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Recovering From Being the Only Woman of Color at Work

The first time I was bullied at work, I convinced myself it was no big deal. As the first woman in my family to graduate from a four-year college, I thought I could handle anything.

Sadly, so many of us do this - force ourselves to carry on, even when we find ourselves at breaking point.

Eventually, the bullying and daily exclusionary behaviors from my colleagues began to take their toll.

I knew something was wrong when my heart would beat faster when the elevator opened to my office floor. And when I started having trouble getting out of bed in the morning, despite being an early riser my whole life.

I even stopped wanting to socialize with friends, despite being an extrovert. Most of the time, I was simply too exhausted to go anywhere.

Then the dark thoughts showed up.

I would replay scenarios in my head of interactions with coworkers. I felt ashamed for not knowing how to respond to subtle acts of exclusion (also known as microaggressions) like having my name mispronounced and my English complimented. I was the only woman of color in my department, so I had no one to compare notes with. Was I being “too sensitive”? Or would other women of color have had similar experiences?

The shame I felt quickly transformed into anxiety and self-loathing when I came close to losing my job after a senior leader complained that I was difficult to work with — without giving any reasons or examples.

Thankfully, I didn’t wait to be unjustifiably fired. Instead, I quit (despite the well-meaning advice from family and friends that I shouldn’t leave such a lucrative opportunity).

I was broken mentally and spiritually. I had to leave.

Today, I know there’s a term for what I experienced: racial gaslighting.

And after interviewing hundreds of women of color for my book, Inclusion on Purpose, I found that my story wasn’t unique. And due to a variety of factors, including a lack of mental health providers of color, women of color aren’t getting the mental health help we need to address the trauma of racial gaslighting.

I vividly remember the relief I felt when I spoke with Danielle Jenkins Henry, a licensed marriage family therapist associate (LMFTA) and founder of Dream Life Out Loud. She affirmed everything that I was feeling, saying:

“It’s common for victims of workplace discrimination to conceptualize how they are the problem. That conceptualization takes the form of guilt and shame, severe anxiety, and panic and worry, such that you can no longer be effective in your role.”

One last note: I’m reading a fantastic book “Rest is Resistance” by Tricia Hersey. I’ll share takeaways when I’m done but needless to say, I could have done with this book a long time ago—especially as I was navigating the challenges above—and I’m grateful I’ve found it now.

Stay tuned for my next Inclusion Is Leadership, where I’ll share brilliant advice from Jenkins Henry on four ways women of color can support their mental health in racist work environments. Subscribers to the private version of Inclusion is Leadership will get exclusive access, and you can subscribe here.

I want to hear your stories and advice, too. Let me know how you preserve your mental health in the face of workplace discrimination. Or conversely: what was a breaking point that made you decide to leave a toxic environment?

I’ve shared this resource recently but it’s worth sharing again: I urge you to check out this website created by Meghan Thee Stallion. It lists multiple mental health service providers for people of color. Some of the resources are even free.


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