How to Navigate Workplace Challenges as a Black Woman - a woman of color smiling with hand under chin and in front of laptop

How to Navigate Workplace Challenges as a Black Woman

Busisiwe Hlatswayo
January 24, 2023
January 23, 2023

This blog post was written by Busisiwe Hlatswayo, Career expert at Nivati. You can see more of their content on the Nivati platform and on the Nivati blog. If you want to learn more about Nivati, click here

Michelle Obama starts her latest book, titled The Light We Carry, by painting her father’s journey with multiple sclerosis (MS) and the tools he had to use to be able to move. First it was a wooden cane, then it was crutches, then a wheelchair, and finally a special purpose van. What I found profound is when she said her father did not have to like these tools for him to need them and to use them.

Black women at work might not have chosen the reality of navigating workplaces where they are often the “First, Only, Different” (F.O.D) as coined by Shonda Rhimes in her book Year of Yes. They might not have chosen the acts of discrimination and microaggressions that characterizes the experiences. However, Black women at work have to equip themselves with the tools to not only exist but succeed in these spaces. These are the tools that will help you navigate the precarious task of advocating for yourself as a Black woman.

There is an old saying that goes, “If you only have a hammer in your toolbox then every problem becomes a nail.” In order to avoid using one tool for every situation, Black women at work may need to first assess where they are in their psychological journey with racism and sexism consciousness.

Stages of Consciousness

Observation of my own journey and those of the women I work with demonstrate a set of phases of understanding and responding to both racism and sexism that most Black women experience. This journey is characterized by four stages.

Stage 1: Unconscious Victim

Stage 2: Conscious Victim

Stage 3: Conscious Agency

Stage 4: Conscious Bridge Building

Stage 1: Unconscious Victim

In this stage, the Black woman has a very superficial understanding of how racism and sexism affect her lived experience. She may classify herself as apolitical and may not yet understand that “the personal is political” —-a phrase, which is credited to Carol Hanisch, a feminist activist.

During this phase, the Black woman experiences what she cannot name and has no language for. The exclusions, microaggressions, and blatant discrimination that she experiences are often internalized as personal failure; and her response might be shame, depression, and feelings of unworthiness. This condition is referred to as internalized inferiority. 

This can result in despondency and career stagnancy, which creates a confirmation of the inferiority and incompetence stereotype that may have caused this experience in the first place. It may also cause overworking to prove her worth, assimilation, and code switching to Eurocentric and male-associated behaviors in the workplace as a way to fit in. This might be impossible for some Black women at work, who for a variety of reasons cannot assimilate. It can also cause employee burnout.

Tools applicable for this stage are:

  • Educate yourself. Read widely on the subject, especially but not necessarily exclusively from BIPOC (Black, Indigenous, and People of Color) writers. 
  • Seek out podcasts that discuss this subject. 
  • Find a community so you can be supported. 

This will give you language and affirm your experience and inherent worth and can really increase your confidence.

For more on this stage, check out this video.

Stage 2: Conscious Victim

This can also be called the “woke stage.” “Woke" is a term created by Black Americans to describe one who is conscious about how issues such as racism affect them and their community. This often happens as a result of having an experience of racism and sexism and in seeking to understand it, the Black woman puts herself through a process of education about the historical and psychological impact of racism and sexism. 

This learning often enhances her confidence as her experience is validated and meaning is created. She learns a language to vocalize and name her lived experiences instead of internalizing them. Moreover, these theories are often taught by BIPOC writers. Learning from people who look like you are in and of itself an affirming experience because in mainstream education, the creators of knowledge are often White and male. Excellence and everything better no longer look White. Assimilation to Whiteness and maleness stops being the only way to advance. This process also creates a sense of belonging and community.

However, this learning stage can stimulate a lot of suppressed anger and a feeling of being a victim. By victim I mean one who over-externalizes her power, holding her advancement ransom to someone else’s recognition of her worth and the error of their ways. This is different from her advocating for herself and others while owning her agency, her right to self-define, and her worth. 

Anger is more empowering than depression and despondency. It can be used to fuel impactful action. However, anger has to be managed, processed, and channeled intentionally because it can be destructive. In my own experience of anger, I became prejudicial and distrustful of all White people. I blamed everything on race; I became confrontational and territorial about Black people.

Tools applicable for this stage:

  • It is important to be supported and guided through this stage. I suggest some sort of trauma healing work; whatever modality you choose, it is crucial in this stage, to help process your own individual trauma and the intersectional and collective trauma of historical and systematic racism and sexism.
  • Self-care and rest are also key in this stage as you process your trauma, anger, and grief. Do not suppress your anger or rush through it; process it fully and channel it productively.

