There are a lot of us who have held the infamous title of the token black guy or token black girl at one point or another in our career. In most cases, we are the “ONLY ONE” on the team, the “ONLY ONE” in the department, and even the “ONLY ONE” in the whole damn company.
Going into my career, I knew that I would usually be the only one but I didn't know how challenging and frustrating it would be at times. There were times where I felt like I didn't belong and wanted to quit my job. And there were times where I was the angry black man with a chip on my shoulder. To be honest, I hated my first job, really disliked my co-workers and felt hopeless about my career.
Nobody really hipped me to the game and kept it "hunnid" with me about Corporate America. Unfortunately, early in my career, I had on-the-job “training” on navigating the work place being a black man. I had to get use to being comfortable with the uncomfortable. I had to master when to "turn it on" and when to "turn it off." I was worried too much about being labeled as the "too aggressive black guy." And I was always conscience on how I acted and talked around my colleagues.
No matter what profession or industry you are in, I'm sure you have experienced some of the things mentioned previously. So I wanted to share a few words of wisdom that I wish someone would've told me before I became an "ONLY ONE."
1. Be Yourself - Being yourself in the workplace is by far one of the toughest things a black professional has to deal with throughout their career. At times, we are forced to assimilate, in order to "fit in." And if we don't assimilate, we are typically alienated by our peers, which leads to us feeling like we aren't apart of the team and uninterested in working for the company.
At one point in my career, I felt like I had to turn down my "blackness" so that I can fit in and make my white colleagues comfortable around me. Often times, I was the only black person that they interacted with on a consistent basis. Sadly, their only frame of reference of a black person was either a movie or Fox News. Initially, I felt obligated to carry the torch for black people and dispel every stereotype out there about us. I quickly learned that I couldn't sway everyone's views and I had to let my work speak for itself and be myself.
I say all of that to say JUST BE YOURSELF. Yes, it is easier said than done. But being yourself as a confident black professional along with your knowledge, education and certifications sets you apart from everyone else in the company.
2. Don’t be Scared to Make a Mistake - Early in my career, I wanted to be perfect and really impress my colleagues and boss. In my attempt to be perfect, I actually hindered my professional growth because I was too scared to make a mistake and too hesitant to ask questions, so I didn't want to come off as the "stupid black guy."
Please hear me out on this one. If you make a mistake...WHO CARES??? Own your mistake and don't make the same mistake twice. With every mistake, there is always a lesson that can be learned. And that lesson is usually beneficial for one's career in the future.
3. Embrace being the “Diversity Champion” - If given the opportunity to be the diversity champion of the team, the department or the company, please take it and run with it. Some people are hesitant to take on this role because they don’t want to be only known as the "diversity person" by their peers. I truly think this opportunity can be more advantageous than detrimental for one’s career.
It allows you to differentiate yourself from your peers, allows you to be involved in diversity recruiting initiatives, and allows you to have access to high level people in the organization, since most executives have diversity related goals as part of their annual performance evaluation.
4. Have a Mentor (Inside & Outside Your Company) - Having a mentor is one of the most important things a black professional can do. Ideally, the mentor inside your organization should be someone that are a few levels above you. He or she can help you navigate the inner workings of the company and can be an advocate for you when it comes to promotion time.
The mentor outside of your organization can be anyone that has your best interest at heart. This person can be a local politician, a high level executive at another company, your pastor, a community organizer, or even your mother. Often times, by establishing this mentee-mentor relationship outside your organization, it can lead to bigger and better opportunities for your career and personal life.