“The Race of Psychological Safety at Work”: Agatha Agbanobi, Founder of Relevé (Video + Transcript)

December 26, 2023

Why does the race of psychological safety matter at work? In this ELEVATE session, Agatha Agbanobi (Founder of Relevé) shares the psychological safety challenges experienced by racialized individuals in the workplace. Attendees will learn to identify 1-2 popular teachings of psychological safety that undermine the experience of racialized individuals, a crucial equity principle supporting differentiated solution design for psychological safety, and acquire skills for cultivating psychological safety through an anti-oppressive lens.


In this session, Agatha Agbanobi discusses the racial implications of psychological safety for people of color. She shares how psychological safety takes into account systemic oppression and how community building can foster psychological safety. The session focuses on three objectives: discussing a popular teaching of psychological safety that excludes people of color, exploring an equity principle for differentiated solution design, and examining a skill for cultivating psychological safety through an anti-oppressive lens.


Agatha Agbanobi: Hi everyone. Welcome to this session about the racial implications of psychological safety for people of color. My name is Agatha Agbanobi and I am a DEI consultant, coach and founder of the DEI firm Relevé. And I’m excited to be engaging with you all today on this topic. So I’m going to provide a brief intro about me, my background, and my approach before we dive into the session itself. I’ll quickly just say that I’m a former educator who was heavily focused on education equity work both internationally and also stateside. Specifically in Texas for many years before transitioning to focusing on team and leadership development for diversity, equity, and inclusion in the corporate workspace.

The three guideposts that generally lead my work or guide my work, I should say, are anti-oppressive or liberatory frameworks, systems change and community building. And I want to say that these are the guideposts specifically for how I frame my work on psychological safety. So some of the questions that I like to frame around this question is, how does psychological safety take into account the interpersonal and systemic oppression that people of color are those who face identity-based oppression? How does that take into account that oppression due to historical and present day context of systemic isms?

And then how do we leverage community building, coalition building to build psychological safety within ourselves, individually, self to self, but then also within community, with others across differences? So today we’ll be focused on three objectives. First, we’ll discuss briefly one popular teaching of psychological safety that excludes the experience of racialized individual or people of color. We’ll talk briefly about a crucial equity principle for supporting differentiated solution design for psychological safety, and then we’ll explore one of the skills for cultivating psychological safety through an anti-oppressive lens.

So the first question I want to pose you all is this. How do you define psychological safety in a teamwork environment? Go ahead and drop your responses in the chat and then also take a moment to see what your peers have said. See if anything resonates. So here’s just some of the common and well-known characteristics of psychological safety at work. So team-orientedness is one of them, being willing to take interpersonal risk or feeling that you have the freedom to do that, having mutual respect or experiencing mutual respect within your team from other team members, having the freedom to challenge the status quo.

Having the freedom to share your knowledge, ideas, ask questions without fear of retaliation or any sort of reputational risk, feeling like you matter to the team and the organization, more broadly. Inclusion, belonging, that sense of feeling included, feeling like you belong and mattering to your team. Feeling a high sense of value, having the permission to make mistakes and to fail again without risk, a reputational risk or just fear of folks viewing you differently. And then also the permission or freedom to learn without limit. So a lot of these definitions come from well-known researchers and practitioners like Amy Edmondson, Christine Comaford, Timothy Clark, and even mental health experts and therapists such as Nedra Glover Tawwab.

One of the popular frameworks of psychological safety I want to kind of zone in on is Timothy Clark’s four stages of psychological safety in the workplace. It begins with inclusion safety, which is the feeling of being included, and then it moves on to learner safety, which is safety to learn. Then contributor safety, which is safety to contribute. And lastly, challenger safety, which is safety to challenge the status quo. All without fear of being embarrassed, further marginalized or punished in some way. And so this definition, of course, sort of assumes that everyone is starting off at the same level of psychological safety in a way when they come into the workplace.

And while these definitions lay a foundation for psychological safety within a work environment and/or within a team, it’s really important to understand that our racial and intersectional identities are playing a role in what it takes for us to really feel psychologically safe when we arrive at the workplace compared to our white peers in any given work environment, and especially in industries like the tech industry that are historically racially homogenous. And so I want to pose this next question for you all then, since I’ve brought up the racial implications of psychological safety.

