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Supporting BIPOC Staff

Organizations should proactively take the step of voicing the need for and value of antiracism instead of allowing the burden to fall on BIPOC staff.

Published onAug 25, 2021
Supporting BIPOC Staff

Avoiding BIPOC Burnout and Overburdening

Whose responsibility is it to raise awareness around a lack of diversity and equity within an organization and to develop and implement solutions to address this? Some may assume that, given whom these issues directly impact, it is up to BIPOC staff to lead (and maintain) the charge. This is a mistake. When this work falls on the shoulders of those already feeling the weight of racism, this is known as cultural taxation. A range of voices should be included in this work, not only to encourage intersectionality, but also to avoid burnout [1].

The burden should not fall on BIPOC staff when everyone has a responsibility to speak up and act as agents of change. BIPOC staff and associated groups (e.g., Employee Resource Groups) can provide perspective in discussions and help prioritize actions, but they are not responsible for achieving the solution. Given that BIPOC staff may already be experiencing racial harm within the workplace and beyond, assumptions that they should be primarily responsible for the antiracist journey of your organization will exact an additional emotional toll. BIPOC staff and DEI Employee Research Groups should thus not be viewed as “the elixir to racial inclusion,” rather as participating in a collective effort. This is why allyship is so crucial. 

Organizations should proactively take the step of voicing the need for and value of antiracism, rather than waiting for BIPOC employees or allies to ask them to take action, thereby further reducing the burden. It is not enough to show solidarity when it seems timely (and PR positive) to do so; allyship must be a long-term, ongoing commitment.

Onboarding BIPOC Employees

Starting a new job, especially for someone in the early stages of their career, is exciting. For some individuals, it may be their first job out of college, while for others it may represent a career change. No matter the professional stage of the individual, it is important that your organization provide tools and resources to ensure each person’s success in their new role.

While the initial onboarding process is usually administrative (e.g., completing new hire paperwork), a critical and essential component of the onboarding process is learning about the organization. This is a critical stage for making sure that you communicate to BIPOC employees that your organization is committed to antiracist values and to helping them succeed. Reviewing the policies and procedures, along with learning about the organization’s vision, mission, values, and culture, will assist BIPOC employees in understanding the various ways that people come together to work, how they function as a team, and the behaviors they exhibit to meet deliverables and/or business outcomes. The following questions will likely be at the forefront of BIPOC employees’ minds when they start their new role:

  • Is the culture at my organization inclusive and supportive?

  • Can I be my true, authentic self?

  • Are my opinions and perspectives valued and respected?

  • Can I effectively share ideas, propose recommendations and solutions, and address concerns without fear of backlash or retaliation?

  • Are there opportunities to grow and are these opportunities consistent and equitable across the organization?

  • Are there opportunities and mechanisms for information sharing?

  • Are performance expectations the same for BIPOC employees as for others?

  • Is the organization aware of how biases, stereotypes, and microaggressions play out in the workplace, and the impact that these behaviors have on BIPOC employees?

  • Are people who look like me in leadership positions?

During the onboarding process, it is essential for leaders and colleagues to answer these questions; your organization’s position on these questions will ultimately shape the BIPOC employee’s overall experience. When BIPOC staff truly feel that they are treated fairly, that their uniqueness is appreciated and valued, that they belong, and that they have a voice in the decision-making process, they will also feel included. Inclusive leaders provide BIPOC employees with the space for them to be true to who they are and cultivate an environment where their ideas and perspectives are respected and valued.

The Impact of Code Switching

According to Psychology Today, code switchinginvolves adapting the presentation of oneself in ways that disconnect them from the cultural or racial stereotypes of their group”[2].

Those who are BIPOC have often followed the adage “go along to get along.” In 1954, American linguist, author, and professor Einar Haugen [3] used the term code switching to describe how multilingual people could easily switch languages when needed. This term has since expanded past linguistics into interpersonal behavior—what had often been a way of survival for BIPOC finally had a name.