Stage 3: Conscious Agency

This stage happens once the Black woman has integrated the knowledge, processed the anger, and experienced the grieving process. It is a stage of owning her agency, deciding how she is going to show up in the workplace. It is a self-defining stage where she reclaims her agency and achieves what is referred to as a state of self-sovereignty. In this stage, she acknowledges the effects of racism and sexism and detaches them from her sense of worth and agency. This is the stage where the Black woman becomes intentional about viewing and living her life outside of the lens of the White male gaze. This stage is not about her ignoring or minimizing the impact of racism and sexism, but about being intentional about how she is going to coexist and engage with it.  

Tools applicable for this stage:

  • Defining your own brand and making it broader than your job title. This allows you to be more marketable and easier to find other opportunities should you need to leave a toxic workplace.
  • Creating a career strategy that aligns with how you choose to show up in the workplace. 
  • Understanding workplace politics, your own political currency, and when and where to use it. 
  • Being intentional about where you work, leaving workplaces where the culture is toxic and is not likely to change.
  • Creating firm boundaries and advocating for yourself when it comes to workload and office interactions. 
  • Creating a support system around you that may include a coach, mentor, sponsor, a mastermind, etc.
  • Starting a side hustle or a business to get out of the corporate world. 

Stage 4: Conscious Bridge Building

This stage is optional; however, it is my view that we cannot have real progress if we choose not to take on this challenge. One activist named this stage emotional volunteerism because it requires the “oppressed” to take up the emotional labor of bridge building with the “oppressor”. This includes taking on the emotional labor of educating and being patient with perpetrators of microaggressions who show the willingness to change and learn. 

This work of bridge building is not a kumbaya. It is not about bypassing, denying, or suppressing the truth in exchange for peace. It is about transcending our own pain to see each other’s humanity and each other’s role in building workplaces where we can coexist in harmony. It should only be taken up when you have done enough of the emotional healing to create the resiliency to bear the emotional toll this process can take. 

It is only when you have done this work that you are able to appreciate when other people are trying—however imperfectly—to include and reconcile with you. It is a time when you can coexist with others with some measure of conscious harmony. This is where you don’t distrust a whole race and gender but give people a chance, engage with them from where they are, while holding them firmly accountable for their behavior.

Tools applicable for this stage:

In this instance I have identified three authors whose works provide the tools useful for bridge building.

Esther Perel, the author of Mating in Captivity and The State of Affairs, is a well-known couple's therapist and a thought leader on relationships both for couples and in the workplace. Esther teaches the art of managing paradoxes: the ability to hold two seemingly contradictory views, two opposing truths at the same time without one needing to negate the other. Moving away from the need to be right and to see a problem from only one viewpoint. Leaning into the complex instead of the black and white, right or wrong. Understanding that each of us has a perspective, a story that we are invested in. Realizing that we can listen to and make space for another person’s story without needing to surrender our story for the sake of peace. Learning to hold the two stories together and find solutions.

The second author is Dr. Brene Brown, a shame researcher, author, and podcaster. Her book and accompanying program titled Dare to Lead teaches leaders how to tackle leadership challenges with vulnerability and courage. Confronting issues of racism and sexism at work is triggering and polarizing because it triggers the shame and denial response from White and male leaders at work. A response that Robin Diangelo termed White fragility. It also requires courage from the Black women who are advocating for equitable treatment at work. The book Dare to Lead provides the tools to manage our emotional discomfort when confronting difficult conversations such as racism and sexism. These tools can serve as means to facilitate this work of bridge building.

The third powerful bridge-building tool is a book by Anand Giridharadas, titled The Persuaders. The book is written specifically for activists, but the principles articulated are useful for individuals as well. It focuses on bridge building by moving away from writing people off as “never going to change”. Giridharadas calls for the difficult work of persuading and inviting people who are willing to listen and have the conversation, without diluting the truth and without discounting the risks and dangers and discomfort that this work requires. In the book he interviews prolific activists such as Linda Sarsour, Loretta J. Ross, and Alicia Garza, among many others.

Working while Black and female is not easy. Your presence in the workplace is often a trigger, a reminder of the effort of transformation and equity that workplaces need to make. Your daily perseverance in the workplace is an act of courage, of taking on the emotional labor of calculating and anticipating how each action you take can be interpreted. Exercise self-compassion, rest, and self-care. Fill your cup daily and use everything in your toolbox to succeed and drive change in your workplace.

For more on this topic, check out The State of Black Women in the Workplace and How HR Can Help.


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Busisiwe Hlatswayo
Busisiwe Hlatswayo
Busisiwe Hlatswayo (MBA) is an award-winning Black Women in Leadership Coach and Founder of Black Women in the Workplace, a company whose mission is to increase the representation of Black women leaders in both the workplace and the marketplace and to create workplaces that are psychologically safe environments for diverse talent to thrive.