How do you think that your racial identity has affected your sense of psychological safety at work in the past in a way that maybe it’s not affecting your white peers? Go ahead and drop your response in the chat. And so as you all are dropping your responses in the chat, I want to just remind you all about racial identity, the different layers of racial identity. I think a lot of times when people think about race, they think of it in sort of like this one track lane or this single lane where it’s just race or your racial identifier. So Black, Latina, Asian, Asian American, so forth. But it’s way more than that.

There’s so many other layers to one’s racial identity that impacts how accepted, included, valued, and overall psychologically safe that they feel at work. So there’s the racial and ethnic group that one belongs to, that sometimes it’s incredibly visible and sometimes it’s not. Sometimes we can make assumptions, but we’re not always clear. We always have to verify with the individual. The other part is, the other layer is skin tone, how light or dark one skin tone is. The other is facial features, how closely aligned one’s facial features are to typical western features. The next is hair texture, how closely aligned one’s hair texture is to thin, fine hair textures.

That is usually what you’ll find in western parts of the world, even in Southeast Asian cultures. And then sometimes one’s nationality is another layer if that primary nationality is a global north nationality or a global south nationality. So all of these layers of one’s racial identity, sometimes it’s incredibly visible. I can say that if someone was to see me in person, they would probably be able to pinpoint that I am a West African woman. They can see that I’m dark skinned and darker skinned than most. My facial features, of course, are leaning more towards West African features and so on.

They can deduce that I belong to a Black racial group and so forth. The key here is that there is a racial hierarchy. That the closer one is to some of these aforementioned characteristics like lighter skin tone, being in some of the racial groups that are higher ranked, right? So white folks felt like people being at the top, and then Asian folks, then fine hair in terms of hair texture and so on. And so the closer one is to the top of that racial hierarchy scale, the less systemic and interpersonal racial oppression or biases and discriminations they’re going to face at or outside of work. So I want to emphasize that there are layers to racial identity, and there is a racial hierarchy that exists.

Another example is lighter skinned Asians and Asian Americans are often thought to be at the top of the racial hierarchies, second only to white folks in the west and white Europeans, white Americans. Because of the model minority myth, which of course stems from the racial tensions of the 1960s when civil rights movements were underway and the battles being fought in Asia during Vietnam War was on the minds of everyone. And there was a prevailing narrative that Asians were able to succeed in spite of all the hardships, but Black folks weren’t able to do that, quote unquote, and only complain and protested about their inequalities that existed.

And then another example is that you also have darker skinned Black people. So not just thinking about race, we’re also thinking about colorism, right? So you are going to have darker skinned Black people who are thought to be at the very bottom of this racial hierarchy. And it just continues in terms of facial features, leaning more towards where typical Western features or more towards Afro or African features. And all of that impacts how folks are experiencing the world that we live in.

So I’m going to break down what exactly systemic and interpersonal racial oppression is, how that sort of manifest. There are three ways, or some of the ways, I’ll name three. One of them is unnecessary suffering. So we’re constantly going through unnecessary suffering because of how we’re perceived racially. The other is inordinate use and depletion of energy. And I’ll dive a little bit more into that in a minute. And the last is social and systemic undervaluing. We get all these messages from the media, from people, even in our social groups, that somehow our value is less than folks who are at the top of that racial hierarchy.

And of course, it impacts the opportunity gap, career wise, education wise, it just impacts every aspect of our lives. And so the phenomenon I want to focus on today specifically is the inordinate use and depletion of energy and what that means. So you’ll see here on the screen that I have, the first person here on the screen has identity safety, and I’ll explain that in a minute. And the second person has a couple of things that probably is taking up some energy, that they’re navigating in the workplace aside from their regular job. And then the last person is maybe more closer to the bottom of the racial hierarchy or the racial scale.

And so they’re experiencing even more. They’re having to expend more energy just to exist at work in a way before they can even begin to feel like or think about their sense of inclusion, their sense of belonging. They’re navigating these other things as well as their job. I do want to also note that these different scenarios and examples that I’ve pulled are still kind of general because different racial groups experience different types of microaggressions and microinvalidations in the workplace. There are some that are very common for us and then across racial groups or non-white racial groups.

