Zach has the pleasure of sitting down to chat with Dr. Janice Gassam, Ph.D. in an episode themed around discussing emotional labor. She and Zach touch on the concept of self-care, and Dr. Gassam shares a few ways she believes that organizations, aspirational allies, and leaders can help ease the emotional labor lift for black and brown folks in majority-white spaces.
Check out her articles on Forbes!
Zach: What’s up, y’all? It’s Zach with Living Corporate, and yes, we’re here. We’re back. We’re having conversations, you know, that amplify the voices of black and brown people at work, and we do that through what? Now, I’m talking to y’all like this is a live podcast, but this is the part where you would say “by having authentic available transparent conversations with black and brown educators, executives, entrepreneurs, influencers, creatives, activists, and non-melanated or lower-melanted allies,” right? People who are advocates of inclusive, diverse, and equitable spaces, and so we do that, right? Like, we have these conversations–honestly, I feel like every time we come on here we have a great guest, and today, today is no different. Today we have Dr. Janice Gassam. Now, listen, Dr. Gassam is a diversity and inclusion consultant and founder of BWG Business Solutions LLC, a company focused on creating strategies to foster an equitable workplace. Gassam is a professor at the Sacred Heart University, teaching courses in diversity and inclusion, performance management, data analytics, and employee engagement. Now, look, let me just go ahead and give y’all some stats, okay? Just real quick so y’all know, ’cause, you know, this is the thing. You know, we’re gonna talk about this in the interviewer, but sometimes, you know, folks kind of look at these platforms–and Living Corporate is fairly unique, but they look at this stuff like, “Oh, this is just, you know, passionate stuff,” quote-unquote, and it gets dismissed. No, no, no. Dr. Gassam has bonafides, okay? So she has a Ph.D. in organizational psychology, a TedX speaker, and she’s authored over 100–listen, yo, 100. 100. Hold on, they’re not hearing me. ONE HUNDRED articles. Now, you might say, “Articles on what? Articles on Lipstick Alley?” No. “Articles on Shade Room?” No. Articles on Forbes, what you talking about? [Flex bomb sfx] Okay? She’s out here. She’s making moves, okay? And listen, she has a competent communicator certificate from Toastmasters International. So not the local spot, okay? Catalyst certification in unconscious bias awareness, has spoken for Yale, H&M, and various other conferences and universities, and she’s taught undergraduate and graduate courses in employee engagement, performance management, diversity and inclusion, amongst others. Dr. Gassam, how are you doing? Like, I just gotta–hold on, I gotta at least give you a cheer or something. [applause sfx]
Janice: [laughs] Thank you so much, Zach. That was a really nice intro. You made me sound so important, but thank you so much for having me, and it’s a pleasure to be here, and I’m really excited to get into this conversation. How are you today?
Zach: You know what? I’m doing really, really well. I’m in New Orleans. My cousin-in-law is getting married.
Janice: Congraulations. That’s fun.
Janice: Are you gonna go to Cafe Du Monde?
Zach: Ooh, I might. I may.
Janice: Yeah, you gotta have–you gotta. I think it’s 24 hours, but the lines are usually pretty long. But if you have a chance, if you’re there for a little bit of a time, that would be fun. Wow, that sounds really nice.
Zach: It should be great, you know? And this is the challenge, right? So when you get older–so I’m just now hitting 30, right? So you get older and, you know, you can’t just kind of eat and do some of the things that, you know… your body, your body sends you a memo later like, “Ayo, I know you tried to be cute earlier, but it ain’t happening now. You’ve got an appointment now, so what’s up? And now your knee hurting and you don’t know why,” right? But no, I’m doing great. How are you doing? What do you got going on these days?
Janice: I’m doing good. I aim for seven hours of sleep, seven to eight hours, so I got my seven hours. Today I have to do–I’m writing some articles. I did some Forbes interviews, so I have to just transcribe them, and then I have grading of course. So that should be–should keep me pretty busy.
Zach: Okay. Okay, all right. Now, look, it can’t just slay by itself. You gotta put in the work, and you’re doing it, so we appreciate you. So thank you.
Janice: Thank you so much.
Zach: No, no doubt. So look, let’s get into it. You’ve established a deep brand in diversity, equity, and inclusion. Your profile–at what point in your life did you realize that this was the work that you wanted to do and why? Like, what led you to come to this point and create this brand for yourself?
Janice: Well, I guess sometimes people ask me this question, and I think it’s a combination of the fact that I come from a–my parents come from Cameroon, which is a West African country, so I–throughout growing up I kind of grappled with not being Cameroonian enough, you know? Because I don’t speak the language, I don’t cook Cameroonian food, and I didn’t really know a lot about the culture growing up because I was born and raised here in America. So I think that that combination of the different culture, as well as, you know, growing up in predominantly white neighborhoods and going to predominantly white schools and also just recognizing my blackness, it’s almost like–DuBois talked about, in “The Souls of Black Folks,” a double consciousness that black people in America experience where it’s kind of like they have to grapple with their own blackness as well as being a black person in a white America, and I think it was, like, a triple consciousness. So trying to figure out where–you know, where I fit in the black sort of scope as well as, you know, trying to assimilate to white America, and I did a lot of that in school, you know, so that I would be accepted and then also embracing my culture and being true to my culture and that aspect of my background. So I think that that combination always made me really interested in diversity and inclusion. In 2011 I started a YouTube channel where I talked primarily on race and quote-unquote black issues and things that I felt were relevant to the black community, and I’ve kind of scaled back, and I haven’t made a video probably in six or seven months, but I still, you know, post videos on there here and there, and I was able to cultivate a pretty loyal and strong audience. I had about 20,000 subscribers on that channel, but– [ow sfx] I actually moved my focus to corporate diversity and inclusion because I saw that there were holes in the system when I would work in different companies. I noticed certain things. So I guess my focus moved from sort of these issues that are relevant to black America to “How do I fix these issues in corporate America?”
