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.”