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Diversity Dialogue

Removing the Mask: Wearing Our True Identities Builds an Inclusive Culture

A few months ago, I spoke on a panel to a group of diverse students about what to expect after graduation. After a fairly intense hour where we talked about diversity in the workplace, one of the students held up her hand. In a very frustrated tone, she asked, “How much longer do I need to do this?” The panelists and I looked at each other in confusion. “Do what?” I asked. “Wear a mask in the workplace. Pretend to be someone I’m not. I want to be me. Why can’t I do that?”

When I tell people why I started my new diversity consulting firm, I tell them about that conversation. Because that conversation is the heart of what we need to do to move forward on diversity and inclusion in the workplace.

Many employees, particularly minority and women employees, come to work wearing a “mask” to hide their authentic selves in an effort to belong. They don’t talk about their children. They don’t talk about their ethnic identities. They don’t talk about their same sex partners. They don’t talk about their disabilities. They don’t talk about their authentic selves. They silence their identities in the workplace, until the only image that others see of them is one of assimilation, of sameness, of masking — one that they work very hard to project. It’s what I call the “Kevin from Yale” dilemma.

KEVIN FROM YALE DILEMMA

Who’s Kevin from Yale? I once had a conversation with a white friend who said, “I’d rather be black in this country than white.” My mouth dropped open. “Listen, listen,” he explained in a hurry while I struggled to figure out where to start. “No, no, no. I want to be him.” And that him is “Kevin from Yale.”

Kevin from Yale is the reason many still believe we live in a post-racial society, because if Kevin from Yale made it, everyone can. Kevin from Yale is the successful black man who is valedictorian. Class president. Graduated first in his class. Now he’s company vice president. He gets along with everyone. He doesn’t have any of those old hang-ups about race. He can hang with anyone. It’s so easy for Kevin from Yale.

Kevin from Yale is probably a very nice guy. But do you know what he feels like when he walks into an office where he’s the only black person there? Do you know what he feels like when he walks into a meeting and knows that he has to represent every black male professional out there, because it may be that no one else in that room will meet one? Kevin from Yale is everyone’s one black friend. Do you know the psychological toll it takes on Kevin from Yale, to be Kevin from Yale? To have been Kevin from Yale his entire professional life, and to have never been anything else except Kevin from Yale? Because to wobble for even a second on that tight rope he is walking on is to have someone turn to him and think, explicitly or implicitly, “Oh, I guess he’s just like the rest of them.”

We need to actively create environments where people can be their authentic selves … Honesty. Truth. Authenticity. What do you get in return? Engagement. Belonging. Loyalty. Joy. Success.

CREATE A CULTURE OF AUTHENTICITY

How do we change that? How do we turn our workplace cultures into ones that welcome authenticity and a sense of shared belonging? We need to actively create environments where people can be their authentic selves, where they can talk about being a parent, or Latina, or gay, or any crucial identity that they have, and they won’t feel like they’re excluded or judged.

How to do that? Start at the top. If you’re a leader, open up about your life outside the organization. Set a culture of authenticity for your teams. Explain that authenticity matters during recruiting and on-boarding. Encourage upstanding, where if someone sees something problematic, they are empowered to stand up and speak up about it. Recognize people for their accomplishments, host town halls and listening sessions, and most of all, make sure everyone is given space to share their stories — both the stories that are the majority narrative, and the ones that aren’t.

For example, I grew up playing travel hockey in the Chicago suburbs. I grew up going to Indian weddings every single weekend of my life. I grew up with seven siblings and a single mom in a one-bedroom apartment. I got married to my college sweetheart, too, but had to wait until the Supreme Court legalized same sex marriage. I have three kids and it’s really hard when I miss their school activities. I pray five times a day and I do that in the room right over there.

Honesty. Truth. Authenticity. What do you get in return? Engagement. Belonging. Loyalty. Joy. Success. That’s the inclusive workplace I want to see. Where every Kevin from Yale can finally feel like they belong.

About the Author

Michelle Silverthorn is the Founder and Chief Executive Officer of Inclusion Nation, a diversity consulting firm that partners with forward-thinking organizations to design authentic, inclusive workplaces built for success. A graduate of Princeton University and the University of Michigan Law School, she lives in Chicago with her husband and two daughters.

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