A Black Woman’s Advice to White Professionals

By Dr. Sandra Upton


My most favorite movie of 2016 was Hidden Figures, the true story of three remarkable African-American women: Katherine Johnson, Dorothy Vaughan, and Mary Jackson, who were the brains behind one of the greatest feats in US history – the launch of astronaut John Glenn into space. Until recently, the stories and unprecedented contributions of these women had been completely hidden, both from the history books and modern day conversations. The film beautifully exposed both the extreme racism these women faced and their remarkable ability to persist and press beyond it. Fast forward to today, and that tenacity and persistence are still strengths of black women in the workplace. However, they, along with other underrepresented groups, shouldn’t have to fight nearly as hard as these women to access and experience the same opportunities as other cultural groups. White professionals who value and see the benefits of workplace diversity can play a vital role in reducing these barriers. Specifically, there are at least three things they can proactively do to help close gaps of inequities and create inclusive and culturally intelligent work environments.


Although it is 2017 and we have made some progress, institutional racism still exists. Statistics prove it and we see and work to combat this problem in the work that we do. And while we all have biases and can be victims of prejudice behaviors and actions towards us, people of color are often the primary recipients of racism (prejudice + power) and regular occurrences of microaggressions (subtle, semi-conscious and devaluing messages towards others) in the workplace. So, as a first step, be willing to listen and seek to understand. When interacting across cultures, people of color and other underrepresented groups, more than any other group, desire opportunities to express their experiences and be heard. I often tell my colleague and friend, Dave Livermore, that a big part of why I enjoy working alongside him in the work that we do is because he just gets it. He understands the problems and even recognizes his privileges as a white male that I, as a black female, am not always privy to. Your willingness to understand and acknowledge that these issues are real, prevalent and can have very unfair consequences for others, can go a long way in demonstrating to your colleagues of color that you get it.


Acknowledging the problems and challenges of working across cultures is an important and critical first step. But the real work kicks in when you commit to become an advocate, to take actionable steps to combat them. It’s when you use your influence, whatever that might look like, to help create a diverse organization and inclusive culture. If you are in a leadership position, consider the entire employee life cycle – from onboarding to promotion and leadership development — and exert your influence or power to ensure that your organization’s hiring practices are void of unconscious biases, people of color and other underrepresented groups are given opportunities for professional development, compensation is equitable across the board, and that organizational policies and practices support, and not serve as barriers to, diversity and inclusion efforts.

Be willing to share power. Be intentional about identifying high potential people of color and provide them with the support they need to move into key and meaningful leadership positions in your organization. And even for your colleagues of color who may not be in leadership positions, make room and give them a voice at the table in team meetings or when making important decisions. Allow them to take the lead on significant projects, and be willing to follow their lead when it’s obvious that they are subject matter expert. One of my favorite scenes from the movie was when astronaut John Glen didn’t fully trust the computer. So he asked the head engineers to “get the woman (Dorothy Johnson) to check the numbers…If she says the numbers are good…I’m ready to go.” He knew she was, by far, the most competent person for the task. Celebrate, leverage, and reward diversity. Don’t allow anyone to become a hidden figure in your organization or on your team.


My final piece of advice is a challenge to continue developing your own cultural intelligence (CQ). Your efforts to acknowledge the issues and be an advocate for your colleagues and friends of color will be hindered if you don’t commit to personal development and advancing your skills to work and lead effectively across cultures. To the contrary, when acknowledging and advocating on behalf of your colleagues in culturally intelligence ways, the impact can be extremely powerful. More specifically, when you consider the four capabilities – CQ Drive, CQ Knowledge, CQ Strategy and CQ Action, here are a few ways to think about using your CQ to acknowledge and advocate on behalf of your colleagues of color.

CQ Drive: Your interest, drive, persistence, and confidence during multicultural situations

  • Take time to think about and write down all of the benefits you and your organization gain from attracting and retaining people of color in the organization.

CQ Knowledge: Your understanding of how cultures are similar or different

  • Have lunch once a month with a person of color. The primary agenda should be to listen and learn. Make it a goal to learn one new thing about their cultural background or experiences, as well as challenges faced in the workplace.

CQ Strategy: Your awareness and ability to plan for multicultural interactions

  • Identify at least two things you can do in the next month to demonstrate advocacy for people of color and other underrepresented groups in your organization. For example, assess the diversity in your organization or department. If you don’t have people of color on your team, investigate why that is the case and begin to take steps to change that. Have a conversation with the Hiring Manager and start to identify creative ways you can do a better job of attracting people of color. Avoid using the excuse “we can’t find any qualified candidates of color.”

CQ Action: Your ability to adapt when relating and working interculturally

  • At one of your team meetings or in one-on-one conversations (and assuming it is a safe environment), invite the people of color and other underrepresented groups to share when they have been on the receiving end of migroaggressions at work. Acknowledge them and be intentional to avoid these behaviors.

Acknowledging, advocating, and advancing your CQ will give you the credibility, courage, and confidence to support and partner with your colleagues of color, as well as help create diverse and inclusive organizations. Both you and your organization will be much better for it.

CQ is an ongoing education

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