Over the past few weeks, several colleagues and I have been reflecting upon our experiences of workplace microaggressions [1] and of discrimination in public engagement processes. Sometimes we get stuck in the undertow of the ongoing and recent waves of anti-Asian violence and racism in our communities, only to be pulled out by our own humour and laughter.  As women of colour forming a community of practice, we have engaged in deeper discussions about the impact of workplace emotional tax [2] and the toll it takes on our roles as leaders and planners.

Our conversations have borne some complex questions, including:

  • When institutions spend money and effort on cultural competency training geared for a predominantly white workforce, why is it not matched by a similar, if not larger, financial investment in executive professional development for Black women and other equity-deserving groups?
  • How can employers, institutions, and organizations be convinced to invest in and cultivate intersectionality in leadership [3]?

While we discussed developing solutions, it was painfully apparent that our questions highlighted problems with the “possessive investment in whiteness” by institutional frameworks and societal systems that dampen attempts to cultivate intersectionality in the workplace and in leadership roles. In his book, The Possessive Investment in Whiteness: How White People Profit from Identity Politics, Dr. George Lipsitz (1998, vii) shows how both “public policy and private prejudice have created a ‘possessive investment in whiteness’ that is responsible for the racial hierarchies of our society.” Lipsitz uses the term both literally and figuratively. Whiteness is also monetized through different systems like housing and education. In turn, it is “a social fact, an identity created and continued with all-too-real consequences for the distribution of wealth, prestige, and opportunity.” One of the things for us to unpack further in our discussions, is how white supremacy perpetuates racial hierarchies, and how this can also create, if not reify, tensions within and among BIPOC communities.

As my colleagues and I mentor young equity-deserving professionals and students and share with them our experiences, struggles and accomplishments as planners, leaders, and change agents, it is imperative to be realistic with them about the challenges they will face in the workplace. At the same time, we will continue to encourage and support them to innovate ways to navigate through these challenges and to help foster ways to eliminate them, including through our collective leadership. We deserve equity, inclusion, and justice, to belong and to thrive.

Notes:

[1] Dr. Chester Middlebrook Pierce coined the term microaggression in the 1970s to describe the subtle insults and put downs that African Americans experienced daily; the word stands today. Microaggressions typically reflect microinsults, microassaults, and microinvalidations. Regardless of a person’s high level of resilience and self esteem, repeated microaggressions over time can whittle away at that person’s feelings of belonging, even as they resist, and even worse, can work to systemically invalidate the individual or whole group’s experience.
[2] As noted in the 2018 Catalyst report “Day-to-day experiences of emotional tax among women and men of color in the workplace,” co-authors Dr. Dnika J. Travis and Dr. Jennifer Thorpe-Moscon describe how discrimination and bias can be experienced daily by Asian, Black, Latinx and multiracial employees, both inside and outside of the workplace and how the combination of these experiences can “impose an Emotional Tax with heavy personal consequences” and “can also harm businesses by preventing employees from being able to thrive at work.” (p.2)
[3] Legal scholar and feminist Dr. Kimberlé Crenshaw presents ‘intersectionality’ as a framework for how race and gender, and thereby racism and sexism, intersect and collectively affect Black women, creating inequities and power differentials that ostracize them. Intersectionality in leadership draws from an epistemology that recognizes “how social identities (such as gender, race, ethnicity, social class, religion, sexual orientation, and gender identity) overlap with one another and with systems of power that oppress and advantage people in the workplace and broader community” (see “Why intersectionality matters even more in 2020” on catalyst.org). Intersectionality serves us to question dominant practices and policies that otherwise justify, support, and rationalize the interests of those in power.

Sources:

Crenshaw, Kimberlé. 1991. Mapping the margins: Intersectionality, identity politics and violence against women of color. Stanford Law Review, 43(6), 1241-1299.

Lipsitz, George. 1998. The Possessive Investment in Whiteness: How White People Profit from Identity Politics. Philadelphia: Temple University Press.

Nash, Angel Miles and Peters, April L. 2020. For ‘us’: Towards an intersectional leadership conceptualization by Black women for Black girls. Journal of Educational Administration and History. Vol. 52, no. 3, pp. 270-282.

Roberts, Laura Morgan; Mayo, Anthony J., and Thomas, David A. (Eds). 2019. Race Work and Leadership: New Perspectives on the Black Experience. Boston: Harvard Business Review.

Artwork by Leela Viswanathan

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