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Colleague or Colonizer? Using DEI to Shift Workplace Relationships

Updated: May 16

Many truths came from the Drake/Kendrick Lamar beef, but the one I’ve been sitting with the most over the last week came from Kendrick’s hit “Not Like Us.” The bar “you not a colleague, you a [redacted] colonizer” has been on a loop in my head as I reflect on my work as a DEI practitioner and my own workplace experiences. 

Relationships are at the core of our life experiences. DEI work within organizations also boils down to relationships and how our social and cultural experiences shape how we interact with colleagues across all levels of an organization. 

Anti-Black racism is learned behavior that stems from the belief that Black people are inferior, dangerous, and unintelligent. Many White folks learn, be it directly or indirectly, to relate to Black people only through a position of power and superiority. Those dynamics are magnified in the workplace where hierarchies and power imbalances, more often than not, tip in favor of White folks. 

The systemic changes that DEI calls for are only possible when individual actors within that system also commit to the interpersonal work of unlearning their anti-Black racism. When combined, those internal and systemic changes can shift culture. 

How Does Anti-Blackness and Racism Show Up in Working Relationships? 

The difference between a colleague and a colonizer lies in how the person with less organizational and societal power in the working relationship experiences the dynamic. 

Have you had employees who have reported feeling: 

  • Micromanaged, either by their direct supervisor or other coworkers? 

  • Belittled, or do their contributions and voice at the organization not matter? 

  • Judged and misunderstood, as if their every action and general being is under a microscope? 

If you said yes to any of the above, there’s likely some level of anti-Blackness and racial aggression at hand. Acknowledging it, whether in yourself or other employees, is not an indictment but instead an opportunity to take seriously how learned patterns of behavior can be unlearned and retaught to build more fruitful and equitable working relationships. This is a crucial step in breaking the patterns that eventually spiral into organizations becoming full-blown toxic and harmful for Black and Brown folks. 

The proliferation of anti-Blackness does not protect Black managers from racism and discrimination from their subordinates. Often, the societal power of whiteness supersedes the organizational power. Black managers frequently encounter:

  • Excessive Questioning—These questions, laden with doubt and skepticism, undermine the expertise and authority of Black managers, forcing them to justify their decisions constantly.

  • Undermining Authority - Often, Black managers are openly challenged or have their instructions disregarded, constantly having their boundaries tested in ways they wouldn't with non-Black leaders. This persistent undermining is a direct assault on their professional standing.

  • Hyper-Scrutiny and Micromanagement—Every move a Black manager makes is scrutinized. They face disproportionate scrutiny compared to their peers, with their mistakes magnified and successes minimized. This intense micromanagement creates a hostile and unsustainable working environment.

  • Isolating Tactics - Black managers can find themselves socially and professionally isolated, excluded from informal networks and conversations crucial for leadership and influence. This isolation impedes their ability to navigate and thrive within the organization.

The systemic racism that permeates society doesn't stop at the office door. It infiltrates our workplaces, where the societal power dynamics of whiteness often overshadow organizational hierarchies, leaving Black managers to navigate a minefield of racism and bias.

So what can you do?

Take an Audit of Your Company Culture and the Current State of the Working Relationships Being Built Within the Organization

By gathering qualitative and quantitative data through surveys and interviews, you can gather direct evidence and a clearer picture of where to begin repairing and rebuilding the working relationships within your team. 

Often, leadership can ignore interpersonal matters, dismissing them as petty disputes and encouraging everyone to ‘just get along.’ A DEI strategy encourages us to see the workplace's inherent power imbalances and lack of cultural awareness. Is there a manager-supervisee relationship that needs support? Reevaluate it from a perspective that centers on equity and acknowledges the ways that anti-Blackness and racism inform how leaders conduct their work. 

Consider Offering Professional Development Opportunities Beyond Those That Build Hard Skills

Once you’ve conducted your thorough audit, it’s time to take action and set the stage for your team to build relationships that challenge racial hierarchies. Professional development opportunities can be an integral way for leaders to create awareness of their own anti-Black and racist patterns, take ownership of them, and make the necessary steps to change. 

Working with a firm like ShiftEd Consulting can get you moving in the right direction with a strategic and customized DEI plan. Cultivating resources and interventions that address racial aggressions and anti-Blackness in working relationships gives leaders across all levels of an organization an opportunity to honestly reflect on their behavior and give marginalized people the tools to understand their experiences and feel empowered. 

Ready to begin your journey? Schedule a consultation today! 

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