When people code switch, it adds another layer of pressure to their daily activities. They cannot be their authentic selves and are trying to fit into a space that has been created by others. For many BIPOC, it affects the way they dress, how they speak, the way they wear their hair, how expressive they are, and what language they use when in white dominant spaces. Code switching can affect your workplace culture in many ways. Those belonging to the majority are likely to be totally unaware of what code switching is and who is doing it. For BIPOC, code switching adds an additional layer of stress to the process of advancing one’s career and being accepted by one’s colleagues.

In the mostly white spaces of publishing organizations located in countries with a history of white supremacy, the dominant group has long determined the norms and behaviors that are acceptable. For those not in the dominant group, being one’s authentic self might be seen as not fitting the professional standard and might stand in the way of a deserved promotion or raise.

Of course, not all BIPOC code switch—people of color are as diverse as anyone else. But this phenomenon is real and ever-present for many BIPOC. White staff should be aware of the additional work that conscious and unconscious bias creates for their BIPOC colleagues.

An African-American man named Jackson R. shares this experience:

I was speaking with an African American colleague,” he said. She responded with “oh, what happened to your voice? You sound different.” “My voice?” I said. “The voice I apparently use when I am on the phone with colleagues of a different race. It’s not something that I consciously do, it’s just that we know that we have to be aware of our tone and the words we use as African Americans because one word out of place or mispronounced could cost us a job or a promotion.

Survey from 2019, showing that nearly half of Black college graduates say they feel the need to change the way they express themselves when around people from different ethnic and racial groups.

Survey from 2019, showing that nearly half of Black college graduates say they feel the need to change the way they express themselves when around people from different ethnic and racial groups. Credit: Pew Research Center, Washington, DC

For many of the U.S.-based BIPOC authors of this toolkit, the policing of tone and demeanor was taught early. Not code switching can be life-threatening for BIPOC. Interactions with police or anyone in authority can be dangerous. Even with code switching, those interactions can be dangerous.

Code switching is exhausting—and yet it works because it makes the majority “comfortable,” which, in many environments, helps those who want to advance. Of course, it is not the job of the marginalized to make others comfortable. The article “The Costs of Code-Switching” in the Harvard Business Review states explicitly that “the behavior is necessary for advancement—but it takes a great psychological toll” [4]. Stress, anxiety, frustration, and even inferiority occur when people must show different versions of themselves in different environments, according to Talkspace [5]. These feelings can and do affect an individual’s general and mental health.

You know you are being authentic when:

Your job gives you a sense of purpose or fulfillment, rather than feeling drained and lacking energy. 

You believe your relationships are based off of honesty, and genuine respect for who we truly are. 

When out in social situations, you feel as though you are presenting the real you, rather than someone you’re not.

You’re unsure of how others will respond to you, but regardless you are proud of who are and who you are being. 

— Jennifer Foust, PhD, MS, LPC [6]

During the pandemic and in the shift to having a distributed workforce, many changed the way they code switch because their personal space was now visible to their colleagues. “Working from home has meant that code-switching has evolved to changing physical spaces to become ‘whiter’ too. There are new ways of code-switching in remote work environments, like using virtual backgrounds or turning your camera off,” said Courtney McCluney, assistant professor of organizational behavior at the New York State School of Industrial and Labor Relations School at Cornell University [7].  

Many employees, particularly BIPOC, are tired of feeling like they need to conform to what others have deemed ideal or professional behaviors, clothing, hair styles, and way of speaking. Being your authentic self allows you to bring your full self to the job, yet it can be very risky. People may judge you, you may find out who you can trust, and you may regret putting yourself out there. Or, you may find that the opposite occurs. It is up to individual BIPOC employees to view the landscape and determine how they wish to navigate it; but the obligation is on your organization’s leadership and white colleagues to understand the landscape as well—and to work toward making that navigation less burdensome and less risky. As conversations about antiracism continue, and as awareness grows about the burden of code switching and other energy-sapping taxes placed on non-dominant groups, positive change should come to your organization and to the scholarly publishing profession.

