Working While Black: Stories from black corporate America
After George Floyd’s death at the hands of a white police officer in May, protests against systemic racism have geared up again across the country, prompting companies to speak out in support of racial justice. They’re sharing lengthy statements declaring “black lives matter” to staff and the public, pledging millions to social justice organizations, and marking Juneteenth as a company holiday. Leaders are apologizing and resigning over problematic company culture.
But systemic racism within the workplace won’t be resolved in one news cycle. Over half of black employees have felt racism at work, one study shows. Only 3.2% of executives and senior manager–level employees are black, and only five Fortune 500 CEOs are. Black men are paid 13% less than white men; black women are paid 39% less than white men and 21% less than white women, according to another study. They ask for promotions and raises at about the same rate as white women, but get worse results.
Fortune put a call out for black employees to share their experiences in the workplace. We received responses from executives, middle managers, and entry-level staffers; we heard from people working in tech, finance, media and entertainment, insurance, nonprofits, fashion, health, and more. Altogether, they reveal the humanity behind the numbers. And they reveal that no matter what companies are saying right now, there is much work to be done.
We’re not done documenting experiences. If you have an anecdote to share, please submit your thoughts here. For more stories, subscribe to raceAhead, our newsletter on race in corporate America.
The responses have been lightly edited. We’ve published only first names to respect the privacy of the contributors.
A seat at the table
For many years, I’ve worked in corporate America. As I slowly moved up the corporate ladder, I began to notice there were fewer black employees until I was the only one. I live in a major city with one of the largest percentages of African-American college graduates, so the talent pool is there. I watched as the CEO of our company systematically forced out women and African-Americans in leadership. Eventually, I myself resigned because I learned I was being paid less than half of what my white colleagues earned. When I confronted HR and my manager about it, they blatantly lied to me. —Bryan, 51
I’m a nonprofit executive. The issues of bias and racism are as pervasive here as in the corporate world. The top of nonprofits is predominantly white and male, as it is within the private sector and government; most worker bees are women (of color). We need to hold the mirror up to ourselves in this sector and start adopting the same actions we call on the private sector and government to take by doing the work to make inclusivity visible at the decision and leadership levels. —Sanaa, 39
There’s a major difference between diversity and inclusiveness. We want to not only be in the room, not only be at the table, but also contribute to the decision-making process. Especially black women! We have a unique ability of turning the impossible to possible. Taking what others see as useless and finding purpose. It’s a by-product of simply being a black woman in this world, and something that should be recognized and celebrated. —Rachael, 36
The only one in the room
I want you to know how it feels to be the only one that looks like you in a conference room, in a meeting, at a networking event or happy hour. I want you to know what it feels like to constantly have to assimilate and ingratiate yourself in to another group’s culture and way of doing things even though you’re citizens of the same country. I want you to know what it feels like to not be able to stand up for yourself or correct someone’s assumption about you or your culture or community for fear of losing your job. I want you to know what it’s like to be effective in your role and have the same or more credentials as your peers, but be passed over for promotions because you’re “too serious” or because there’s a lack of connection. I want you to know what it feels like to desire to move up the ladder and see there are no other examples like you that you can follow. I want you to know what it feels like to see investments made, grace extended, sponsorship provided, risks taken, and opportunities given to and for others but not you. I want you to know the pressure that comes with trying to be perfect and represent your race well because if you make a mistake, the odds of you being given another opportunity are slim. I want you to know what it feels like to live, work, and raise your children in a world where you don’t have the complexion for the connection or the protection. —Dee, 49
In my professional life, my race always feels like an exercise in others’ conveniences. I am white enough that people are comfortable with me, as long as I don’t call too much attention to my blackness. I am seen as black when they need me to shed insight and speak to the “black experience”—as if my voice could possibly explain all thoughts and opinions on what an entire race of individuals and business owners want or need. While in the work setting, I am actively aware and reminded that I do not have the privilege of fitting in just by sheer existence. —Kelli, 42
Diversity and inclusivity in the workplace doesn’t mean having a set quota and feeling satisfied at the bare minimum because you have two people of color in your office of 50-plus employees. In fact, it feels insulting when you’re hired by a company that repeatedly shouts diversity but only one other person in the office actually looks like you. It becomes alienating as there’s a constant reminder that we are not equal. I have to work harder than my white counterparts just to get equal respect all while suppressing my big personality in order to dispel the “angry black woman” stereotype or not be called “sassy.” If you want to create a truly diverse and inclusive workspace, you have to stop thinking that a splash of color here and there is the best you can do. —Azizza, 30