Zach: And it’s just such critical work. First of all, let me take a step back. So I think it’s interesting when you think about, like, just black identity, underrepresented identity, and just all of the nuance of that, just of your own identity period. Like, let’s just–not talking about within the context of any other social framework, but you have yourself, your own lived experience, which is complex, and then you’re placing that within a context of being, like, in a white majority, and then–I don’t know. It’s just a lot, and I wonder–and it kind of leads me to my next question. When you talk about, like–when we talk about this space in diversity and inclusion and we talk about really kind of taking these conversations that black America is having–and I’m not trying to exclude other non-white spaces, but I’ma speak to black America because that’s the experience that I live in. So historically over the past, I don’t know, what, 100 and something odd years, like, we’ve had thought leaders talk about and have these internal conversations or in-house conversations about what it means to be black, and then of course we’ve had–you know, we’re knocking on the door today, but there have been people who knocked on the door before us having these conversations and bringing these discussions to light. I guess my question is, as I look at your profile, do you ever see or feel a sense of being in, like, two worlds at once? And these two worlds that I’m talking about is one I’m seeing, like, a bit of–I’m seeing, like, one camp when it comes to this corporate D&I space, this corporatized D&I space that is very heady. It’s very academic, and it’s largely white and institutionalized a bit. And then there’s this other group that’s continuing to grow and build that is more activist in its function and more driven and founded by themes of justice, and also driven by themes of lived experience. When I look at your profile, and even what you just shared about you being a first-generation American and you being a first-generation professional, like, a first-generation in a variety of ways, but also having this academic background, do you see yourself straddling both of these worlds? Do you see–I mean, I’m kind of making an assumption that you even agree with my analysis of, like, corporate D&I. I’m just curious about, like, how do you see yourself as you operate in this space?
Janice: No, absolutely. I have a close friend who, you know, I’ve been doing these diversity dinner dialogues in New York City, which is just, like, a free workshop where anyone who has an interest in diversity and inclusion can come. You know, we talk about a specific topic. Papa John’s sponsors it, and in doing that I actually got to know a girl who has become one of my close friends. Her name is Donna. She’s getting her Ph.D. in psychology, but her dissertation focuses on corporate diversity training, and she’s looking specifically at how receptive people are when the trainer is not a diverse person, so is a white person or seemingly a white person. And going back to your point, I do agree. I think that unfortunately, any time you’re talking about diversity, equity and inclusion, I think people are more receptive to the message when it comes from a white person. That’s just unfortunately, you know, what it is. If I’m talking about, or you’re talking about your lived experience, I think that people put more stock in when a white person says those things or finally realizes that there are inequities that are taking place. I do commend–not to take anything away from white people who are in this space who are using their privilege to amplify the voices of people of color, but I just think it’s something that’s important to note, that in this space I do think that there is sort of, like, a hierarchy, and I think that, you know, unfortunately black people are at the bottom of that hierarchy, and I think that when it comes to issues that are relevant, specifically to black people and people of color, those get prioritized last, and I think that that’s unfortunate. People don’t understand that you can be a marginalized group but still be racist. So I think that it’s important to understand those sorts of things. I don’t know, I guess, what the solution is, but it’s just something that I’ve noticed.
Zach: No, straight up. And it’s interesting too. So your point around, like, hierarchy, ’cause even as I talk to other diversity, equity and inclusion professionals, right? Like, something that people will jump out [?] any time we have these conversations. It’s almost like a point of pride or, like, particular insight when people say something like, you know, “Diversity and inclusion just isn’t about ethnicity and race,” and I’m like, “Well, wait… okay, it’s not, you’re right. Can we also acknowledge that ethnicity and race have played a critical part in, like, America’s formation and policy structure and even today. I’m not saying that the other diversity [?] don’t exist, but it’s like people are so excited to, like, get away from that and then talk about “It’s about diversity of education, and geography, and hair color,” and–
Janice: [laughing] “Diversity of thought.”
Zach: My gosh, diversity of thought. You know, I keep–you know, look, the government, they made–I’m serious, they made crack and diversity of thought in the same lab. They did. It’s crazy. It’s nuts.
Janice: Right? That’s a great way to put it, yeah. I think it’s really easy to, like, divert the conversation, and that’s why I think I like to do these diversity dinners and focus specifically on an issue, because I think when you’re talking about, for example, allyship, allyship, that conversation–people think of allies more so as allies in that LGBTQIA+ community, but any marginalized group needs allies, and I think that when you don’t focus specifically on race or ethnicity and you bring up the diversity conversation, I think people like to divert it and say, “Well, you know, you also have to be inclusive to this group and that group and that group,” and I totally agree and I understand that, but I think that there are very unique challenges that people of color, and particularly black people, in this country face in that the main way that people are able to see that we are black is our skin color, you know? If you’re part of a marginalized group where your identity is invisible, I do think that your experiences are vastly different from an individual like me or like you who our skin color is apparent to anyone that looks at us, and I don’t think that it’s–you know, I guess I’m not the type of person that likes to say who is struggling the most or likes to play the oppression politics, but I do think that that is an important point that needs to be acknowledged. Just because you’re part of a marginalized group doesn’t mean that our experiences are the same, you know? And I think that sometimes people like to say, “Well, look, I’m oppressed too. I have this particular invisible identity,” and it’s like–we might have similar experiences, but we also have vastly different experiences, and I think that sometimes that’s overlooked. Even when I come in and do these corporate workshops related to diversity, I am always encouraged to not focus on race. And I recently had a consultation–so when people reach out to me to do a workshop, they’ll schedule a call and then kind of figure out what I’m about, what topics I can speak to for their corporate audience, and I was specifically told recently to not victimize people in the workshop. So, you know, people don’t want to be victimized. People don’t want to feel like the finger is pointed at them. And sometimes people don’t really want to directly address race, and I recognize and understand that. Before I was kind of, like–I didn’t really quite understand that, but I know that, you know, when you come into a room and say to somebody, “Because you’re part of this race, you have privilege, and your people have systematically and systemically oppressed,” you know, based on the history. People shut down, and there’s resistance, so it’s almost like you kind of have to–I don’t have any kids, but I know that sometimes when you have kids and you don’t want to eat the food or take the medicine, you can kind of put sugar around it with the medicine and give that to them. So it’s almost [?] diversity and inclusion. You have to give the sugar with the hard, I guess, lessons and the hard realities, because people get very defensive.
Zach: And so then–so let’s talk about that a little bit more. You shared the idea that folks will tell you, “Hey, just don’t talk about it.” Like, how do those requests come about? How do they frame it?
