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Updated: March 7, 2022 Outside the Box

Employees mask the impacts of racism

A picture of Bonnie J. Walker Image | Courtesy of Bonnie J. Walker Bonnie J. Walker
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Despite genetics, the chances of challenges developing in life are strongly influenced by the environments in which we live.

Racism is an experience that causes many compounded challenges. Policies, conditions, and resources perpetuating inequities create an unhealthy society for people of color to live in.

All said, race is a social construct. All humans share 99.9% of the same genome, according to the National Human Genome Research Institute. Stated simply: it’s racism, not race, at the root of persistent disparities in physical and mental well-being.

Racism has deprived people of color of basic needs such as food and shelter due to systemic poverty, inadequate housing, neighborhood violence, lack of access to resources and education, inequities in exposure to air pollution, and other environmental toxins. For me, the adversity I have faced due to racism has been strictly psychological: social-emotional, and racial fatigue.

Trauma can be talked about on a spectrum. Some of us carry bigger traumas tied to racism, such as the threat to our physical safety, or even seeing loved ones killed because of racism. Others may have experienced microaggressions about their hair or been made to feel less because of their skin color. It affects everyone uniquely.

With all of this to contend with, as business leaders, do you expect your employees of color to leave all of this behind when they come to work? Do you believe that people can put on a (mental and emotional) mask when they arrive at your organization?

Employees of color protect and shield white colleagues from their actual lived experiences, so they can remain comfortable. This expectation requires people of color to deny a part of who they are every day.

The “mask” does not make people of color feel connected and safe. In fact, the mask works as another layered burden. Ironically, while people of color keep white people comfortable with our masks, we experience the same racism (lack of safety) in the workplace, as we do in the external environments. We don’t get to be comfortable, anywhere.

I have memories of incidences of racism sketched into my mind, as vividly as the day I first experienced them. They changed me. As a child, each time I experienced something racist, I would bury it away in my subconscious mind so I could keep going with some semblance of dignity. But this only organized the experiences in a separate place. I wasn’t processing them nor sharing them with anyone, and certainly no healing was going on.

As my experiences of racism continued and compiled in my subconscious, so did my shame. I continued forward with broken pieces of my whole self, all the while working overtime in the office, with my mask on.

Carrying shame is one form of violence against self. Shame will nag at you and tell you, “You’re not good enough,” or “You don’t deserve that,” or “That good thing is not meant for someone like you.” It eats away at your mind leaving you in a constant state of restlessness, or in a sort of emotional and psychological shut down. It can cause far worse things, like extreme anxiety, suicidal thoughts, dissociative disorder, and more.

I recommend reading Oprah's Book, written with Dr. Bruce Perry, "What Happened to You?" This book centers the human experience of trauma and encourages us to realign our thinking when people show up with inappropriate behaviors. Instead of focusing on what's wrong with someone, stop to consider, first, what happened to them.

Please awaken your awareness of the fact people of color come to work with masks on, perpetuating their discomfort, to minimize the discomfort of majority and non-marginalized colleagues, not to fit in or to hide anything, but in a valiant effort to survive.

Bonnie J. Walker is the director of equity and inclusion at Worcester Academy. Contact her at

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