This month, I have been spending time thinking about the shift in my clients. While I work primarily with women of color, I also have white female clients. Recently, I have found that a few of them feel my work around race doesn’t support them. As white women, do they feel the issues of color that are a significant part of our discussions don’t apply to them? It makes sense that overcoming racial bias isn’t a foundational part of their career strategy. From their perspective, it doesn’t need to be.
This feedback caused me to examine my focus. I can’t imagine not discussing how race, bias, and discrimination impact women’s ability to show up with audacity and build authentic careers. To be honest, though, I didn’t always see it so clearly.
My Journey toward Audacity
I thought back to when I first formed my groups and packages several years ago. At the time, I was focused heavily on careers and motherhood, on food and feeding families, gender bias and salary gaps. The central focus of my work now—supporting women of color in building careers that leverage their difference—wasn’t at the center of my work back then. Understanding the impact of race on environments, corporate and otherwise, wasn’t where I began.
About three years into my business, my daughter enrolled in a predominately white independent school. Whiteness, at that moment, appeared to me in a whole new way. I saw how expertly I had learned to manage myself in a white culture, how much expertise I had gained on the concept of whiteness, how deftly I had learned to navigate and mediate how my race was perceived. Then I saw how my five-year-old daughter had no such control over how black stereotypes would land on her. My hard-earned sense of control felt suddenly uncertain.
Seeing my daughter in this context made me understand that if we wanted real diversity, and everything real diversity entails, we must understand what it means to be a person of color. I knew instinctively that my daughter’s well-being depended on my showing up at her school as a black mom and not constantly maneuvering and adapting. I was not interested in making my daughter “fit in” so I myself had to show up as different.
I got involved with the school board, leading a diversity and inclusion committee. And I started showing up–at my daughter’s school and in my own work. All this shifted my conversations with my clients more toward racial bias, discrimination, and a white-supremacy culture at work in apparent and insidious ways.
Thinking about my evolution gave me pause. Had some of my clients perceived this as a bait and switch? Had I, even after leaving the corporate world that forced me to filter and adapt for the sake of other people’s comfort, been filtering to get and keep clients all along?
Here I was, talking more about food than race because it felt safer. Talking more about parenting than racism because it was comfortable. The idea that shifting the content of my work may have become an unspoken reason for losing clients was a moment of reckoning for me.
When the Life Jacket Becomes a Straightjacket
In order to be safe, to show that you are a good fit, that you can meet others’ needs, and you know how to pay your dues, you adapt and filter–often unconsciously. You do this by code-switching, keeping your head down, doing great work without overtly claiming it as yours, staying quiet or nodding along at a racist or sexist remark, or explaining yourself rather than working without apology.
Often, adapting and filtering work to your benefit. They’re survival strategies that get people to feel safe with you when the risk of conflict is high. Because you need to work with others, filtering out what makes them uncomfortable seems logical.
Filtering often looks like professionalism.
But, like all survival strategies, at some point adapting and filtering stop working. The coping mechanism that got you in the door is now keeping you locked in a very small room. All too quickly, filtering inhibits rather than protects. Because you’re filtering out your authenticity and biggest asset: your difference.
I have come to realize that no matter how much you adapt or filter, your difference will always be seen. So why not lean into it? It’s not going anywhere. Why not stop trying to solve the problem of your difference and start leveraging it?
The great irony is that our culture expects—demands—innovation. We’re driven to think differently to solve problems. But how can you truly innovate when all your energy is poured into hiding or blending in? Even when companies commit to diversity hiring, any positive impact of diversity is diminished when you don’t actually bring your diversity to the table.
The Price of My Filter
I understand that to run my programs and advance the success of the women of color I work with requires that I talk about business, finance, and career strategies in the context of white normative culture. I can’t pretend that for people of color building a business or career with authenticity and audacity can be done without talking about race. I’ll also admit that when I considered that clients were rejecting the essence of my work, it stung.
When I work with white women now, I tell them that race is not an issue isolated to people of color. The issue of a white supremacist culture impacts white people just as much. It keeps everyone boxed in, divorced from their own innovation and difference. It keeps everyone from being free. And it everyone’s problem. I say to my clients, yes, talking about race will make you uncomfortable, but demanding comfort is a function of a biased system, and maintaining your comfort ultimately inhibits your growth.
I will start working with a new client this September and she is a white woman. I can already see that our work will be a site of authenticity and depth for us both. She knows what I’m about, that I will talk about race, bias, discrimination, and destructive systems without fear of her discomfort. I know it will arise, but I also know she is volunteering for the discomfort. The discomfort, I know now, does not indicate a problem, but signals my work is working.
If any of my current clients don’t want to work this way, I’ll lose them. Taking off my filter may cost me a portion of my income. Taking off your filter may cost you even more—perhaps your position or your current career trajectory. But imagine what you could gain in opportunity and income if you showed up as yourself.
The question we all have to ask ourselves is, what is the long-term price of continuing to wear the filter?
You Can Control the Filter
We all filter. Every one of us, at different times, consciously or not, has adapted to make others feel okay. Filtering doesn’t make us any less worthy or less of an ally. For the first eight years of my work here at Leverage to Lead, I did it too. And I will again. Let’s offer ourselves and each other some compassion for our many reasons, our fears, our biases, and our intentions.
The real issue is how you gain control so that filtering is a choice and not a fear-based reflex. When would you choose to filter? You might find yourself in an unsafe environment, or one you have yet to identify as safe, where your difference would have to be constantly fought instead of understood. (In my next article, I’ll discuss how you identify and build a psychologically safe environment.) At these times, your best option may be to filter while you actively seek an environment where your difference can be encouraged.
Have you asked yourself what you really want? What would it mean for you to stop conforming and start building a career with your difference as an asset? How much more creative, innovative, and valuable would you be if you felt free to embrace your diversity?
I am asking myself these questions right now as I reflect on all the ways filtering has helped and hindered my career, and as I decide how to move forward with my long-term clients. I know better than ever what my work does for women and how I want to show up for my clients. I know the price of wearing my filter and taking it off. I, like you, find myself asking how much I am willing to pay when I wear the filter, and how much I am willing to pay to be free of it.
Jennifer McClanahan-Flint is an Executive Career Strategist and the founder and CEO of Leverage to Lead. She helps women and people of color build careers with audacity and authenticity.