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Dealing with Racism at Work

I recently was invited to share my experiences with racism in the professional realm as a panelist at Penn State Dickinson School of Law. Beyond reminiscing about our wounds, I and the other panelists were asked to make recommendations for how young lawyers of color can navigate the profession. Because my advice to the law students likely applies to other students and young professionals, I am sharing it below. The thoughts below reflect my personal opinions and not the opinion of Liberian Awards, Inc. or any other organization, with which I am affiliated.

My advise to students and young professionals of color is to prepare for racism, understand your limitations, give others the benefit of the doubt, beware of insecure people, and treasure those who correct you. 

  1. Prepare for Racism. Chances are you will deal with several racist remarks, micro-aggression, and prejudices in your career and life. Make a plan for how you’ll handle them and don’t deviate from that plan—no matter what! Think of it as a game; they win, if you lose it.<br>
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  3. Understand Your Limitations. If you are new to a work environment and have not yet made a name for yourself, or shown a significant return on your employer’s investment (in hiring you), prioritize your success over the desire to educate others on the errors of ways. Success will likely give you a seat at the table to make institutional changes that correct the errors of their ways. Think institutional difference over individual difference. <br>
  4. Give Others the Benefit of the Doubt. It hurts to be accused of something you didn’t do (like stealing a car that is a different color than the one you’re driving) or to be accused of being someone that you genuinely are not (like a car thief). Don’t be that person who uses the “r” word so liberally that no one hears when you cry wolf and really mean it. Also accept that people do just have bad days, do eventually become aware of their bias, or do just continue to live out their racist perspectives. Resist the temptation of allowing their bad days to become yours.<br>
  5. Beware of Insecure People. The most “dangerous” people I’ve encountered in corporate America were insecure people. Beware of them, even if they look like you. These are the people who don’t believe there’s enough sun to shine on anyone but them—the ones who know it all, are never wrong, and will take credit for your ideas because they aren’t smart enough or can’t handle someone else getting the credit. Whatever you do, don’t become them—give others some space in the sun, admit when you’re wrong, and know you don’t know it all. <br>
  6. Treasure Those Who Correct You. In the legal profession, honest feedback can be scarce. After all, it takes more energy to let a young attorney know what she’s doing wrong than to let her “figure it out.” The few kind souls who invest in you by educating you, instead of watching you fail as you figure it out, should be treasured. Value them enough to listen to them, thank them, and apply what they teach you. You may only get one chance to excuse or defend your mistake before they leave you out to dry and talk about you with those who quietly smile to your face but publicly laugh at your demise.

Be encouraged!
Samantha Divine Jallah, Esq