The We Have One Minority disease seems to have no cure, at least in my lifetime. Other than my experience working at the Tribal government level in the 1980s, most of my career I have found myself as the only American Indian/Alaska Native, the one minority on a federal government staff.
This is a tremendous burden to carry. It has hurt my career development, my earnings potential, professional relationships, my family life and taken a toll on my health. This leads to another workplace disease known as racial fatigue syndrome.
One of the burdens of being the only American Indian/Alaska Native on staff is the pressure to represent all American Indians/Alaska Natives either at an event, in an advisory capacity or as a technical consultant. Oftentimes, I am expected to know every little fact and history tidbit on every square inch of Indian country that is the equivalent to the size of New England. Sorry, but I do not know in great detail the culture and history of the 567 federally recognized tribes in the country. It has taken me a lifetime just to master my own Tribal identity.
I apologize but I cannot do my own job which is challenging enough and at the same time serve as an American Indian/Alaska Native headhunter for my organization in search of others who look like me, talk like me and act like me. That is supposed to be the job of the recruitment office.
Another toxic by-product of being the most under represented race of people on staff is the unavoidable daily and sometimes hourly hand-to-hand combat with sources of privilege in the workplace as you challenge the negative messages they spew against your subordinate group and others. You get trapped in this prison of conflict and quickly inherit a reputation of being needy, incompetent or a trouble maker. When the conflict really heats up, to diffuse the situation the dominate group will challenge my Tribal identity by questioning my group membership, forcing me to spend extra energy proving to them that I am who I say I am.
Diversity starved organization do not give much thought as to how to invite American Indians/Alaska Natives to the table. They follow the notion “if I build it they will come.” The dominant group is not prepared for the inevitable pushback that results from bringing disenfranchised people into the workplace with their propensity for challenging cultural norms.
Organizations with not so great diversity and inclusion track records should understand that if you hire American Indian/Alaska Natives, you are putting them on the front lines of a battle that most folks in the workplace never experience. It is important to usher American Indians/Alaska Natives through these difficult circumstances with support resources that understand the unique challenges they face. Otherwise, they turn in to the most disengaged workforce in the federal government.