Janice: Sometimes they’re very great, [laughs] and other times it’s more subtle, where I give them a list of topics–and of course, you know, I’ve been on YouTube since 2011 just talking in front of my camera about quote-unquote black issues and how–you know, racial dynamics, so it’s a topic I feel very passionately about, but when I give them my list of topics that range from, you know, micro-aggressions to how to have conversations about race in the workplace to how to get the ROI of your diversity programs to emotional intelligence, what I’ve noticed is typically people like me to talk about emotional intelligence versus–and I think emotional intelligence is definitely an important topic, but it’s not something that’s difficult to digest, you know? It’s not something that’s gonna make people feel uncomfortable. So it’s kind of like, “These are my lists of topics,” and just in choosing the topics, you know, they’ll reach out to me and say, “Could you do a talk on this?” or “Could you do a workshop on this?” And it’s never been some of those more difficult-to-swallow concepts like race, because–and I understand, you know, you want your audience to be receptive to it, and unfortunately people really aren’t receptive to conversations about race unless it’s a white person giving it. A good example of that is–I showed my students the Chelsea Handler documentary that just came out on white privilege. I think that’s what it’s called, “Me and My White Privilege” or something like that. [Editor’s note: it’s “Hello Privilege. It’s Me, Chelsea”] So I showed it to them. There was a particular clip where Chelsea interviewed some conservative women from Orange County, California, and they were saying people of color get privileges like school admissions, like jobs. They were referring to this myth that affirmative action is reverse racism. And so, you know, I showed them that clip, and then I spoke to how all of the things that were said in that clip were just factually incorrect, and affirmative action wasn’t created to give unfair advantages to people of color and women who are not qualified, and also white women benefit the most from affirmative action. So I think that just watching that whole documentary, the reception has been interesting, because I think if someone like Kevin Hart or Dave Chappelle or, you know, any other comedian did a documentary on race, I don’t think it would have gotten the same reception as Chelsea Handler’s documentary, and I think that that’s unfortunate.
Zach: It’s interesting too, because I was having a conversation with some majority folks, right? And they were talking about the documentary, and they said, “Well, you know, I don’t know. Part of me is like, you know, ‘Is this just another schtick?’ Like, ‘Is she even really being serious and authentic,’ right? Like, how honest is this really?'” But then also there were people who watched it and really, you know, thought it was just groundbreaking and courageous and innovative and all of these other words. [laughing]
Janice: It’s interesting. I thought it was–it was just interesting. I think that when she was speaking with the women in that particular scene who were saying these things, she didn’t really dispel what they were saying. They were like, “Well, you know, everyone has privilege, and it’s not just white people,” and Chelsea wasn’t–I think she could have been more direct with dispelling their myths, and it’s just incorrect to say that black people are getting–people of color are being treated, you know, better than white people in this country, ’cause that’s just not true.
Zach: That’s just factually false.
Janice: [?] You look at the rate of arrests. You look at who gets jailed, the amount of time that’s given. If you just look at our criminal justice system, it’s so apparent. You know, and what is her name? I’m forgetting the author’s name, but she specifically talks about looking at the demographics of people who were pulled over and arrested driving on the New Jersey turnpike where they did this extensive study, and they found that, of course, the majority of those people were black and brown men. So just, like, it’s obvious that those women are living in, like, their own delusion, and I think that maybe if I was sort of encapsulated in my own white America and I didn’t interact–’cause obviously I don’t interact really with anyone of color–I would probably have those same falsehoods as well, and one thing that I try to remind myself is that I can’t really fault white people for not caring about certain issues because, in their minds, they think that it’s not relevant to them. So we’re–you know, humans are self-motivated, and we focus on things that we think will impact us. I think the fallacy is thinking that it doesn’t affect them, because if Trump is spewing this rhetoric, or if our politicians are doing something that negatively impacts [one group?] people, ultimately that’s gonna impact you in other ways. So I think that, like, there’s this false idea that diversity and inclusion doesn’t impact you or you’re not–you don’t have to be involved in the conversation, but I think that–you know, that famous quote that somebody said where it’s like, “If one group is oppressed, we’re all oppressed.” You know, “If one group is not free, none of us are free.” So I think that it’s that. It’s just that these women in that clip didn’t understand how, like, we’re all interconnected.
Zach: No, you’re absolutely right, and there’s multiple points of evidence that we can look at to talk about just, like, disparity and inequity and disparate treatment for black and brown people juxtaposed to white folks, right? So you have–of course you have prison, just the criminal justice system. You also have, like, health care and treatment. You have access to public transportation. You have just general public school education. You have access to food. So just, like, neighborhoods that are–you know, you have food deserts. Like, those are real things, and they’re impacted by race. So 100%. So, Janice, diversity, equity and inclusion is broad, and you talked about earlier that you cover a variety of things. You speak on a variety of things. Can we zoom in on a topic really quick? Let’s talk about the emotional labor of black and brown DEI professionals, particularly women, in this, like, diversity, equity, and inclusion space, right? Like, I’d really like to talk about that. Are you down?
Janice: Yeah, sure.
Zach: Cool. So in the history of the show, you know, I’ve brought up the concept of emotional labor, but I’ve just said it. Like, I’ll be like, “You know, people don’t really consider the emotional labor.” And I’ve talked about it with colleagues at my job. I’ve talked about it with friends. But, like, can we–but I don’t think I’ve ever taken the time to really explain what emotional labor is, like, as a concept. Would you mind talking a little bit about what you believe–like, what is your definition of emotional labor?