Actively recruit, hire, and promote black people, particularly into leadership positions. Hold annual, high-quality diversity and inclusion training on-site through a reputable third-party vendor. Actively hold job fairs and recruit talent from metro areas with significant black populations. Actively visit and hold job fairs and recruit talent from HBCUs. Hold special events on-site during Black History Month; invite professional speakers. —Martin, 52
People are simply not doing enough of the critical self work to unpack their biases (nonblack people of color included), so it makes it soul crushing to attempt to be friendly, beyond the fact that I have rarely seen coworkers care to befriend or mentor people who don’t look like them. People can acknowledge that I do good work, but if they don’t want to “grab beers” with me, it’s incredibly limiting for my progress, not to mention how that translates when it’s time for promotions and raises. It also makes me especially paranoid about who I can trust, because I am unsure of who might exploit my labor. The best allies I’ve met have stuck their necks out for me, helped me climb, and gave me rare opportunities, mentoring and sponsoring my growth (and paycheck). —Kimani, 22
When policies regarding hair and clothing were relaxed, we were finally able to be ourselves at work. This led to compliments and conversations. We don’t all fit one mold; allowing expression allowed our culture to shine. —Arelle, 30
I have held executive positions at various blue-chip companies. I have hidden my black culture all my life because I thought it was the “corporate” thing to do. The stress of being a black man in corporate America means we can’t have the full range of emotions. We can only be happy—never angry. No mentors, so we just have to figure it out. And by the time that we do, the great opportunities have passed us by, as we weren’t part of “the network.” —Bernard, 57
Walking the walk
I’d like the white folks at my office to know: We see you. We see through all the insincere words that are never followed by action. We see that you talk the talk of “diversity and inclusion,” but we know that you don’t walk the walk. You allow inexperienced white girls and guys to “try” new positions and advance in their careers because you intrinsically trust them to fail forward. We see that you pay the black people less than the white people for same work.
I’d like the white folks in leadership to know that if you are going to have employee resource groups, have some funding for them. Stop lumping all the nonwhite people into one group—the multicultural group. Stop the BS about how “diversity is not about having different-color faces around a table, but about diversity of thought.”
Stop trying to convince us that you are inclusive and just be inclusive. That would require you all to acknowledge your privilege and acknowledge the actions you’ve deliberately taken to elevate your white counterparts for no other reason than that they look like you. Ask yourselves, what is it about black people that makes you so uncomfortable? Ask yourselves, why do you go out of your way to hold black people back—by paying them less than their white counterparts, by not promoting them? Ask yourselves, if all the black people at your company decided to never come to work again, how would that affect your bottom line?
Do the work to unlearn the ways that are currently ingrained into the fabric of who you are. Read books. Learn from those that are doing the anti-bias work. Stop asking black people how you can be not racist or antiblack; that’s your job to figure out. —Adrienne, 50
Make everyone accountable for their words and actions in the workplace. Inclusion is every employee’s responsibility. I overheard a racist conversation and was offended by what was said. First response of HR: “I’m sure they didn’t mean any harm.” Really? Were you there? Did you actually hear what was said? Stop protecting people and hold them accountable. —Charlene, 37
Support black faculty when we call out biases in hiring, admissions, retention and promotion policies, rather than deferring to “faculty governance.” Formally acknowledge the hidden work that black faculty perform to care for our students. Actually live up to the inclusion values that you espouse. —Lynette, 55
Senior leadership can be the worst perpetrators of discrimination and will be protected by HR. I’ve had a VP be vocal about diversity on stages worldwide, yet be reported to HR for their dislike of black women. When this was reported to HR by someone on the VP’s team, the reporting member was removed to another part of the organization. This same leader had a friend in need of a job. I was told that this friend (a white woman with no experience in the field) would be reporting to me and that I couldn’t complain to HR or I would be blackballed by the VP. —Sacha, 40
I work within an environment where they say all the right things as it relates to diversity and inclusion; heck, I work in D&I. But I have been privy to conversations around hiring diverse talent that would make your skin crawl. It’s obvious that not everyone in my organization believes in diversity and inclusion and the role they play. We struggle with having diversity at all levels, and they are walking out the door just as fast as we are able to hire. I have doubted my own abilities to be able to move up as I continue to face bias during performance reviews and promotion opportunities.
