One day, while working out of a coworking space in east Harlem, a neighborhood still being gentrified—some blocks having affordable housing and luxury apartments directly across from each other—I started to hear the bounce of a basketball. The space, which had floor to ceiling glass windows, offered excellent sunlight, but little buffer from outside noise. The bounce snapped me out of my work daze. I looked at my clock and thought to myself, school must have just gotten out.
Meanwhile, the owner of the space, seemed alarmed. I watched her walk to the window and make a face, almost as if to serve up a warning. She continued to stand there and wait, until the young black boys who were happily bouncing their ball, nowhere near the window, looked back at her and started to move away, as if they were heeding to her warning.
Almost instantly, I became frustrated at how black children are so rarely afforded the opportunity to be carefree. I suppose that frustration came directly from my own inner child, who had too often been told to stop being a distraction when I thought I was expressing my creativity, or who had been shush-ed, when I wanted to share a brilliant idea, or who had been told to take up less space when I wanted to flex or to be more noticeable, when I felt deserving of attention. Without knowing it, I was being humbled.
On the flip side, both as an adult and a child, I had a bank of memories of watching white children be encouraged to do all the things I was told I couldn’t. I watched them be encouraged to be loud in public spaces. I often saw them taking up their space, and frequently taking up my (or another stranger’s) space too, and not being scolded for it. While I was being humbled, they were learning to be entitled.
Apart from the impact on one’s self-esteem and sense of worthiness, this gap plays out in other ways, such as racial disparities in how discipline is delivered. It goes on to impact behavior in the workplace as well.
If you didn’t grow up experiencing what I and many other black children have, imagine you have been told either directly or indirectly for the majority of your life that your voice matters less, that you’re not as smart, not as deserving, not as capable. Imagine that was the assumption made about you every time you entered a room, sat down for a job interview, or asked for a raise. Well, that is the case for most women, LGBT individuals, and people of color. And inevitably, when the world has repeatedly doubted you and your abilities, you are likely to start doubting yourself. That plays out in a career over time. You speak up less, if at all, in meetings. You say, “I’m not ready for that” when big opportunities come your way. You discount your worth in salary negotiations. When you receive awards or are complimented for your professional achievements, you say you are humbled, and fail to recognize how worthy you are.
So how do businesses address this? By redefining executive presence. By creating systems that encourage the full participation of everyone, noting that some people grew praised for interrupting and others of us were socialized to not be a disturbance. By reevaluating compensation structures that promote race and gender inequity. By giving diverse talent stretch assignments. By offering professional development to even the team members that are not the rising stars.
And how do we address this for other black people, people of color, women, and LGBT professionals? By telling each other how deserving, how worthy and how talented we are. By celebrating our accomplishments and sharing those accomplishments with others. By advocating loudly and shamelessly for our needs and interests. By encouraging each other to speak up, to take up space and be as noticeable as possible. By releasing the idea that we have to be humble, and instead, becoming a lot more entitled.