Cynthia Madu is an incoming MBA student and Forte MBA Fellow at the Tuck School of Business at Dartmouth College. Most recently, Cynthia managed sales processes and operations at Scouted. Upon receiving her undergraduate degree at Dartmouth College, Cynthia served as a Financial Analyst at Bank of America Merrill Lynch. An immigrant of Nigeria and Detroit native, Cynthia has mastered multiple languages. In her spare time, Cynthia trains as a semi-professional Indian dancer and competitive boxer. Cynthia’s impetus for heading to a professional graduate program is rooted in her deep passion for equal and informative access to financial literacy for all.
On a typical day, I put myself down 57 different times. Why do I tell you this? I honestly felt that I had to share my story.
As I watch prominent companies jump on the pledge to tackle racial inequality, I can’t help but think of an experiment that I started about 2 years ago:
I noticed that I often put myself down. Not verbally, but in my head. Recognizing that this was a problem, I wanted to count how many times a day I did it, and how many of them were comments that I heard from a colleague, fellow student, or acquaintance that I then internalized, and how many were comments that I created myself. For months, I documented these thoughts. The first time I sat down and I read those pages (five total), I cried. I knew that I had lost myself. Cynthia – my core being – was gone.
In college, at Dartmouth, on several occasions, I was called the “affirmative action admission” or the “token Black girl”; my friend and I, still to this day, chat about the various times we were told, in one fashion or another, that we did not get into Dartmouth on our own merits but rather, because we met a “Black, inner-city kid” quota.
Unlike in college, the majority of the comments made in the workplace were never said to my face (outside of “You don’t really belong here, do you?”), and I am sure that I heard numerically more insults in school and my day-to-day life than in an office setting, but I can tell you this: the comments made in the workplace have had a lasting impact on how I approach and think about my career.
And so, if I can be brutally honest, I don’t believe the authenticity of this sudden “pledge of diversity” that many companies are publicly making.
Let’s start here: As you seek to hire more Black employees onto your teams, without first creating an equal, inclusive work environment, you are setting them up for failure. Your Diversity and Inclusion initiatives CANNOT start with hiring.
If you don’t work to create an inclusive environment, you are simply hiringa token Black person to look as if your organization is changing and growing without making the changes that are most important. I would argue that diverse hiring without inclusion often does more harm than good.
We push diversity for a little bit, hire Black folks into roles like “Chief Diversity Officer”, a pipeline that doesn’t lead to positions like CEO; we hire entry-level BIPOC folks, but we do little to change the culture of companies. Companies who’ve pledged to do better and who are knowingly hiring us into a, more often than not, hostile work environment.
This is a major factor in the devastating drop in representation from entry-level to c-suite positions. This is why, according to the McKinsey March 2020 diversity report, “…sentiment on inclusion was markedly worse…” with just 29% of surveyed individuals reporting they have a positive outlook on their employer’s workplace inclusion policies.
If you bring someone on as the “diversity hire” without systems in place to support them, you are putting the person before a firing squad of prejudices and racial animosity, they’ll be positioned as having “stolen” someone’s spot. Like me, they’ll be told that they don’t belong.
Some of the comments made by others that I repeat to myself over and over, day in and day out, are: “You are not going to do that well; you are only here for diversity”, “You don’t really belong here, do you?”, “Do your hair; it looks so unprofessional”, “Don’t say anything. You talk too much”, and the most pervasive “You are acting like a ghetto, black girl”.
All of these phrases I have heard, in a modified way, in my working career. After a while, you just get used to hearing things like this when you are the only Black person in the room.
As the Black Lives Matter movement has come into the limelight, I’ve seen professionals making the same comments, once whispered in offices or behind closed doors, openly and publicly on social media. One comment that stood out to me was a screenshot of a LinkedIn post highlighting Harvard’s graduating law class. This particular photo featured a group of Black men. Someone in a leadership position commented that the men looked like gang members.
Think about what kind of environment this person – who is in a position of power – is fostering at his company. Now, imagine this same person were to hire a Black person on their team. Do you think that this new hire would thrive at the company?
Companies are being more mindful of employees’ behavior outside of the office, and there have been instances where individuals have been fired for their offensive online comments. But, it’s important to remember that the same people who are being fired have been with their companies, or in positions of power with their companies, for years or decades. They were interacting with Black coworkers or Black patrons. For years, they set the standards for office culture and policies.
The vast majority of the comments that I internalized about myself, about 61% of these comments, were put-downs I heard throughout my working career.
From my race to personality stereotypes, I had internalized hating myself. At Scouted, it was apparent that I was struggling to find my confidence. I am sure my boss, Jacqueline, can share with you many stories of trying to encourage me to speak up. But I remember thinking, “you are not that smart. Don’t say anything or they will realize you don’t belong here. Keep your mouth shut.”
I never thought about it beyond that until I started applying for business school and noticed how much I was inhibiting myself because of these internal comments. I had, over time, internalized people’s hatred of me, and through their comments and behavior, I didn’t think I was worthy of opportunities.
As for me, I have a lot of work to do. I need to stop internalizing the hatred. I need to stop internalizing the negative comments. I may never get back to that child who thought she could do anything, but I will work to get to the point where I can see what others see in me: That I am worthy of my success.