My daughter works hard and plays hard, but last weekend she gave up in the final part of her soccer game because her team was losing. I could tell by watching her body language that she didn’t believe the team could make a comeback. At dinner that night, my husband and I had the talk with her. You may have received a version of this talk from your mom or mentor. You do not have the option to give up, we said. Even when you are losing, even after you’ve played your hardest, you can’t quit. You’re not like the other girls at your school. You’re black.
Someday, my daughter will face this reality for herself, without her parents to prepare or buffer her. She will be judged on her blackness and not on her merits. This is why we’re having the conversation now. When it happens (and it will happen) at least it won’t come as a complete surprise. And I hope that she won’t make the mistake of turning on herself.
Turns out, we’re also talking about difficult conversations at my daughter’s school. We’re reading excerpts from Douglas Stone and Sheila Heen’s book, Thanks for the Feedback, and talking about the distortions that prevent us from being receptive to feedback.
This book, my daughter’s soccer game, and many surrounding conversations all came together for me. Let me explain.
Principles and Habits for Some
Thanks for the Feedback is just one of multitudes of books billed as a management and career guides—self-help for the ambitious professional. You may be familiar with High Performance Habits by Brendon Burchard or The Success Principles by Jack Canfield—two very popular guides for being better at your job.
These books tell us what “6 habits” or “64 principles” everyone needs to master and deploy, citing scientific proof and real case studies to show they work. I’m sure they work for some. But these books presume that we all can adopt these habits with equal safety, that we can live by these principles with beneficial and fair results.
Now, I don’t entirely disagree with success principles or habits. They probably do help people increase focus and productivity. Applying them may very well lead to success. If you pick up the book already carrying a certain amount of privilege. If you can already (maybe automatically) show up at work with your true and whole self visible. If your privilege affords you the ability to take these books’ advice, which often involves a measure of risk.
It quickly becomes clear that career self-help books are not for everyone.
Before We Even Get in the Door
My daughter is just beginning to learn what I have seen over a decades-long career: that women of color show up having traveled a longer road than their peers. We arrive at the same door—school, college, internship, work, etc.--having done more to get there. Our path to the starting place is fraught with experiences of bias and oppression too numerous to count. The microaggressions, the outright bigotry, the exclusion, the presumptions, the stereotypes, the appropriation.
When professional women of color pick up the career self-help book, we’ve been somewhere already. We’re not the fresh-faced new hire. We’re not the eager college grad. We’re not standing on a level playing field, ready to launch ourselves straight into the majors with a little guidance and wisdom.
Here’s an example. In Thanks for the Feedback, Stone and Heen advise that “distortions” are the root cause of our inability to absorb feedback well, and thereby hinder our growth. The distortions of bias never factor into the authors’ advice and are not part of the larger context.
The already pervasive distortions of stereotypes, discomfort, and discrimination cannot be ignored by professional women of color. We don’t have that luxury. “Working through distortions” for us means something completely different than it does for a white male reader.
And here’s the danger. When women of color do, inevitably, pick up these career books, because we want to improve and succeed as much as anyone, we read this advice and we blame ourselves when it doesn’t work for us. We think we must not be enough, we must be failing.
When what’s really happening is this: women of color pick up Stone and Heen, or Canfield or Bruchard, read advice meant to advance mostly white men via a white cultural framework, and they are rendered invisible. Women of color try to take the book’s advice but can’t make it work because the book isn’t talking to them, it isn’t even acknowledging their existence, let alone their difference.
What also remains hidden is the structural inequality that doesn’t allow success principles to apply to everyone equally because not everyone is in a safe company culture and not everyone is allowed to show up as themselves.
You Can Put the Book Down
These kinds of career books frustrate me, and they are far from harmless in their exclusion. There is a kind of psychological damage that comes from being cast as invisible. Career books can feel devastating for women of color to read. We’ve arrived in our careers after managing bias, then we get in the door and spend our energy reading the room and navigating our difference, and only then can we begin to apply “success principles” to achieve high performance. Upon picking up the books, most of our journey gets erased.
So, you have my permission to put the books down. And to put down your hopes of just finding the right nugget of advice to get the career you’ve always wanted.
If a career book doesn’t understand that its readers don’t all start from the same place, put it down.
If the book doesn’t acknowledge the bias attached to disenfranchised groups, put it down.
If the book doesn’t recognize different levels of safety within the same company culture, put it down.
We have a responsibility to our own cultural education, which includes our history. Too often, our dialogue is limited to whiteness, either out of exclusion or just ignorance. When you do look for a career guide, because you continue to seek to improve, ask yourself:
What is the perspective of the author, and does it include experience with difference?
Is this really what I need?
Before you think I condemn all career advice books, there are a few out there I would recommend. These don’t always speak directly about race or gender difference, but at least they do not demand that you lose yourself in order to use them. This is Marketing by Seth Godin, Hyperfocus by Chris Bailey, The Culture Code by Daniel Coyle, To Sell is Human by Daniel Pink, and Essentialism by Greg McKeown are all titles I have found helpful in some way.
Remember that it takes work to understand who we are, especially after we’ve spent so much time adapting and covering up our difference. But when we do know ourselves, we can read these books with ourselves intact and not risk disappearing or turning bad advice against ourselves.
When I see difference not being addressed in management, business, or self-help books, and when I see women of color taking the blame for the books’ failures, I feel their devastation. The conversations need to start earlier and be more honest. In my next post, I’ll talk more about this gap between our real, lived experience and what gets acknowledged by the dominant culture. Stay tuned, and safe reading.