Now my white colleagues are showing an interest in understanding their black colleagues because it’s been a directive from our senior leader. I’m finding the newfound attention a little insincere. —Tamara, 46
For companies to be authentic allies and support diversity and inclusion for black professionals, a thoughtful approach to instilling change is needed. More investments need to be made towards racial equality instead of knee-jerk reactions like “kumbaya” listening sessions. It’s a step in the right direction, but what’s next? Companies need to be accountable by committing to diversity hiring at all levels, talent development, and building action plans to eliminate systemic racism built into corporate cultures and leadership. —Katherine, 39
Don’t touch my hair
With the microaggressions and microinequities in the workplace, I feel strangled and die a little bit every single day. I cannot bring my whole self to work when I have to cover up the skin that I’m born with to fit in. —JP, 40
Don’t put your hands in my hair. Stop using excuses such as “convenience” for the fact that you only represent white children in your publications for children. Stop mixing us up—just because my colleagues and I are black does not mean we look alike. It’s hard to feel hopeful for a promotion, even with the right diploma and experience, because I literally do not see women who look like me in higher positions. If you’re going to accept and give an equal chance to black women, please make sure it’s not just the ones who conform to your standard when it comes to physical appearance—I shouldn’t have to look like a model for you to respect me like you respect my white counterparts who certainly do not look like one, and most importantly, to give me the same chances as them. —Marion, 25
A senior white male leader expressed his allyship after George Floyd’s death. The irony is he previously made a joke about my being able to afford my luxury vehicle because I must be “moving kilos.” That undertone that black people must be engaged in illegal activities to have nice things is the same way of thinking that lead to George Floyd’s and countless other murders by police. —Monica, 37
I have been subjected to years of microaggressions and even racist comments. My first manager said that I was too direct, aggressive, and just scary. Another colleague said that I looked like a gorilla because of a jacket. Sadly, these statements were made by colleagues who believe themselves to be allies of black employees. How can you accomplish real change in diversity and inclusion when even the “allies” for D&I hold prejudiced views? —Charlotte, 37
The Amy Coopers everywhere
There are Amy Coopers everywhere, in male and female form. The passive-aggressive critiques, the whispers about “tonal” and “emotional” black women and men. The outward liberalism but actual fear and perceived threat of black professionals. They wield their power to stop growth, advancement, and exposure of black talent. It feels like combat each day to do the dance while their bias goes unchecked. —Christina, 34
I have several stories, but will share the one that almost took my entire life away from the rest of the world. I was accused of stealing a check from another manager. She later found the check. Corporate office fired me without investigating. I took action and sued them. If I was wiser, like I am now, I would have not settled out of court and would have publicly spoken on the way I was treated. —Maggy, 50
Ask how I am
I work in the IT field, which is dominated by white men. As a black woman, it is exhausting to work alongside colleagues who are so blind to the toxic world they create for anyone nonwhite. They create a venomous environment where a black person is always required to interview for their job due to microaggressions. You are so alone with no one to trust, watching every open senior-level position be filled with less-than-qualified white men or women. The needle is always moving for black employees.
I watch as my white colleagues move with fluidity within the organization with zero concerns about fitting in or being accepted. A black man was murdered by police and my white peers just move through life like absolutely nothing happened. Meanwhile, I’m fighting back tears to push through meetings. They are more hurt and pained by broken glass and a few scratches to a building than by a man’s life. Meanwhile, I’m sickened by all the continuous injustices and inequalities that we face everyday. The pain is in my throat, and I breathe slowly to try and say my words without anger and rage. I constantly walk on eggshells; I don’t want to be labeled as the “angry black woman.” I desperately want just a small fraction of empathy and compassion from my white peers. Instead, they ask me about a project status. My quietness is viewed as a lack of engagement. When I don’t laugh at the dry jokes, I’m viewed as being aloof. This insidious culture is never blatant with its racism but extremely methodical in letting you know that your life, education, and experience does not matter and will never be enough. It’s death by a billion paper cuts. —Qwen, 42
We took a harder journey to get to this desk, office, lab, stadium, post. I’m a mother, father, sister, brother. I am intelligent, kind, and resilient. I am human. Respect our journey. Help don’t hinder. Be an ally. —Tarshia, 52