Racialized Canadian workers, particularly those who identify as Black, face a host of challenges and discrimination that their white counterparts don’t give a second thought. From access to opportunities, to worrying about how ‘white’ their resume appears, to their ability to be their authentic self at work without repercussions, to being the only person in their workplace to represent their community, Black workers face dozens of everyday hurdles, small and large, that impact their career trajectory and ability to simply make a living. 

Though a wide swath of Canadians like to think that we’re past the era of systemic racism, we’ve got news for you: casual racism is alive and well in Canada. Our neighbour to the South gets a bad rep for their long history of slavery. Historically-minded Canadians like to point out that Canada was the final destination for the underground railroad and a beacon of hope and freedom for slaves. In modern times that’s been parlayed into notions about how Canada is a society built on diversity and anti-racism. And while there’s plenty of good things to say about Canada in regards to our normalization and acceptance of immigration and multiculturalism (i.e. Toronto famously claims to be the most multicultural city in the world, with 50% of the population identifying as racialized) we’re far from a post-racial society. Systemic biases and ideas about what it means to be a person of colour abound in Canada. Interested in learning more about the history of Black labour in Canada? Check out our article on the history of Black workers in Canada.

In honour of Black History Month, we’re exploring issues Black workers face and how we can all take steps to improve the working experience for Black Canadians. In that vein, here are 8 everyday challenges Black employees face in their workplaces.

everyday challenges black employees encounter at work

1. black workers ‘code switch’ to be taken seriously

‘Code switching’ broadly refers to a person changing their behaviour, way of speaking, appearance, or self-expression to ‘fit in’ or to make others feel more comfortable depending on the situation or person they’re speaking to. For many members of the Black community, this means switching between ‘acting black’ or like their authentic self around their friends, family and people they’re close to, and ‘acting white’ at work or when accessing services to pre-emptively limit discrimination. Code switching is especially prevalent in workplaces, particularly ones with limited diversity. Racialized people often feel intense pressure to look and act like others in their workplace to be treated fairly and held to the same standards. 

2. black workers mentally prepare for discrimination

A whopping 77% of racialized Canadians admit to being ‘on-guard’ to face discrimination at work. People who are otherized due to their skin-colour, accent, culture or other factors are well-aware of how their differences are treated on a systemic level. Though many Canadians think of the country as a post-racial society that stands in opposition to the US’s fraught history with slavery, Canada also has a long history of outright and casual racism, which continues to present day. 54% of Black Canadians report being the target of ongoing discrimination, with 40% saying it occurred in their workplace, making work the second most common place to experience racism following in public. Workplace discrimination can be more insidious, as it often takes a more subtle form, such as dismissiveness, being passed over for promotions, lower pay, or insensitive comments or jokes.

3. black workers face systemic exclusion to education and opportunities

Access to education varies widely based on a variety of factors, including race. Black Canadians are more educated than at any point in history, however education levels remain below those of white Canadians. According to Statistics Canada, 60.9% of Black Canadian women have post-secondary education, compared to 66.5% of their white counterparts. Often the educational opportunities that are available to Black people are deemed ‘less prestigious’ - for instance, Historically Black Colleges and Universities, (HBCUs) - are frequently considered less prestigious than primarily-white institutions, despite rich history and countless esteemed alumni. Acceptance rates at many educational institutions are limited for racialized communities, meaning the bar is higher for those who do succeed. A lack of higher education opportunities in turn limits career potential, perpetuating the cycle.

4. black workers face microaggressions and biases basis on their identity

According to research from the Harvard Business Review, job applicants who ‘whiten’ their names and resumes have a significantly better chance of receiving a callback when applying to jobs. The study revealed that, 10% of Black candidates received callbacks for their undoctored resumes, compared to 25% when they ‘whitened’ their resumes by changing their name or removing references to black organizations they were associated with. Troublingly, the survey also revealed that employers who called themselves ‘equal opportunity employers’ or encouraged minority candidates to apply were just as biased as other organizations. This likely speaks to deeply ingrained systemic biases in hiring managers that can’t be fixed with a simple diversity mandate.

5. black workers’ authority is disputed more often than their white colleagues

Black people are less likely to have their opinions and ideas instinctively trusted compared to their white counterparts. Systemic racism reinforces the implicit bias that black people are less trustworthy or less skilled, making it more difficult for Black people to establish the credibility and authority necessary to have their opinions held in high regard. In workplaces ‘Blackness’ is often viewed as a disadvantage to be overcome, rather than a value-add that offers a unique perspective. Leaders are more likely to accept ideas from people who look like them (this is called similarity bias). Current leadership roles are overwhelmingly white and male (72% of senior management and executive roles are held by white men), leading to the perpetuation of a white, male worldview in business.

6. workforce inclusion policies aren’t built to black workers’ needs

Black workers are historically less likely to be engaged in their workplace and feel like they need to create an alternative persona to fit in (see: code switching above). The emotional labour of maintaining this façade is often draining, and leads to lower workplace satisfaction. Though all racialized groups admitted to downplaying parts of their identity to fit in at work, according to a study by Catalyst, it’s especially prevalent among Black women. 46% of Black women say they prepare themselves to face discrimination compared to 36% of their Black male counterparts and 40% of all racialized women. Black women were also most likely to have thoughts of quitting their job as a result, with 69% saying that they’ve thought about quitting. This discrepancy is often due to lack of consideration for the unique needs of Black employees. Though diversifying their workforce has become a trending concern for hiring managers, inclusion practices continue to fall short. Diversity gets Black and racialized people a foot in the door, but it’s inclusion that allows them to feel safe to share their ideas and their true self.

7. black workers are often expected to be a voice for their entire community

Black men and women often face the issue of being the only Black person in the room (sometimes even the only person of colour) especially as they climb the ladder into the upper echelons of leadership. This can lead to an expectation for them to be the ‘voice’ for all Black or racialized people, putting undue pressure on them to speak for a highly diverse group of people with wildly varying opinions, backgrounds, and ideas. This pressure is even higher for Black women, who are statistically most likely to be ‘the only’ in the room; they face the dual pressures of being Black and a woman. This ‘onlyism’ often promotes feelings of self-consciousness and being on-display. When you stand out, there’s heightened awareness of your actions and potential mistakes.

8. black workers face unrealistic expectations

Over the last couple decades, diversity hiring has become more common. Companies want to be able to loudly proclaim they have a diverse workforce. While prioritizing diverse candidates simply levels the playing field after centuries of exclusion and systemic racism, the reality of what it means to be ‘diversity hire’ is not so simple. Candidates who are hired through diversity initiatives are often looked down upon as having ‘skipped the line’ or having an ‘unfair advantage.’ It’s assumed that these candidates don’t have the skills to do the job they were hired for. While that’s simply untrue, the biases persist. To counter these unfair narratives, Black employees have to excel and go above and beyond to prove they’ve earned their spot in a way white colleagues do not. Similarly, the threshold to qualify for new, more prestigious roles is higher.

check out more diversity & inclusion content to learn how you can make your workplace more equitable for black and racialized canadians.