Uncensored: Stories of Black professionals at Deloitte

Maya's Story

When conversations around race became more prevalent on social media during the summer of 2020, I had countless friends from high school and college reach out to me. They were looking for some sort of reassurance that my experiences growing up weren’t like the ones they were hearing about on the news and seeing on their feeds.

Because I had a lot of friends and was seemingly well-adjusted, people assumed that I was always unaffected by these issues. But I believe, like many other Black people in this country, I’ve gotten good at putting on a front just to survive from day to day—like pretending to laugh at a joke I don’t understand or adopting specific phrases when I speak to become part of the culture.

Especially in a virtual environment with increasing pressure to be on camera and appear enthusiastic and jovial, being sociable and high-energy all the time can get exhausting. Because how people present on the outside doesn’t always line up with what they’re dealing with behind that façade. And a brave face can easily overshadow what that person might actually be experiencing.

This can feel especially true at a place like Deloitte, where in our busy and intense environment, we often work next to others but don’t live alongside them. We may not put as much effort as we could into building meaningful relationships and developing a deeper understanding of who the people we work with really are, or where they’re coming from.

We need to think about all the different layers of a person. Not just their outward identity—or the identity projected onto them.

Growing up, my identity was largely driven by the expectation to excel.

Education was always a top priority in my house. My parents made countless sacrifices to ensure my siblings and I could go to the best private schools in Atlanta, with access to the most opportunities.

They wanted us to understand that not everyone who looked like us had those same opportunities, so we couldn’t let them go to waste. My parents never wanted us to look back and wish we had tried harder or accomplished more.

Even though I have a master’s degree, I still haven’t lived up to my parents’ definition of “excelling.” My mother tells me all the time that I should have become a doctor. And I think both my parents are anxiously awaiting the day that I tell them I’ve decided to get my PhD.

Others who grew up in this type of environment know there’s a lot of stress to perform well—and not much time to focus on anything other than the next big achievement.

I grew up believing that needing a break was a weakness and that depression was something only people of privilege experienced. In my household, we were taught an extreme version of “mental resilience” that often required us to push through. I had never really been given the permission to acknowledge limitations as being out of my control. So I kept those feelings bottled up and my exterior persona buttoned up as well.

I don’t think many people will ever fully understand the layers of masks some walk around with just to make it through each day. And when you add a global pandemic to that intensity, it can make the environment that we work in 10 times harder.

During stay-at-home orders, the compounded layers of reduced human contact, along with fear of contracting COVID-19, were exhausting. I dealt with so many compounded emotions in 2020 that I had a really difficult time identifying the source of my grief. I was so used to stuffing grief down that I lost touch with it altogether. And I believed I could keep pushing on.

With a few deep breaths and a silent prayer before meetings, I could transform into a jovial and light-hearted leader. It was an “Oscar-worthy” performance that masked deep bouts of sadness as I dealt with the impact of racial trauma during the height of 2020’s social justice unrest.

That act all came crashing down when my stepbrother took his life in July 2020.

Sometimes we can get so caught up in keeping our own masks secure that it’s hard to see beyond the masks of those around us—and acknowledge what they’re actually experiencing. My stepbrother’s passing completely shocked and gutted me.

I was hurting on the inside and performing on the outside, as I always did. I still believed the story that I told myself: “If I just stay busy, I can remain in control.” Of course, I was anything but in control.

And that mask finally had to come off.

For the first time in a long time, I challenged myself to slow down and to remain in the present. I finally acknowledged and addressed my grief. I learned that not only was my sadness valid, but the willingness to face it required an extraordinary amount of strength.

It’s a long process to learn how to be more transparent when it comes to your well-being—especially at work. And you don’t have to tell everyone what you’re going through. But it’s important to find that one person in your life who cares about your whole self. And I’m lucky to say my manager was that person for me.

When you’re transparent about experiencing normal human experiences and emotions, you can create a space where others can also show up as they are. Where they can put more energy into their work because they’re not channeling so much energy into wearing a mask all day, every day. And if I can be that safe space for just one other person, I will feel like I’ve made a difference.

Through my own experience, I’ve learned the value of kindness and grace—because you never know what someone is dealing with behind closed doors. I’ve been able to refocus my priorities and instead of just striving to be a high performer, I also work to be known as a compassionate leader.

We need to understand where people are truly coming from— and what they may have sacrificed to get here.

For all of us to be more compassionate leaders, we need to spend more time getting to know the real people we work with, not just the identities they project. We need to understand where people are truly coming from—and what they may have sacrificed to get here.

When it comes to the retention of Black professionals, I wish leaders—both within the walls of Deloitte and beyond—would think deeper about personal experiences and the impact of racial trauma.

Racial trauma refers to any kind of a mental or emotional injury that can be caused by encounters with racial bias, ethnic discrimination, racism, and hate crimes. And while there tends to be greater acknowledgment of the harm caused by direct racism, oppression, and violence, things like witnessing the murder of people of color on social media can also trigger a traumatic response.

Your body responds to racism as a form of chronic stress. It can cause people to face a number of health issues, from increased depressive symptoms and chest pains to prolonged anger and insomnia. And for many Black people, our lives have been an extended period of re-traumatization.

So when we talk about wanting to increase diversity, it’s just as important to foster a safe space to support the mental and physical health of people—especially those who have experienced racial and other forms of trauma. And that trauma may not be evident on the surface.

We all have mental images of what we think grief or sadness look like. My stepbrother was a tough, popular college football player with a contagious smile and laugh. Nobody would have been able to guess what he was dealing with behind that strong exterior.

We have to start normalizing that everyone can experience grief and depression. You don’t have to be small and dainty or quiet and withdrawn to be someone who has real and raw emotions. And we don’t need to know someone’s story to show grace and kindness in the workplace.

Showing grace to others starts by simply showing grace to yourself.

The views and opinions expressed in this article are solely Maya’s own and do not necessarily reflect the opinions of Deloitte or its personnel.

Photos by Kirth Bobb

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