But then there are some that are unique to, for example, Black and African-Americans in the workplace. There are some that are very unique to Black immigrants in the workplace. There’s some that are unique to Latin or Latina individuals in the workplace and so on. So you get the picture. So looking at the first person here, identity safety. Identity safety essentially is the idea that one feels incredibly safe in who they are and how they show up without any effort, right? That they aren’t having to navigate different belief systems, scenarios, and situations that are constantly making them have to prove their value and their worth and their right to exist in a particular space and in this situation, the workplace.

And so when we look at this right here, the second person, the different aspects of their workday, these are just examples that they’re navigating that is taking away energy from their energy at work. One of them, an example is you show up to the workplace, your office, and you show up there all the time. Maybe there’s a new security guard. For some reason he doesn’t believe that you actually work there, even though you’re showing him your ID badge, he’s assuming that something is off or maybe you forgot your ID badge and you are trying to navigate, calling your manager and all of that. And so they’re giving you maybe more of a hard time than they might give someone who is lighter skinned or someone who is white.

There are a lot of real life stories like that where folks question folks of color who are at the workplace, they question whether they’re actually really working there or they mistake them for the janitor or whatnot. The next I want to talk about is different microaggressions that, specifically I would say maybe more so women of color experience microaggressions about our appearance, right? Example for black women, it’s often about our hair. It’s often about our makeup or what we’re wearing. And then another one that’s pretty prevalent and definitely you’ll see this on the racial scale.

This is something you will see specifically when you think about colorism and racism. The only feedback that one might be receiving after a presentation or a project is probably more aligned to their personality or how they conveyed their ideas during the presentation or how they worked with the team. It’s not actually about the content itself. Some of the meaty things that actually matter. We often find ourselves having to ask for that feedback, having to advocate for more critical and constructive feedback about the core goals of projects or the core goals of a presentation.

And then you’ll see in the third row, we have some other examples in there. And I also have there too, advocating for more actionable feedback. Other feedback that women of color get specifically darker skinned women of color or Black women is not actionable. And there’s a statistic on that in an article I did for HBR. Don’t quote me on it, but I think it’s… I’m going to say it wrong so you got to go back and look at my article. But compared to white men, we’re getting way less actionable feedback at work. And so all of these things are affecting our energy in the workplace and how we show up for the work itself.

There’s a term that we use now called weathering, which describes the high effort coping mechanisms that we are using to manage the constant stress of racial biases and discrimination that may lead to, of course, premature biological aging, poor, physical and mental health outcomes. And also just our ability to show up fully a hundred percent at work. And so while this term originated from a study to describe the unique stress from racism, that Black, especially dark-skinned Black people face, other racial groups at the bottom of the racial hierarchy arguably are facing some level of weathering as well.

So we’re constantly weathering these daily or unique incidents of racial biases and discrimination inside and outside of work. So quickly just let us know in the chat how are you able to relate to this. Have you ever noticed a difference in your mental or intellectual or even emotional energy when you are in an environment where you feel safe in your identity? So not when you don’t feel safe, but when you actually do feel safe. It doesn’t necessarily mean that you have to work in an environment. What I’m talking about doesn’t mean that you have to work in an environment where everyone looks like you.

But rather it’s that everyone possesses a high skill in navigating and this is all about cultivating equity, leveling the playing field, cultivating that sense of belonging, community and inclusion where everyone possesses, not just leaders, but also team members. A high skill in navigating relationship care, trust, safety, and safety with individuals of different identities. So what does this all mean, right? It means that there are elements to our sense of psychological safety as people of color that we have to confront before we can feel inclusion safety, learner safety, contributor safety and challenger safety, for example.

We first need to get over that hump of identity safety. And I think it’s also important to note here that we have to determine for ourselves how much responsibility we hold within ourselves to give ourselves that level of psychological safety. And then how much responsibility do we need to hold the organization and our team accountable to in securing that identity safety for us. So we’re not constantly having to navigate and spend energy defending our right to be in a space because of who we are. So now I want to briefly focus on what is within our power to get to identity safety for ourselves.