Janice: Absolutely. So it’s funny you ask this, because at the recent diversity dinner dialogue I had this week there was a diversity professional. He works at a large consulting firm, and he asked what we–he posed the question to everyone who was there, and he said “What do you do for self-care?” Because D&I work is very exhausting, so what do you do as self-care? And, you know, one thing that I realized is that I never really escape it, because I feel, like you said, it’s our lived experience, so any time I–and I don’t watch TV, but when I open my phone to go onto Instagram, you know, the people that I follow are a lot of these–like, Shaun King, and, like, a lot of these, the [?] show. So people who report on news that’s related to black people. So sometimes I just find myself scrolling past stuff, because–especially Shaun King stuff–I don’t always have the bandwidth for it, and if I’ve had a long day and I’m just not in the mood for my day to be ruined, I have to scroll past stuff. But also, like, for me, I think fellowship is a really important part of just dealing with the emotional labor of it. I think fellowship with my fellow black and brown people, it just helps me, ’cause it’s almost like when you’re around people–when you’re around the majority, it’s almost like–I saw a picture where someone had, like, a mask on–a black person, it’s like when they go into corporate America you put your mask on, and then when you get home you take your mask off. So I feel like when you’re around your friends you’re free to take the mask off and just, you know, explain what you’re going through at work, and my friends and I, we talk a lot about our work experiences, and I–you know, my experience is a little different since I’m not necessarily in corporate America. I’m in academia and then I do consulting. And academia has its same politics, but it’s a little bit different, but listening to–you know, I have a close friend who works at Uber, and just listening to all of my different friends’ experiences, I’m just like, “Wow. This is really, really interesting,” and, I mean, in a weird way, the fellowship helps me to sort of cope with some of these–the work that I do. So that really helps me. And also–it sounds weird, but I’m really big with sleep. [laughs] I always try to get my 7-8 hours, ’cause I think that–and there’s research that indicates that when we’re under stress, when we’re not getting enough rest, we’re sick, we’re more likely to–our thinking isn’t as sharp and as crisp, and interestingly people are more likely to fall into discriminatory behaviors when they’re sleep-deprived. So I always try to make sure that I’m in–or, you know, as much as I can that I’m getting enough sleep, I’m getting enough rest, I’m going to the gym, even when I don’t feel like going, to make sure that I’m treating my body as well, because there is this idea that, you know, in our society, you’re not productive unless you’re busy, and I really try to emphasize the importance of sleep and rest, especially when you’re doing something as taxing as diversity and inclusion work or just being a person of color in a workplace that–you know, even if your work doesn’t relate to diversity and inclusion, that’s exhausting in itself. So I think that those are really important for me, sometimes just scrolling past those pages and those things that will bring me more stress, getting rest, and then just the fellowship.
Zach: And so then do you think–do you think that the concept of emotional labor is explored enough, like, within, like, diversity and inclusion, and then also, like, as a concept when we talk to companies and clients and other organizations?
Janice: I don’t. I don’t think that it’s–and it doesn’t really happen as much to me. Sometimes when I’m on a plane and I’m reading a certain book, someone might see something and comment, but I’ve seen sometimes where D&I professionals are wearing a shirt that makes a really bold statement and someone makes a comment about the shirt, and it’s like–it’s exhausting because sometimes you’re out and you don’t want to have a conversation about diversity and inclusion, but somehow it gets to that conversation. So I think that people just assume that because this is something you do for a living or you enjoy doing that you want to talk about it 24/7, and that’s not always the case. So I think that it’s not something that’s explored enough and in enough detail.
Zach: And so then, like, you know, what does fatigue look like? Like, you’ve been in this space for a while. Like, at what points do you realize, like, “Hey, I really need to,” you know, engage in what is restorative for you. So you taking a break, you getting off social media, you sleeping a little bit more. Like, what are the signs of fatigue for you personally?
Janice: I think when I have an opportunity that’s presented to me, and instead of being excited I just–I’m already anticipating how tired I will be after the opportunity, that’s a good indication that maybe I need to sort of slow down. And yeah, I think that would be the main thing for me. Sometimes people will reach out and say, “Oh, can you do this?” And it’s an amazing opportunity, but I’m just like, “Oh, I have so much on my plate,” so I can’t–in my mind I’m like, “I can [?] do it,” you know? And it’s just–for me it’s just sometimes I need to learn, one thing I need to learn is–Shonda Rhimes has a book called The Year of Yes. I need a Year of No, and I need to just–sometimes it’s really powerful to just say no to things that you know will leave you drained and overwhelmed, even if you feel like it’s for a good cause or it’s for the greater good or it will benefit the person or the group that is getting the service. I think sometimes just saying no or just saying “No, not right now,” is really helpful for me. So that’s an indicator to me of when I’ve kind of, like, reached my point of exhaustion.
Zach: That’s just a really good point. I think, especially when you talk about these types of spaces, right, you know, people will reach out to you for a variety of things, and 99.9% of them are gonna be good, but–and so because they’re genuinely good things, it’s hard to say no, but it’s like, “Man, I’m only one person.” Right? Like, I don’t have an inexhaustible amount of energy. I have to create some space for myself. Let’s talk about this, and I really want to get back to something that you said earlier in the conversation. So you said sometimes people reach out to you asking you to talk about specific things. Are there ever any moments where you consider your profile, right? When you consider, like, the work that you’ve done in academia as well as your personal life and your journey and your lived experience? Do you ever battle feelings or insecurities around being tokenized?
Janice: I don’t. It’s interesting. That’s not something I–I think that even if you’re choosing me for this particular role or you’re asking me to do this because you want to check some boxes, I’m still gonna achieve the ultimate goal. So I think that I don’t really look at the vehicle. I just look at, you know, “Am I able to accomplish or achieve this goal?” I recognize and understand that there is a possibility that maybe the powers that be saw what I look like and said, “Okay, we need this person so we look like we’re being diverse and inclusive,” but ultimately getting the opportunity to sort of try to push the needle and move the needle forward when it comes to building a more inclusive culture is fine with me. So it doesn’t matter to me if the goal was to check some boxes, because I’m still gonna go in there and do what I really need to do and what I want to do. So I try not to think about that, because I think for me, if I started thinking about that, it would be, like, a never-ending rabbit hole of, like, “Are they really choosing me for my credentials, or did they see that I’m a black female and they want to check some boxes?” So I try not to think like that, because ultimately I’m like, “I’m gonna come in here and do what I’m supposed to do,” and I try to just come in and do an amazing job so that even if they were trying to–even if the purpose was just to check the boxes, they’ll see, like, what a strong, you know, worker I am, or what a strong consultant I am, and they’ll understand that they made the right decision.
Zach: I hear that, and what I’m taking away from that also is just, like, you know, people can choose you for whatever motivations they have. It’s about how you decide to show up in that moment, right?
