How my proximity to whiteness contributed to a successful start in supply chain management.
When I graduated university in 2014, I had worked three different corporate jobs. In the three various positions I held, I never felt I belonged or had a place in these organizations- to which I mostly attributed my age and the fact that I was still a student. At that time, I felt I wasn’t taken seriously, I didn’t have a voice, and to be taken seriously, I couldn’t show up to work as my full self. Little did I know, that feeling of not belonging and not being able to show up as my full self would continue through the next seven years of my career.
These observations inspired me to think critically about my personal brand as I entered the workforce as a new grad. I was starting a new job the day after convocation, and I took it as an opportunity to re-brand myself. All of my personal brand strategies were aimed at one goal: climb the corporate ladder. And the concept was simple- act, do, be, and talk like a 35-year-old white man.
My reasoning for this was based on my experiences, both in work and school, and what I envisioned and what was demonstrated to me as what a “successful” person in corporate looks like. I didn’t necessarily observe 35-year-old white men in management positions, but they seemed to effortlessly belong, and people naturally looked to them for leadership.
While I did maintain parts of my personality, I made sure to package it in a way that made me easily marketable to white people and accepted by my white colleagues. The way I dressed, spoke, the foods I ate, hobbies, interests, and music I talked about all reflected this strategy. I participated in water cooler talk about last night’s hockey game but would keep quiet about the debut I attended over the weekend. I would bring a salad for lunch and choose to have sinigang at home for dinner. I would chat about the Justin Timberlake concert I attended but could never mention the rap concert I enjoyed so much more.
This brand strategy afforded me meaningful mentorship and eventually I was put into positions where I was being groomed into leadership. I know this strategy worked, because within four years of graduating university, I doubled my income- this is not by accident, it’s by design.
When I reflect on this period of my life where I “re-branded” myself, I realize now that what I really did was assimilate to white corporate culture and I spent so many of my working years supressing parts of myself in order to climb the corporate ladder. This is an example of white supremacy at work- when BIPOC either subconsciously or, like me, consciously modify their behaviours to play into structures that were built for white people to succeed. It’s no surprise that white men are disproportionately represented in corporate leadership.
Moving into the next phase of my career and as I take the leap into entrepreneurship, I know my personal brand strategy needs to change. This white-centered brand strategy has become so embedded in my daily interactions that it is difficult to distinguish a point where my professionalism and authenticity can meet to build a completely new personal brand strategy. What I do know is that our institutions need to do a better job of dismantling systems of oppression that require BIPOC to use white-centered brand strategies.
When I reflect on how my industry has responded to anti-racism movements, I’m disappointed in the lack of action from my white counterparts. Supply Chain Canada at all levels has let BIPOC down in its response to anti-racism and I truly believe if you are not actively anti-racist then you allow corporate systems to continue to oppress BIPOC. Inaction contributes to the maintenance of oppressive systems. It’s simple- you can be either actively anti-racist or a racist but there is no in between.
If what I shared makes you uncomfortable or makes you feel anything, sit with the discomfort and reflect on why. In fact, I hope you feel uncomfortable enough to act. Centering white people and the comfort of white people in discussions about race is another example of white supremacy at work- it’s a great privilege to only have to learn about racism. Discussions about racism can be traumatizing for BIPOC and the comfort of white people should come secondary to the safety of BIPOC.
I want to leave you with some opportunities to self-reflect. Here are some self-reflection prompts from Leeza Renee Hall and some additional questions from the folks at slownorth.com:
- Name an early experience when a person of colour made you feel uneasy. Why was that? What made them threatening? What was your response? If they were not threatening, how would you describe them? How does that early experience shape how you interact with people of colour today?
- Reflect on a time you were led by a person of colour in a professional setting. What was your experience? Did you accept their leadership? Why or why not? In what ways did you support him/her? In what ways did you sabotage him/her? If you were never led by a person of colour in a professional setting, why do you believe that happened?
- White supremacy doesn’t just glorify the dominant (white) culture–it normalizes it. Can you think of ways that you’ve participated in normalizing white culture, at the expense of other cultures?
- How has your desire for ease or comfort kept you from taking action? Write also about instances when you didn’t let those things keep you from acting—how did you feel then? Was it as bad as you thought?
While I am not here to give anti-racism 101 training or to lead anti-racism committees (because diversity and inclusion committees are not doing enough), I do welcome discussion from those who are ready and want to take on a position of allyship.
The Link, December 2020