel comfortable, it does everyone a disservice. Organizations need professionals like me to be authentic and change the narrative by breaking down perceptions, sharing and owning who we are, our stories, our experiences. We bring diversity of thought that can further enrich the organizations in which we work. Own who you are and challenge the organizations you work for to do the same. 

Katherine Thompson is a business transformation and organizational change management expert at Grant Thornton LLP.
The views in this article are that of the author. They are not reflective of the views of any employers.