Zach: Yeah. It’s interesting, you know? Like, transparently, I have those–it’s something I struggle with, right? I struggle with the idea of “Man, like, why would you choose me?” But then, to your point, I know for me, like, I have a fairly specific brand, so when I show up, like, there’s a story that I’m gonna tell. There’s a way that I’m going to move. There’s a way that I’m going to work. And, you know, we’ll see how comfortable you are with that, and if you’re not comfortable with that and you decide you want something else then, you know, that’s fine too, but I have to show up and deliver on who I am and then, you know, let the chips fall where they may after that. Okay, so we’re talking about emotional labor. We’re talking about self-care and kind of getting those energies back. I think something that’s, like, really understated as well at work for diversity and inclusion professionals, and just black and brown people in general, right? So even if you’re not explicitly in diversity and inclusion, like, a space, but just at work, is the emotional labor of just being other in majority-white spaces, right? So, like, I’m curious, what are ways that you believe that organizations and that aspirational allies as well as just leaders can help ease the emotional labor lift for black and brown folks in these spaces?
Janice: I think it goes back to organizations really trying to make us feel included. In my university–and I teach in a business department [where] there’s no other black females. There’s other women of color, a few who are of Indian–one who’s of Indian descent and one who is Chinese, but they’re–we’re, like, one of few, and then at the university, I don’t know how many tenured black professors there are, but there are very, very few. So I think that one thing that organizations can do is just try to take additional steps to make people who are the only feel included. So I’ll give you an example. I was working at a university in New York City that when I started they said that they needed more diversity and inclusion. They needed the faculty to look like the student body. And this is a public school in New York City. It’s part of a large university system. So most of the students come from different backgrounds, you know? There’s lots of black and brown students, and the professors just didn’t reflect that. One student told me that I was the first–a black student told me that I was the first black professor he’s ever had. So, you know, I got there and they said, “Oh, we really want diversity,” and then they didn’t do anything to make me feel included. It was like they [tired?] me and dropped me off. My office was in–and little micro-aggressive behaviors. I’m no longer there, but I was in the Psychology department at that university, but my office was in the English department. There was no name on my office. And even though I was visiting faculty–so it’s kind of, like, not guaranteed that they’ll renew your contract–I was teaching more than any other professor in that department. I was also teaching during the winter intersession. So normally you get, like, a month off. I was literally–like, I had a week and a half off, and then January 2nd or 3rd I had to–
Zach: You were back at it. Wow.
Janice: So, like, I think that the inclusion piece is so important, because companies just look at the diversity on the surface and say, “We don’t need a diversity program. We have lots of black people. We have lots of people from Asia. We have lots of this and that,” and it’s like, “But do they feel included?” That’s really the important part. So I think that where companies miss the mark is that inclusion piece. So the university that I’m at now, Sacred Heart University, I think that they’ve done an amazing job with making me feel included. Even though I’m one of the only, I’m frequently invited–you know, they always have, like, off-campus events for faculty members, and if someone’s retiring they have these parties and all of that, and it’s just like–the department chair will reach out and say, you know, “Janice, are you gonna come to this?” Or “Would you like to join this committee?” And I just feel like–last year was my first year working there full-time, and they were just so–all of the faculty members, on their own, would come by my office. I’m sure they’re like, “Who is this?” I look younger than I am, so people think I’m in my 20s, and I’m 32. So people are like, “Who is this young black girl with these [fauxlocks?] sitting in the office? Like, what?” So they’ll come up to me and just say, “Hey, how are you? What’s your name?” They’ll give me their card, they’ll connect with me on LinkedIn, and that’s not something that I experienced at this other university that I worked at. So I think that they really made me feel a sense of inclusion, even though I was the only. Literally it was, like, a line of professors [?] where my office used to be. I know I was the only black woman on that floor. I didn’t see any other black women. So, you know, just making me feel–including me, inviting me to things, trying to just, you know, check on me. And just really quick, Ernst & Young did a study where they tried to measure belonging that people feel in the workplace. So they developed something called the Belonging Barometer, and what their research found–this was last year that it came out–so what their research found is that the #1 way to make employees feel a sense of belonging is frequent check-ups. So if you are a manager or you’re another employee and you come to the office of someone and say, “Hey, how are you? How was your weekend?” And you do this frequently, that is the best way to make employees feel a sense of belonging. So I think that at my university, my colleagues do that a lot, and that’s what really makes me feel like–even though I’m the only, they’re really making me feel like I’m part of a family.
Zach: So first of all, you know, thank you for sharing that. You know, I’m curious. When you were going through the experience at the previous institution, did any of it feel like you were being gaslit a little bit? Like, did you raise any of these concerns? Like, “Hey, you got me all the way over here in this other group,” and “Hey, I don’t have a name on my door.” Like, did you raise any of those things?
Janice: No, I didn’t, unfortunately, and a part of me felt just so–and I’m sure many of us as people of color feel like this–I honestly was, like, grateful that I had a job, ’cause I hadn’t finished my Ph.D. yet. I was grateful I had a job. I was earning more money than I had ever earned in my entire life. I graduated with my Ph.D. when I was 30, so I was literally–most of my life I was in school, so I was used to, you know, not having health insurance. You know, when I moved to New York, I didn’t have health insurance. So, you know, all of these things. I was grateful to have benefits, grateful to have a job, grateful to have my own office. That was a new experience for me. So I guess I didn’t say anything. Not I guess, I didn’t say anything, just because I was so grateful for the opportunity that I was afraid if I pointed these inequities out that that opportunity would be taken away from me. So I know that many times people of color, black people in particular, are in positions where maybe you didn’t think you would get this far, and you have opportunities to sort of speak up, but you’re worried that, by speaking up, it could jeopardize your job or jeopardize your opportunity, and that’s how I felt, so I didn’t say anything. I knew that in my mind I wasn’t gonna be at that university for a long period of time, so I think that’s what kept me going. I was just like, “This is a stepping stone,” and ultimately it was, and I left that–I was only there for a year, and they didn’t renew my contract, probably because I didn’t finish–I hadn’t finished my Ph.D., but I knew that it was temporary.
