So you thought you had made it. You are successful, educated and about to get paid. You are riding high on top the world. Then it hits you. The buzz is killed and you begin to sink. You realize that there are still culturally based barriers and hurdles to overcome in this supposedly post-racial world of ours. There may not be a teacup present, but many of us find ourselves in the “sunken place.” You know that place where you are keenly aware of what is going on, but you feel powerless to stop what is happening. The sunken place is not dissimilar to a black hole, whose gravitational pull is so strong that even light cannot escape. I imagine inside of its core, the black hole is a beautiful place, brilliantly glittering as the hopes and dreams of the gifted and talented pour into its abyss. Yet, diverse talent sinks under the weight of cultural incompetence and bias.
There may not be a teacup present, but many of us find ourselves in the “sunken place.” You know that place where you are keenly aware of what is going on, but you feel powerless to stop what is happening.
If you have seen the psychological thriller, Get Out, you understand where my analogy is going. If you haven’t seen the movie, go check it out then come back and read this blog. In the movie, the trigger that took the main character to the sunken place was a beautiful tea cup. The little cup seemed innocent and fragile, but in the end it was deadly to the people who were caught off guard by its power. Institutions often provide the right environment for the sunken place phenomena to occur. Like the tintinnabulation of a refined silver demitasse spoon in a porcelain teacup, the policies and procedures that create disempowering barriers can permeate the institutions we are a part of. What are the institutional triggers that can take us to the sunken place? The triggers often sound like this:
- That’s not how we do it around here?
- Why is he so angry and intimidating (especially when referring to African-American men)?
- Well my [insert the name of appropriate ancestor here] started this institution.
- You just don’t understand the culture.
- They just don’t fit in.
- The appropriate hairstyle for this workplace is…
How do you get out of the sunken place and begin to thrive in workplace and institutional settings where you may be the only black or brown person? Break the damn teacup.
Breaking the teacup can be challenging for young professionals. But here are some practical steps you can take in your workplace or whatever institution you may be a part of, especially if you are not a member of the institutional dominant culture.
- Know the rules. As the old saying goes, “Ignorance of the law is no excuse.” There are often both written and unwritten rules in all institutions. You can’t succeed in the game if you aren’t playing according to the same rules. Once you know the rules then you can begin to use the rules to your advantage.
- Find a mentor. We all need mentors or champions to help us get ahead. Mentors can help us avoid unseen pitfalls. They can also champion us by introducing us to the right people, vouching for us, and giving us a degree of credibility.
- Know your strengths and weaknesses. Do what you do best, and find a solution to correct your areas of weakness. Don’t waste time working on your weaknesses, but find the right tool or right system so that they are not a hindrance. Spend your time being the best at what you are already good at. Often being good is not enough. Shoot for excellence. Use wisdom and do you.
- Listen. When you are new in a workplace or other institutions sometimes the best thing you can do is listen. Check the temperature of the room. Listen to the conversational trends. Get a feel for the deep culture of the organization, not just what is floating around at the surface. When you do speak up, make sure it counts. Consider your words carefully and be strategic with your input. No one appreciates a babbling brook unless they are fly-fishing.
- Network. Find a group of peers internal or external to the organization that can help you grow. Sometimes networking groups can open doors to other opportunities, sometimes they help you mentally process the cultural barriers, and other times network groups just give you a different perspective that lets you know that you are not the only one that slides into the sunken place from time to time.
Remember you can’t elevate the outer person if the inner person is suffering under the weight of the sunken place.