As a Black Woman in Business for 2 Decades, Here's How I've Learned to Navigate Microaggressions and Racism in Networking Networking is a critical tool in an entrepreneur's toolbox, but it's not an easy one for people of color — and as a Black woman entrepreneur, I'm all too familiar with the microaggressions and sometimes outright racism we have to brush aside. Here are some tips for navigating networking as a person of color.
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"And your problem is you're Black," she said without missing a beat, after enumerating the other problematic issues of different people from her perspective. Please hold your outrage and pick up your jaw — that's what I heard from a fellow attendee at a woman's conference during a breakout session earlier this year (yes, in 2022).
While everything in me wanted to "Will Smith slap" the white woman who boldly stood before me and uttered those words, I restrained myself. Why? Because violence is never the answer. Furthermore, who wants to perpetuate the angry Black woman trope, even when it's justified? This encounter is just one instance of a 24-year business career full of moments like these I've endured as a Black woman while networking.
Given that I am often the only Black woman or a part of a cadre of people of color in attendance at most of these networking events, experiencing some form of racism or microaggression is not uncommon. If you are a minority, then you understand this to your core. Most of us have learned to ignore it, understanding it honestly has nothing to do with us. The plain truth is racism and discrimination exist in almost every facet of our public lives.
Although I wish I had a brilliant retort at the time, I was just stunned and moved on. Instead, I should have corrected the woman and explained that it was unacceptable. Being Black is one of my most vital attributes beyond being a woman.
Networking is an essential cornerstone in every entrepreneur's arsenal. Making valuable connections through networking allows us to learn from our peers and helps us find resources, including new opportunities for our business. Allow me to share three essential tips I've used to navigate the tumultuous sea of networking while Black.
1. Find people who accept you, not just tolerate you
Choose to participate in networking events where we are accepted versus tolerated, making the investment of time worthwhile and the possibility of encountering racism lower. Do your due diligence to determine if the event is worth the time, effort and cost. If the event includes speakers, how diverse is the group? If this is a regular event, who comprises the attendees? Performing research via peers and social channels can also reveal vital details before adding events to your calendar.
2. Skip the small talk and create quality engagements
Instead of attempting to meet 75 people at a two-hour event, try to create deeper connections with fewer people through more engaging conversations. Go beyond asking what they do for a living. Instead, ask this question, "What is something you recently spectacularly failed at?" This disarming question helps peer beyond the veil of our physical attributes and allows us to recognize our shared humanity. Start by answering the question first. Showing vulnerability can go a long way in creating a business connection.
3. Determine the intention of the discriminatory words
If you have a racist encounter at a networking event, ask yourself, Was it intentional? If you can discern that a person consciously has ill intentions, my best advice is to walk away. Yes, as people of color, we still have the burden of being the bigger person.
There's a strong likelihood that if a person is hell-bent in their pursuit of persecuting a person of color, one interaction with you will not change them — further, it is not our role to teach in every interaction. However, suppose a person comes from a genuine place of ignorance versus malice. In that case, it's easier to correct them and possibly have a deeper conversation about why they said what they said or acted in that manner.
Bonus tip for allies: Take your hands off your privilege
The burden of discrimination should never lay solely on the person who is being objectified or ignored. When microaggressions and outright destained are endlessly pelting people of color, something must be said if this is witnessed. The 2020 article published by the Harvard Business Review called "Be A Better Ally," states, "While our advice is addressed largely to white men in the United States, we believe it can be used by members of any privileged group who want to create inclusive organizations."
While we are not counting on a white savior, you must shirk your privilege and stand up for what is right. Not only in moments like the one I experienced, but in the other moments you encounter racist behavior, including private banter and jokes. You are mandated to rebuke such behaviors even at the cost of your privilege.
People of color have learned to steer through these oppressive encounters for centuries. If, in the end, we can all view our differences as the unique assets they are, we will advance beyond this 400+-year-old issue. Understanding that every interaction is an opportunity to learn and explore another luminous human experience — we might be able to have more engaging and informative conversations while enjoying the bad wine and cocktail cheese.