Zach: So it’s such a real point, right? Because I know there’s–I mean, it’s for good reason, right? So, like, black and brown folks, we’ll get into these positions and we’re like–and it’s more than we’ve ever had before. So, like, not comparing–not relative to anyone else, just our own journey. Like, this is a peak, right? Relative to what we’ve experienced. And so then we’re like, “Okay, well, you know, I don’t want to say anything because this almost seems too good to be true already, so I don’t want to mess this up.”
Janice: Right, exactly. Imagine if you had a job at, like, Google. Google is–like, you know, who wouldn’t want to work at Google? And you’re being treated unfairly by your manager or by co-workers and you felt like, “I never imagined being at this company. Let me just keep my mouth [shut].” Which a lot of us do. We’re just like, “Let me keep my mouth shut,” but Google is a company that I want to be at for a while, so it’s like, what do you do? Especially–the easy thing, and, you know, when I hear people giving advice as far as, like, how to advocate for yourself, sometimes I hear people saying, “Just quit,” and I think that that’s ultimately what’s gonna have to happen, but for some people that’s not an option. If you’re the sole bread-winner in your family and many people are relying on you and you’re feeding many mouths, I think quitting sounds nice, but it’s not practical, especially if you don’t have anything else lined up. You just have to figure out–and then it goes back to the self-care. Because you’re experiencing so much stress at work, what are you doing outside of work to sort of mitigate the stress that you’re experiencing? And for me, that was one of the hardest years of my life because I had just moved to Connecticut. I was teaching in New York City, so I was commuting–it’s only an hour commute on the train, but I was commuting to New York City every single day, and I was also teaching in Long Island, because they were–you know, ultimately they were underpaying me, they were overworking me, and then to supplement that I was so–there was a point in time where I was teaching seven courses, which, you know, anyone who teaches at the university level knows, like, three courses per semester is, like–three or four is, like, a very full courseload. Seven is, like, next level. I was teaching on Saturdays. It was, like, insane, the amount of classes that I was teaching, but my form of self-care was, you know, I was going to the gym a lot, and I was just–you know, a lot of fellowship, meeting up with friends, because, you know, the reality of it was that they were severely–you know, moving from universities, Zach, I was able to increase my salary by $30,000. They were underpaying me, like, a ridiculous amount, you know? And when I brought it up–that’s something I did bring up when I was hired. I was like, “Why does my contract say this amount?” And the department chair was like, “Oh, well, you’re paid based on a scale.” It was a public university. So they base it off your teaching experience, your credentials, and because I didn’t have a Ph.D. blah blah blah blah blah. So, you know, I did try to advocate for myself in that sense, but it was just kind of like, “Sorry, this is what you’re gonna get paid,” and I was just like, “Okay. Well, to supplement this, I’m gonna work at these other universities to get what I think that I deserve.” So it was–it was really difficult. I think it’s easy to say quit, but for many people quitting is not an option. So I think really going into what you’re doing for self-care when you’re experiencing this stress is important, and then I think planning your exit strategy. So if it’s Google, maybe you want to have a year or two years or three years on your resume, but you know the environment is toxic. I wouldn’t say just leave. I would say get that on your resume and build as many connections there as you can, but plan your exit strategy and save up money. If you really think that you have to leave at some point in the near future and you don’t know if you’ll have a backup job, then just plan, save up money. Make sure you do what you can so that, you know, when that day comes you’re ready and it’s not just like you made the decision off of a whim.
Zach: It’s just so true, right? ‘Cause I know–I’ve seen it, and honestly I’ve done it, right? Like, where I’ve been in, like, really toxic environments, and I just left, but I left on–I didn’t leave on the terms I wanted to leave on, right? So I wasn’t prepared, right? I didn’t have the financial backing that I wanted to have. You know, I just wasn’t in the place that I wanted to be, but I finally just left. And that happens a lot, especially with our generation, right? Like, millennials, you know? ‘Cause we’ll just kind of bottle–especially what I’ve seen from black and brown folks is we’ll just kind of bottle it up until we can’t take it anymore, and then we’ll just–you know, we’ll leave. We’ll just blow up and just quit, right? And you’re right, like, that’s not a sustainable way to function. I think the other point that you called out is super true, and I think it just really speaks to the different lived experiences of different folks, right, is that you said “Just quit.” Like, for me, I’m a big advocate–I’ll tell people to quit, right? But it’s easy for me to tell people to quit when I’m a black American, my mom–I’m not sending money to my mom, right? Like, I don’t have–it’s just me and my wife, and my wife works. So it’s like, if I quit my job, #1: I know that I could get another job very quickly, and so I’m projecting that on other people. Like, “You’re only responsible for yourself,” but that’s not true. Right? Like, that’s just not true. You have people–like, I have a really good friend who she’s paying her mom’s mortgage, her mom’s health care. She’s sending money back to her family in Nigeria. Like, she’s doing all of these things on her very modest salary, and it’s a toxic work environment, but she can’t just leave.
Janice: Mm-hmm, yeah. You know, sometimes people comment on my social media and they’re like, “Why are we trying to change these white institutions? They don’t want us there. Why don’t we just build our own institutions?” And I’m all for that, but I think the reality of it is every single black and brown person is not going to be working in a black and brown-led institution, so what are we doing for those, you know, people of color who are not in those black-owned businesses? How are we creating an environment for them where that is sustainable? So I think that that’s also an important point to look at, just really how are we overcoming, because the reality of it is that’s just not what it is right now. You know, every single person is not at a black-owned company.
Zach: No, you’re absolutely right. I know, like, even when Living Corporate started, right, like, a couple of critiques that we got early was “Why are you trying to teach people how to navigate these white spaces as opposed to trying to help people to build their own?” I’m like, “Okay, look. First of all, we can look at the history of America and we can see that there’s been historical pushes that black and brown people–” Black folks, we’ve been creating our own things since antebellum, okay? So we’ve been building our own churches, our own fraternities, sororities, our own businesses, our own communities, and there’s been a consistent whitelash against that. Now, that doesn’t mean that we’re gonna stop. We don’t stop, and black businesses and entrepreneurship continues to grow. However, we also know because of historical inequity–it’s just the way that white supremacy and patriarchy are set up–that those institutions will never be as big as Amazon. I won’t say never, but it will be a long time before they’re as big as an Amazon or a Google or even a Facebook, right? Like, that’s just not the way it works, and so–I believe that underrepresented folks helped build this country. It is 100% reasonable and fair to have discussions about what does it look like for us to thrive here. None of these things would exist without us, so it is reasonable–I don’t think it’s one or the other. I think it’s both and, but it’s a fine and right discussion and pursuit on what does it look like to thrive in these spaces. Like you said earlier, like, everyone’s not gonna be working at a black and brown place. Every black and brown person is not gonna be an entrepreneur, just like every white person isn’t an entrepreneur. So, you know, most of us are gonna work for somebody, so waht does it look like when you work for somebody and likely–because again, we’re in America–it’s likely going to be a majority-owned space. What does it look like for you to be successful there?