We have to definitely recognize that there is a role that workplace leaders, middle managers, and peers play, like I said before and there’s also a role that we individually play in getting to psychological safety for ourself. In looking at this specific category or phenomenon of systemic and interpersonal oppression that is identity-based. This category of inordinate use and depletion of energy. We can be reflective and strategic about how we use our energy or how much effort we decide to use to cope with different incidents and issues. And so what I’m talking about is sort of taking some of our power back.

And what I really mean by this is that we need to get in the habit of taking stock of what depletes us in navigating and in coping, and how it depletes us, what type of energy or effort it takes to get over the different humps or the different things that roadblocks that come into play at work. And then plan accordingly so we can be our best in the workplace. So what routes or peers do we need to avoid? When I say routes, I mean when we’re walking to our office, for example, what routes do we need to avoid? Who do we need to avoid? So think about peers.

And then when do we need to be sure to avoid them, right? For example, if there’s a big project coming up and you really want to make sure that you are conserving your energy as much as possible to complete it. You’ll definitely need to be mindful of how much energy you use to navigate different identity-based issues or conversations, whether they’re project related, team culture related or not. And this is one of the reasons why people of color, statistically, people who experience the most microaggressions at work in the workplace prefer working at home.

They’re not having to navigate these different barriers, specifically interpersonal barriers at work in order to do their job. So your emotional energy and positivity for your sense of self impacts your intellectual energy to fully show up, like I’ve mentioned before. All the studies show that you have a higher chance of reaching your full professional potential and become really good at a specific skillset if you are able to set the right boundaries for yourself. If you are able to really be careful about how you’re using your energy and if you’re very intentional about exercising your self agency.

Another example for me is just a personal one. When I’m working on a big presentation, I tend to limit my interactions with people in person, but specifically folks who I know who have been racially microaggressive in the past, even if it’s just subtle things that maybe they’re not aware of, that’s subconscious that I just sort of let slide because not everything warrants a crucial conversation. Those people, I’ll tend to just avoid that. Sometimes when I say communication interaction, this also includes email and phone communication and sending a nice message. Letting folks know that I’m working on something right now and I’ll get back to them at a later date usually works just fine.

So there’s definitely… This is very high level. There’s a little bit more to this, including how you communicate your boundaries to different types of stakeholders at work, because it’s not one quick broad brush stroke, but how you’re setting and communicating those boundaries without having to even use the word boundary is something that I’ve dove deeper with clients. And then also thinking about how you are communicating it in a way that sticks and is sustainable for folks no matter what type of work environment you’re in. So we don’t have much time to go into all of the details of that today.

But I hope this provides a good snapshot for you of a crucial skill when we think about cultivating psychological safety, which has the key, I want to say, core factor identity safety for ourselves in the workplace. So to quickly recap some of the key points or the main key points of this session today. The first one is feeling safe as we are in our identity is the primary stage of psychological safety for people of color and/or those who face identity-based, systemic and interpersonal oppression.

The other key idea is that one of the key pillars for cultivating psychological safety for ourselves is taking back some of our agency and being strategic about how we use our energy, knowing we have a limited daily supply compared to others because we’re not just dealing with what’s at work, but also outside of work in terms of social and systemic identity-based privileges. Or you could go the other way in terms of biases and discriminations that were confronting it or fielding every single day. So as we wrap up, I want to ask you all, what are some of your key takeaways?

Research says that if we’re able to clearly share new knowledge with a peer or even practice what we’ve learned after a session, the more likely we are to remember, internalize and even practice it. And so I’m going to ask you all or challenge you to find a friend or a peer who might be interested in this topic. Tell them about this session and tell them what is still circling around in your head that’s not quite clear, or that you have questions about. What do you understand now that you didn’t understand before?

And then what is one takeaway that you think you can start applying immediately as you navigate the workplace? And then lastly, if you’d more presentations like this, of course, feel free to get in touch with me. Here’s some of my information. And that’s it for today. Thank you all so much for engaging with me in this session. I hope that you all were able to take away some key nuggets, and this really sparks the conversation further about the racial implications of psychological safety at work. Thank you so much. Bye.

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