I landed my first real PR job at a boutique agency in Los Angeles. I was hired to support executive visibility, brand awareness, media execution, campaign management and trade show activation for some pretty cool clients. Earning the spot was everything that I’d hoped for even though it included a pretty intimidating work culture. My agency employed less than 20 people. I was the only person of color and the only woman on the account team. The rest of the team was all white and all male.
The guys were nice to me (for the most part), but it was clear in the beginning that there was a tangible difference that made them uncomfortable. I’d be included in some “water cooler chat” and excluded from most others. They all hung out after work and on weekends, and I was rarely invited. It got better the longer I worked there, but there was always an unspoken vibe that I didn’t quite belong. So, I worked harder to show up smart proving that “anything you can do I can do better.” I wedged myself into their social circles determined to prove that there’s nothing scary about including me. And, it worked! The guys slowly began to rally and stopped treating me like they had to delicately navigate working with me due to both my sex and race.
The more things eased, the more I began to feel settled and more comfortable to learn. I excelled and was quickly invited to tag-along with our CEO and leadership to client-facing meetings. One day, our client (the CTO) was attempting to explain a narrative he considered “media-worthy,” but my CEO wasn’t getting it. Back and forth they went, never quite finding understanding. I understood what the CTO was attempting to communicate, but WHO WAS I to step in?? After 20 minutes of discussion and noting rising frustration growing from the client, I swallowed hard, straightened my back and professionally interjected to explain the client’s intent. Everyone looked up in shock. The client smiled, sighed and said (with a wink), “Exactly! Thank you.” I beamed. Literally. I don’t think I’ve ever felt light shoot from my body as if it were possible to glow. Pleased with myself, I looked over to my boss anticipating his praise and elation. He responded, “Well. Now that we’ve heard from the affirmative action case in the room, perhaps the pros can finish up the discussion.”
I blanked. I didn’t know how to respond or if to respond. I didn’t know how to feel. It’s one of the only times in my life I went from an extreme high to an extreme low emotionally and the effect of that transition was sickening. I politely chuckled, waited a moment to excuse myself from the room, went to the bathroom and vomited. I cried softly for a few minutes, pulled myself together and returned appearing unaffected by the offense. Even after years of aggressive racial confrontations and microaggressions, it was the first time I felt powerless. To respond according to my gut would have most certainly lost me the job and possibly ended in arrest. To remain quiet and smile felt like eating glass. And interestingly, based on the perceived visceral nature of the offense, there didn’t appear to be middle ground. I know today that THAT moment was THE moment the chip on my shoulder at work was born.
Over the years, I’ve experienced much more of the same racially charged behavior. There was always someone in the senior ranks intimidated by my ambition. Just three years ago, I had a white female manager hold two pinched fingers together in my face during my performance review sharing that my “value to the company” was “this big.” She meant it to belittle, dehumanize and humble me. Having collected more chips over the years, I exploded. I won the battle of that conversation (putting her in her place), but she leveraged her senior position and relationships to spin a negative, untrue narrative so strong that I had no chance of overcoming it no matter how incredible my performance. Her justification after our conversation – “Sometimes you have to remind THEM of their place.”
It feels like people have been trying to “put me in my place” for a long time. I used to carry the weight of that treatment, but no more. I don’t know if it’s age, having children (which commands you take a more optimistic worldview) or simply maturing, but I’m tired of carrying the load. I can’t control the genesis nor delivery of external bias (both implicit and unconscious), and considering the current hyper-polarized racial climate in the U.S., it’s not the wisest place to focus. What I can do is daily affirm my own value, teach my children to be good little humans who are self-defined and command respect in my personal and professional relationships. I can be the good I want to see and receive. I can focus on sharing the experiences and positive steps to navigate them so that the women of color working alongside me and coming behind me have a smoother journey.
My mother taught me that if you pick up a rock on your journey and place it directly in front of your face, the rock is all you can see. If you throw the rock down, you can see clearly the path ahead. Each microaggression and moment of hate faced is a distraction. An occurrence that says more about the giver than the receiver. A rock on the journey. There will be many along the way. Don’t pick them up. See the bigger picture. Remember who you are so that your decisions, reactions and belief of self isn’t determined by the rock, but by the greater perspective required to complete the journey.
Dwayna Haley is a vice president in Porter Novelli’s Atlanta office. She is a 2018 PR Week 40 Under 40 honoree and a PR Council Shadow Board member.