Janice: Absolutely, yeah. I think that that’s–it falls on both, because I think that–and that’s probably a whole ‘nother conversation, because even marginalized groups hold negative views about their own identities, for example. Like, there’s many negative stereotypes that black people ourselves perpetuate, and even if we’re leading a company, we may have colorism issues, or we may be [?]. So there’s, like–even if you’re in a black-owned institution, white supremacy can still be rampant, and I think us understanding that is important too. ‘Cause I get those comments sometimes where, you know, people are like, “Why are you trying to do this and do that?” And even with companies–you know, some people have asked me why I allowed or accepted a partnership with Papa John’s when the CEO is obviously–the former CEO, I’m sorry, is probably racist, and I said, you know, “If this company is going to try to make amends and is going to try–” And, you know, they’ve done other initiatives where they’re trying to really show that now they’re focused on diversity and inclusion. I’m not gonna say no, and I’m not gonna say, “I’ll never take your money.” They’ve hired a black woman as their chief diversity officer. They’ve hired a Ghandian man as their chief branding officer. Shaq is now on their board of directors. The CEO is no longer on the board. So they’ve been doing things. You know, they donate to HBCUs. So different things that I’m like, “Okay, I can accept that they’re trying to fix what it is.” But I think that it’s tough, because it’s like, do we forgive companies where they have many egregious actions that the CEO has committed? Do we forgive them, or do we just move on and just cancel them? I think that that’s an important question to think about.
Zach: It is, right? But I guess here’s my challenge with that. So first of all, like, when you’re talking about getting that money from Papa John’s, the only thing I was thinking about was [cha-ching sfx]. Like, listen. [laughs] This is my whole thing, right? So I don’t think that, like, we really talk about, like, how capitalist America is, right? Like, you need money to survive. Like, you need money to do anything, and so, you know, if you want to say, “Okay, well, I’m not gonna take this money from Papa John’s,” okay, so are you gonna take this money from Johnson & Johnson? Are you gonna take this money from–[laughs] like, all of America was built on slavery and oppression and exploitation of black and brown people, and people of color as well. So, like, including Asian-Americans too. So, like, we wouldn’t have any of this. So, like, if you wanted to, like, again–I don’t like saying the term “slippery slope,” but my whole thing is, for me, if you’re going to give me the bag–if you give me the bag, as long as you know that I’m not gonna adjust my message and you’re not asking me to adjust my message or expecting me to adjust my message, I’ma take the bag, right? Now, there are certain groups, you know, that I’m not taking the bag from. Like, I’ve had people–you know what? This is, like, breaking news. I haven’t told anybody on Living Corporate this. So, you know, someone actually hit me up and wanted to get Candace Owens on here, and I said–
Zach: Yeah, and I said no.
Janice: Wow. That’s interesting.
Zach: I said no. I said, “You big buggin’.”
Janice: [?] Living Corporate. Interesting. What are your thoughts on–I have my own thoughts [both laughing] on her. I watched her–did you watch the Revolt summit that she was [in?]
Zach: I did. I did see her up there being loud and wrong.
Janice: Yes, yeah. But one thing that I didn’t like was I think when you bring people with opposing views, you have to allow them the opportunity to at least speak, even, like–and my husband disagrees with me. He’s like, “She’s lying. She’s full of lies. Why even give her the opportunity or the platform?” And I’m like, “Well, that’s why they brought her up there.”
Zach: They brought her up there though. So if you’re gonna bring ’em up there, then you gotta let ’em talk.
Janice: Yeah, and that’s why–and my husband’s like, “No, but she’s just blatantly lying,” and I’m just like, “Yeah, but they brought her up there to speak,” and I think that–that’s interesting. Did you tell the person no? Or did you say you’ll think about it?
Zach: Oh, no, no. I said “Hell nah.” Like, off the top. [laughs] All the Southern in me came out, ’cause it was like, “No,” right? Like, I’m not doing that.
Janice: Yeah. That’s interesting. I wonder what she would speak to, because as far as I know she’s not in corporate America. She just, you know, does these talks, or she has her YouTube channel and she–but, you know, that’s interesting. [laughs]
Zach: So then the same person was like, “Well, I’m also friends with Ben Carson. Would you like to have him on?” I was like, “No.” I said, “No,” and I said, “No,” because I was like, “Look, one, that association is not making any sense.” Like, “We’re not–it’s not gonna be a conversation. It’s gonna be me tearing down some old black man. That’s not cool.” Because I literally don’t agree with anything he’s doing. So I was like–but this is my thing. So, like, at that level, I’m like, “No. I’m not taking a bag from them.” But, like, a Papa John’s? Yes, I’ll take a bag from Papa John’s. Facebook? Yes, I’ll take a bag from Facebook.
Janice: Yeah. Yeah, because I think the difference between Ben Carson and Candace Owens and Papa John’s is that–and even Kanye West if you want to think about it–I haven’t really seen any of them be apologetic. They’re just like, “This is who I am,” and they’re gonna go on as many platforms as we’ll let them speak. So it seems like your audience I don’t think would be receptive to that and would just be like, you know, “Zach, you’re just trying to get them on to get more clicks.”
Zach: For the clout, exactly.