The standards of professionalism are “heavily defined by white supremacy culture—or the systemic, institutionalized centering of whiteness” [8]. Organizations can change that landscape and make it easier for BIPOC to navigate so-called norms by removing those barriers and making other changes.

In the Stanford Social Innovation Review, Aysa Gray wrote that “professionalism has become coded language for white favoritism in workplace practices that more often than not privilege the values of white and Western employees and leave behind people of color.” She believes that you can begin to try to transform those standards by doing the following:

Do seek out renowned process facilitators to foster awareness of implicit bias and white supremacy culture in professional, managerial, and workplace cultures.

Don’t expect a one-time implicit bias workshop or panel to undo years of inequity. Do ongoing work with consultants who specialize in white supremacy culture to create human resources policies and procedures that at a minimum: embrace cultural differences in dress, speech, and work style; evaluate traditionally accepted professional tenets of workplace success, such as timeliness, schedules, leadership style, and work style; center traditionally marginalized voices in assessments; and examine hiring, firing, promotion practices, and work culture in real time. Don’t expect this work to be cheap or quick [8].

Authenticity at Work: Advice for BIPOC

As of the publication of this toolkit (August 2021), a C4DISC working group is creating an Antiracism Toolkit for BIPOC, which we hope will expand upon the ideas in this section.

As already described, code switching is stressful and tiring for many. Krystle Dorsey, M.Ed., career services professional, writer, and social justice advocate, has some tips for managing the side effects of code switching.

  • Be around those with whom you can be your true self. Get involved with volunteer groups, etc., that align with your beliefs and values. Find your people.

  • Look for role models who have faced workplace challenges similar to yours. Observe them, get to know them, and consider asking them to be your mentor.

  • Pay attention to how you are feeling. Code switching takes a lot of energy. The more you have to do it, the more it wears you out mentally and physically. Listen to your body and allow yourself some self-care.

  • Build trust and publicize your cultural differences. Some won’t understand your cultural background. Others may assume they do, leading to some uncomfortable interactions. If you think someone is making an effort to get to know you in a sincere way, consider opening yourself up.

  • Do not feel obligated to educate others in DEI settings. Determine what you wish to share while realizing you have no obligation to do so. And if someone offends you but does not own the mistake, fails to apologize, or continues to offend you, let them go. It’s not worth your energy.

  • Know when it is not working for you. If you find yourself emotionally drained, psychologically distressed, or mentally fatigued after trying these tips, consider moving on from your workplace. If you are being discriminated against, harassed, or attacked, and you do not feel safe even after taking the proper measures to alleviate your grievances, then it may be time to go. You deserve to work in an organization that treats you with respect.

  • Beware of tokenism. When non-white people are allowed a seat at the table of the privileged, they are often expected to follow white norms and act accordingly. Having a few people of color in leadership positions can give an organization false assuredness about how equitable their workplace really is—they may believe their workplace inclusivity issues solved through these few hires. Additionally, “tokens” may be put in the uncomfortable position of representing or speaking for an entire minority group. In an institutional context, tokenism can be used to conceal discriminatory and racist practices [9]. Marla Baskerville Watkins of Northeastern University, Aneika Simmons of Sam Houston State University, and Elizabeth Umphress of the University of Washington wrote that, if organizations with fewer than 15 percent BIPOC on a team or in a department, they are likely to suffer from harassment or discrimination [10]

Our review showed that tokens have higher levels of depression and stress. They’re more likely to experience discrimination and sexual harassment than women and racial minorities who are working in more balanced environments. Research shows people are less satisfied and less committed at their jobs if they’re tokens. Companies should be concerned about this.

— Marla Baskerville Watkins, Fast Company [11]

If you are in the position of feeling like a token at work, look for ways to expand your professional network through industry associations and local interest groups.

