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I recently had lunch with a dear friend and colleague who used to be my mentee in a former role.  We celebrated his recent professional success, caught him up on mine, and explored next steps after he completes his master’s in public health. The topic of race came up a few times — he is a Canadian-born, African American of Nigerian parents — and turned to the matter of “acting white.” My friend, whom I’ll call Nick, decried the number of times he’s been told by other people of color he’s “acting white” for speaking the way he does. He expressed his offense at the bigoted notion that speaking in such an “intelligent, articulate, educated” way is viewed as exclusively white, and not a feature of black culture as well.

At the same time, Nick described his experience living in a majority Hispanic state where not only is he a part of a racial group that is 2 percent of the population but also as a dark-skinned man, he stands out even among “his people.” He’s been called the N-word more than a few times, and he often senses pressure in professional meeting — where he’s often an “only” — to act “less black” and assimilate.

It’s a classic damned-if-you-do, damned-if-you-don’t scenario for up-and-coming leaders of color. If Nick “acts black,” he maintains solidarity with allies that look like him and avoids being viewed as a sell-out but is taken less seriously in his career. If he chooses to assimilate and “acts white,” he advances professionally but at the cost of hurting his identity and relationships with his community. He even wonders if he’s imagining it all.

Despite the fact that no one would ever mistake me for African American, Nick asked me for advice. I’ve never had to face such a dilemma personally when it comes to race, but as a cisgender woman, I have had to face choosing when and how to “act like a man” at work, and I’ve heard the struggles of dozens of friends and colleagues of color over the years.  Here’s what I told Nick:

  1. Know you’re not imagining it. Even though it’s very subtle and usually entirely unconscious, that pressure to “act White” to get ahead in a White-dominant (either numerically or power-wise) environment is real.   Don’t think you’re crazy for believing this.
  2. Know you have an advantage for being forced to be multilingual and multicultural. White and White-looking people don’t have to develop code-and style-switching skills to succeed in life like you do. Expanding and using your already large toolbox of communication and relationship behaviors makes you a more flexible, resourceful leader, and better adapted to thrive in a diverse, global work environment.
  3. Consciously choose different behaviors and ways of “acting” to meet your goals. The problem comes when we believe we must choose one identity over the other, or we find ourselves adapting mindlessly to our environment. Try different ways of communicating and showing up in meetings and one-on-one conversations. Notice how your choices impact others, and get you what you want (or not).
  4. Try pushing the envelope. If “we” just assimilate to the way “they” speak and act, then things will never change for those coming after us. Maybe it’s making a subtle wardrobe choice, deciding to laugh a little louder, or saying a certain word or phrase. Maybe it’s a bolder statement. In my most recent internal leadership role, I chose (for reasons that included my professional integrity, personal job satisfaction, and solidarity with the community) to get a small nostril piercing in an organization where this was against HR policy, but still tolerated in many areas of the organization. The response to my choice was revealing in terms of the organization’s true commitment to diversity, equity and inclusion, and my place in it.
  5. Know that your choices may change as you age and advance in your career. I find myself more willing to be bold and more comfortable taking risks now in my forties than I did in my twenties. My life priorities and professional goals have changed, and now that I wield more power through experience and credibility, I can get away with showing more of myself and pushing the envelope harder.
  6. Maintain relationships, mentorships and open dialogue with professionals and friends that look like you. They will check you, hold you accountable, and remind you you’re not crazy for thinking that “acting _____” or “acting White” exist, with real consequences.

In summary, the answer to the “assimilate or not?” question is both-and, not either-or. Sometimes “assimilate”, sometimes not, but always stay aware of what you’re choosing, notice the effects on your goals, and own your power to make this decision.

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