In 1997, I was one of the early entrants into South Africa’s new democratic workplace. South Africa was a fledgling democracy, and for the first time in our history, we all had equal opportunity to participate in corporate South Africa. I was a young, fresh-faced commerce graduate, eager to contribute and develop my skill set.
As a woman of color, I am often the “only” in the room, and in those early days in South Africa, seeing people who looked like me was even more uncommon. Straight into the door, I started to notice that I was quickly becoming the de facto person to ask about all things diversity-related. From casual inquiries about how to pronounce specific names to more pointed questions about how to make the workplace more accommodating to people of color, I was the go-to person.
A few weeks into the job, my boss excitedly approached me with an enthusiastic grin.
“We have a great opportunity for you! We are forming a Diversity Committee, and we need someone like you.”
I was immediately filled with trepidation. I was a commerce graduate looking to build my skills in a particular area of expertise. I was not a diversity and inclusion practitioner. It was a massive ask of me. But the fear of saying no loomed over me.
He was, after all, positioning this as a great opportunity. Would I be seen as unhelpful if I said no? As a woman of color, I was already becoming aware of how vulnerable I was and of the bias in systems that worked against me. So, the genuine fear of saying no, and being indirectly penalized for doing so, loomed over me.
I reluctantly joined a group of seven “volunteers” who were all either Black or people of color. The burden of being on the committee was huge. In addition to carrying out our day jobs, we were now expected to carry an additional responsibility with no upside other than vague hope that our efforts would somehow result in a better workplace for us.
As a marginalized group member, I was aware that in the ordinary course, our performance would be judged more harshly than dominant groups and that we would have to work harder to prove that we belonged. So, the system was already stacked up against us, and now we were being asked to take on more responsibility in addition to the weight of what we already had to achieve.
I was the only South African Indian person on the committee, and the stress of having to speak on behalf of my entire community constantly weighed on me. Even though I was of Indian descent, this fact hardly qualified me as the authority on everything related to my community. What if I said the wrong thing or offered advice that was not representative of my community? Would my entire community be judged on what I would say?
As we worked through some of the issues in our organization, often late at night or over weekends, it was apparent that the problems were systemic and structural and required a more serious look into policies, leadership, and culture across the organization.
But we were very aware of our vulnerable positions and of our limited authority. We were being asked to speak up on issues we ourselves were subjected to and speak out to senior members of the dominant groups without a sense of psychological safety in place. If we pointed out these systemic issues, the genuine fear of backlash loomed over us. We were placed in an impossible double bind. Every month we would all meet over a weekend and cautiously craft out a presentation that attempted to get our views across in the most diplomatic manner without risking being penalized in some way. Our management would decide what they wanted to take on board or not. They would seek our counsel on matters that were of interest to them and ultimately held all the power to decide what, if anything, they chose to do with our advice.
Not only did we feel that we could not enact meaningful changes, but our careers were also none the better for it. Personally, the burden of the added long hours that distracted me from my day job set me back comparatively to my peers. It was a lose-lose situation.
Unfortunately, this was not the last time that I found myself in a similar situation, nor was it limited to workplaces. Over the years, I have found myself in similar positions at schools and in social circles.
As I became more actively involved in diversity and inclusion work, eventually starting my own diversity and inclusion practice, this behavior intensified. When the Black Lives Matter movement garnered global attention to the ongoing injustices perpetrated against Black people, I began receiving calls from my networks around the world asking me to speak at company webinars, join a committee, or provide quick advice on various D&I matters with no offer of compensation for my labor.
Black, Indigenous and other people of color are not your free diversity resources. There appears to be an unspoken consensus that we need to help educate others on tolerance, diversity, cultural practices, and much more simply because the spread of this knowledge will somehow help us and our quality of life in relation to others. We are, in effect, being asked to perform the labor to help ourselves, thereby absolving dominant groups from doing the work to unravel bias and prejudice, which, in many cases, they are responsible for perpetuating.
We are not your parents, teachers or Google. It is not fair to expect us to carry the responsibility for solving problems that are more significant systemic issues.
Because someone is a BIPOC employee does not automatically mean they have the authority to speak on behalf of their entire community, nor can it be assumed that they are interested in doing so.
If workplaces are committed to equality, they must invest and reward appropriately.
Professional services firms and established D&I practitioners in the market can offer proven tools and methodologies to interrogate your culture, systems and leadership. If you are hiring diversity and inclusion employees into your organization, give them the authority and latitude to make decisions, support them and compensate them appropriately.
Diversity and inclusion are strategic business priorities. It is not a charitable effort; diverse, inclusive environments benefit everyone and drive business performance. If companies are committed to rewarding and investing in measures that aid their business growth, then diversity and inclusion should be no exception.
The voices and lived experiences of BIPOC employees are essential and should be valued in D&I work. If employees choose to be a part of your D&I efforts, then show that you value them by rewarding them appropriately. This does not have to be limited to financial rewards. Companies can offer mentorship, career advancement opportunities, coaching, access to networks, and formal performance evaluation acknowledgment. These measures send a signal that you value the added labor they are taking on for helping you solve for issues that are important to your business
Employers, if you are truly committed to equality, then do the work and let us get on with ours.