The Importance of Intersectionality

First coined by Professor Kimberlé Crenshaw in 1989, intersectionality was added to the Oxford English Dictionary in 2015 and is defined as “the interconnected nature of social categorizations such as race, class, and gender, regarded as creating overlapping and interdependent systems of discrimination or disadvantage” [12]. Intersectionality acknowledges that everyone has their own unique experiences of discrimination and oppression, and we must consider everything and anything that can marginalize people: gender, gender identity, race and/or ethnicity, language, national origin, sexual orientation, physical ability and/or disability status, occupation, religious beliefs, age, immigrant status, social class, socioeconomic status, and other identity markers or variables. These identity markers or variables do not exist independently of each other, and each informs the others, often creating a complex convergence of oppression.

By understanding intersectionality, you can better see all the different ways people in your workplace experience racism with respect to their identities. All other forms of oppression intertwine and complicate racial oppression, so it is equally important to acknowledge other aspects of identity when discussing antiracism.

Intersectionality encourages each of us to look more holistically at how racism operates. By examining the overlapping identities and experiences, we can begin to understand the complexity of these prejudices.

Kimberlé Williams Crenshaw at the 2020 MAKERS Conference
Credit: Kimberlé Williams Crenshaw, American lawyer, civil rights advocate, philosopher, and a leading scholar of critical race theory. Professor at the University of California, Los Angeles School of Law, CA, and Columbia Law School, NY

How can you ensure your antiracist actions are also intersectional? To become better allies and build an intersectional, inclusive workplace, base your approach on:

  • Self-interrogation;

  • Listening and learning;

  • Being mindful and precise with your language;

  • Reflecting on privilege and advantage; and

  • Being mindful not to place people in categories based on a single story or narrative.

Example of overlapping identities.

Example of Overlapping Identities
Credit: Lily Rodriguez, Wiley, New York, NY

Investing equally in each other’s issues and goals can bring forth a transformative change. It is “through the lens of intersectionality [that] we can actually solve problems, not replace one with another or just work on issues closest to our own hearts” [13].


The impact of the triple jeopardy syndrome cannot be overstated, as an African American with a disability can never can be quite sure if their race, gender or disability is hurting their chances for advancement… People of color and people with disabilities still face barriers to education and employment that limit their earning potential today.

— Dr. Donna Walton, senior advisor, RespectAbility, and disability program manager, U.S. Department of Defense [14]

Research tells us that in the United States, disabled people are twice as likely to be unemployed as non-disabled people [15]. The National Center on Disability and Journalism reports that 6 million African Americans live with some type of a disability. They also have the highest rate of disability of any demographic in the United States at just over 20% [16]. More than 56 million Americans are living with a disability. That number includes 5.4 million African Americans with disabilities, of which 3.4 million are of working age (over 18) [17].

Chart displaying the prevalence of disabilities for Americans ages 18 and over.

Chart displaying the prevalence of disabilities for Americans ages 18 and over. Source: U.S. Census Bureau

RespectAbility reported that “32 percent of working-age African Americans with disabilities had jobs, compared to 75.5 percent of working-age African Americans without disabilities” before the COVID-19 pandemic. Even before the pandemic disproportionately affected BIPOC communities, “32 percent of African Americans with disabilities lived in poverty, compared to 20.9 percent of African Americans without disabilities,” further showing that the systems in place are not working and that intervention is needed [18].

Social Justice: What’s disability got to do with it? #DisabilityDemandsJustice

The duty to make reasonable adjustments as defined by the Equality and Human Rights Commission is “to make sure that, as far as is reasonable, a disabled worker has the same access to everything that is involved in doing and keeping a job as a non-disabled person” [19]. Employers must ensure that disabled BIPOC are not disadvantaged in the workplace via a review of their organizational culture, policies, and procedures along with their adherence to the Americans with Disabilities Act. The Disability Rights and Education Fund can provide guidance on similar laws that are enforced around the world. How can organizations get started?

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