What It’s Like to Be a Black Man Managing an Office of White Women

Man Up host Aymann Ismail talks to a black executive about the pressure to “cover” at work.

A black man in a suit is flanked at left and right by white, blond women.
Photo illustration by Slate. Photos by Ranald Mackechnie/the Image Bank/Getty Images Plus and PeopleImages/E+ via Getty Images Plus.

On a recent episode of Man Up, Jason Smith, a black ad tech executive, spoke to Aymann Ismail about the difficulties of working in environments where he is the only person of color. Ari Joseph, head of diversity, equity, and inclusion at Vimeo, joined the conversation to discuss “covering,” or downplaying socially stigmatized traits, in the workplace. This transcript has been condensed and edited for clarity.

Jason Smith: I remember a young, really smart, white lady that worked at an ad agency that I worked at, had a Midwestern background, really hadn’t spent much time with folks that weren’t like her. I come in, I’m her boss, and I’m asking her to do some things that maybe challenged her experience. I remember having this really aggressive male reaction, which was like, well, if she doesn’t want to do what I ask her to do, or if I feel like—because “feel” is important, because I don’t know if she has these thoughts—if I feel like she sees me as inferior or she sees me as not being capable of managing her, then I’m going to be really forceful about it: “This is what I want you to do, this is how I want you to do it, and no questions are asked.” And I remember walking away from those experiences thinking, Man, this just isn’t me. This is exactly how it’s not supposed to go.

So I immediately started to place a practice into how I work with all women regardless of race, and I created a space with this particular person in which they could share with me: How was I behaving? How did they perceive my actions? How did they perceive my management style? And I learned so much about all of these things that she saw about black men and media and the areas that she grew up in and all of these different types of stories that she was told and what she missed or didn’t miss at school, and how that really shaped her behavior. It helped me learn a lot about myself and confront some of the things that I brought to work—that in some cases, it may be relevant and I may need to address it that way, but in many other cases, I’m just as guilty of being presumptive. I’m just as guilty of bias, and I think confronting that in an honest and collaborative way not only helped me improve how I think about my work, but I actually genuinely think that it changed someone’s life. And we’ve become the best of friends, and I admire how she works, and I hope I’ve been a good contribution to what she does in her career as well.

Aymann Ismail: That’s powerful, man. That’s really powerful. But, because we’re talking about improving and being a better boss, what direction do you think you might be headed in that you’d rather avoid? What exactly are we trying to improve on here?

Smith: I think the story that I gave you is the mythical perfect one, but that’s not always the case. I still am guilty of walking into a room—there aren’t any days where this doesn’t happen at least once—I’ll walk in and I’m absolutely the only person of color in that conversation, and the immediate bias for me is I’m being judged, there’s a downgraded perspective on what my capabilities are, and I need to exude some type of extreme confidence. This term that you hear in hip-hop and culture of “black excellence”—there’s a joke about why in the hell do I have to be excellent all the damn time? I walk in and I have this overexaggeration of puffing up so that I can exude this excellence because of all these preconceived notions from me and what I think other people think about me.

So what I want to get better at is trying to create spaces and opportunities for me to be more thoughtful and then maybe less presumptive about those conditions always existing. Totally, they may be there sometimes, but I can’t go into every scenario thinking that this is a biased condition which I need to be prepared for. I think it’s unfair to me, and it’s also unfair to people that I’m trying to create a great relationship with. And I think about the responsibility of being a male leader in a female-dominated industry. If I don’t create the space to mitigate this anxiety and this fear around being imperfect, I just contribute to the problem. And I think that’s just unacceptable.

Ismail: Ari, can you understand where Jason is coming from here?

Ari Joseph: One hundred percent, Jason, I feel you, brother. I think your story is a very common one. It brought to mind the concept of “covering.” This is a relatively new academic term to describe what we all do in the workplace when we cover part of ourselves. The idea is that there are essentially four domains that we bring to work: appearance, affiliation, association, and advocacy. All of us cover at least a part of who we are in those domains from time to time. The stats are crazy on this: 61 percent of people report covering at work. Full-on 45 percent of straight white men report covering, 83 percent of LGBTQ individuals, 79 percent of black people. So when you’re talking about hiding who you are, trying to change your tone, how you approach your interactions—not just with white women, I’m sure with white men too, with Latinos you work with, with the Muslim people you work with—I’m sure in every one of those instances you’re adjusting how you present yourself, and that’s a very human thing.

Ismail: Wow. I feel really validated by that too, because sometimes I feel like I’m the only one doing it. It’s a performance that I have to put on. Like I need to be this particular kind of disarming, friendly, Mr. Rogers–type neighborhood Muslim so that people don’t feel threatened by me. But it sometimes feels like I’m just creating that scenario in my head in the first place. Do you have advice for people like us?

Joseph: As the stats describe, everybody for the most part feels this way from time to time, so it’s a reality of life. When you’re working, when you’re a part of a larger group, any group of humans, there are rules. Whether it’s a church or a mosque or a community group or school, there are codes of conduct, there are cultural norms, and they’re set by the majority. And it just so happens that for most workplaces in America, white men have set the tone for what the culture is going to be.

Ismail: But is covering that bad? As men there is always some kind of performance going on, whether we’re performing for our friends or performing for our co-workers. I wonder about how that affects who we think we are. Is it so bad that we’re performing at the workplace?

Smith: I will say: absolutely. It’s a horrible thing, and the pretending begins even at an early stage. Pretending starts when you fall off your bike and your dad tells you, “Don’t cry.” That’s pretending, because you’re hurt and you want to show your emotions. Your job as a man of color is to play it off, player player. That’s still pretending. I think that this performance in life as well as in work has hugely detrimental impacts on our mental health and also the way that we engage with our families and our friends and even creating new friendships and relationships that are typically impossible for men because we’re trained to have this certain outward presentation.

Joseph: Jason, I hear what you’re saying, especially in the personal part of your life. But when it comes to work, the dominant culture sets the rules, and this is just the way humans work. If we want to change that, if we want to make it better for nonmajority people, then we have to get empowered and we have to change the rules ourselves.

I commend you, first and foremost, for making it to where you are in your career—chief business officer is no easy feat anywhere, much less in an industry that is dominated by a demographic that you’re not a part of. But you are now in a leadership role. You have the opportunity to influence other stakeholders in the organization. Whether it is your peers, other people with the chief designation, your direct reports, clients, potential recruits. With all of these things, you’re setting a tone and you’re being an example for other people in your organization. That’s the most powerful and important thing that we can do: help each other and help create more inclusive workplace environments, fair workplace environments, for everyone. So if you have that in mind, then you’re doing good, man.

To hear the entire episode, subscribe to Man Up on Apple Podcasts, Stitcher, Spotify, or wherever you get your podcasts. Look for the episode “A Black Man’s Fears About Managing White Women.”