Janice: Exactly, so I think that with Papa John’s and some of these other companies, they realize they’ve made a mistake and they’re, like, trying to fix it, and I think that that’s what would make me–I don’t know. It’s tough. I don’t think we should just cancel companies where the CEO says or does something that is, you know–
Zach: You need the bag. I think that goes back to what I was saying at the top. Like, look, we live in a capitalistic society. Like, if someone goes, “Hey, I messed up, and this is what I’m trying to do, and I really want to get around–” Like, “I’m trying to make moves,” and whatever whatever, and there’s a bag out there for you to–like, if the former CEO of Papa John’s wanted to come on here and let me talk to him and grill him about why he said what he said, his background, what he’s doing now to actually create an impact, like, today, if we could have that conversation, like, an accountable, frank conversation, and what advice he would give to other white senior leaders and executives on how to drive and be more inclusive and be more aware of their own biases, anti-blackness, et cetera, if we could have that type of conversation, he’s more than welcome to come on the show.
Zach: You see what I’m saying? The current inclusion and diversity leader for Papa John’s? Of course they’re welcome to come on the show, but like you said, like, someone coming on just to be like, “Nah, I’m just gonna be loud, proud and wrong,” it’s like… no. That’s not gonna work.
Janice: Yeah, exactly. So I think that sometimes we feel like–you know, I don’t ever feel like “Am I selling out?” But sometimes, you know, I’ll get comments like that, where people are like, “Why are you focused on what people of color should do?” You know, I did an interview and I wrote an article about some mistakes that women of color make in tech, and somebody wrote me and said, “Why would the onus fall on the women of color in tech and not on the company?” And I said, “I’ve written many articles on what companies can do to be more inclusive, but I think it’s also important to best position yourself to be successful.” I’ve made mistakes in my career, and I’ve done things where I could have–you know, even as far as, like, branding myself. I’ve had a LinkedIn for years, and within the last two and a half years I’ve started to really get into LinkedIn, but I could’ve really been more active and gotten more opportunities from it. And there’s been times when at work I’ve been antisocial and I didn’t want to hang out with anyone that wasn’t like me, and I think that that is problematic when you’re trying to advance in your organization. Sometimes you have to go to those events, you know, mingle a little bit, smile and do whatever. And Minda Harts talked about this in her book “The Memo,” about, like, the importance of sort of fraternizing with your colleagues and how that can help you when you’re trying to advance. So I think that even as a woman of color in the workplace, I’ve made mistakes, so I think that’s important to recognize and not just be like, “It’s all the company’s fault.”
Zach: No, you’re absolutely right. And it’s interesting, we’ve gotten the same type of feedback, right? But it’s like–my whole thought is look, we’re all grown. There’s a certain level of agency that we have as professionals in our career, and yes, we’re gonna talk about the systemic structural challenges. I think we would be doing–like, it’s intellectually dishonest and insulting to not pair that–like, it’s not either or, it’s both and. And not equally on either side, right? Like, there are larger responsibilities that these organizations have to create inclusive and equitable and diverse spaces, and–and–and there’s also responsibilities and just things that we can be aware of as underrepresented people in how to navigate these spaces, right? And it’s not about respectability politics. It’s not about anything that’s asking you to sacrifice your dignity or your self-worth. It’s about just you being knowledgeable, because there are things that people in the majority understand and they know in navigating work that we just literally don’t know, and so it’s about–that type of knowledge is incredible, and I know the article you’re referencing that you wrote. But again, I think they go hand-in-hand. Look, this has been an incredible conversation, Janice. Before we let you go, any parting words or shout-outs?
Janice: Well, I just hope that anyone listening to this can just look at what each of us can do in our lives to really deconstruct oppressive systems. So even if that’s something as, like, retweeting or reposting something that–like, the stories of someone from a marginalized group. I think that’s still moving the needle and amplifying their voice. So I try to do that as much as I can and just highlight people that deserve the shine and may not get the shine, because even in the D&I space there’s a quote-unquote hierarchy, and I think certain people–you and I have discussed this–get a lot of shine while there’s other people doing a lot of the ground work who aren’t recognized as much. Not that you should do things for recognition, but I think that amplifying other people’s voices is important. So yeah, that’s pretty much it. Anyone who wants to discuss things more with me can just find me on Instagram. I’m @janicejnice, or add me on LinkedIn. I’m Janice Gassam on LinkedIn. We can chat more.
Zach: Oh, my goodness. Well, first of all, you know we’re gonna have all of your links as well as your Forbes profile so that people can check out all of your super dope articles, so we got you on that. Y’all, this has been Living Corporate, okay? So good conversation as always. We have the best guests. That’s right, I’ma say it. We have the best guests. And, you know, we typically do a thing–we typically drop air horns, and if I remember we drop ’em at the top, but, you know, I forgot this time ’cause I got too excited ’cause we were just having this super dope conversation, so I’ma drop ’em right here–[air horns sfx]–just thank you very much. This has been a super cool conversation.
Janice: Thank you so much, Zach. It’s been a pleasure.
Zach: No doubt. Listen, y’all. Living Corporate. Google us, right? You get on Google or–what’s another, Yahoo? I don’t know. I really just be on Google. This is not even an ad. [both laugh] But you get on Google or whatever your little search thing is and you type in Living Corporate, and you’ll see us, man. We’re out here. We’re on Twitter @LivingCorp_Pod, Instagram @LivingCorporate, and we have all the domains, right? So www.living-corporate.com, please say the dash. Livingcorporate.co, livingcorporate.net, livingcorporate.tv, livingcorporate.org, livingcorporate.us. We’ve got all the livingcorporates, Janice, except for livingcorporate–like, all the way with no dash–dot com, ’cause Australia has that domain, but we got the rest of ’em.
Zach: I know, right? They own this corporate housing thing, but if you go on the SEO, like, we hopping over them though. If you Google Living Corporate, like, we’re hopping over them now, so we–I’m just saying, the brand is getting stronger. Let’s see here. I think that’s it, y’all. You’ve been listening to Zach, and I’ve been having a dope conversation with Dr. Janice Gassam, speaker, educator, mover, shaker, name taker, edge snatcher, writer. What else, Janice?
Janice: System deconstructor.
Zach: Yes! System deconstructor. Disruptor. Come on, bars. Let’s go. All right, all right.
Janice: An intentional inclusionist. [laughs]
Zach: Ooh! Wait a second, intentional inclusionist? [Flex bomb sfx] Okay, okay, okay. ‘Til next time, y’all. Peace.