The Color Bravery at Work Series, Part 2: A conversation about emotional intelligence.

Is emotional intelligence biased against people of color?

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Is emotional intelligence biased against people of color?
Is emotional intelligence biased against people of color?

As part of my racial enlightenment, I have started recording conversations I’m having with African Americans about the workplace reforms we need to make to diversity programs to achieve sustainable racial justice and equality. Mellody Hobson’s powerful TED Talk from 2014, Color blind or color brave? inspired the name for this series. Read Part 1 here.

Does emotional intelligence, also known as “EQ,” favor white Americans? In 2002, James E. Smith published a paper called, “Race, Emotions, and Socialization.” Smith cautioned:

Any theory, research or program that seeks to understand, explain, educate, or provide therapeutic intervention and treatment to people of any race, ethnicity, or culture or to bring people of different races together must seek to understand the symbolism, meaning and the emotional connection of being white or a person of color. Emotions and behaviors are interactive, multidimensional, and are transmitted across generations and partnered with every component, issue, and quality of human existence from birth to death (Smith, 2002, p. 108).

James E. Smith

Danne Smith Mathis, a professional writer and the first African American professional I interviewed for this series, opened my eyes to a perspective of emotional intelligence that I had never considered—our standards of emotional intelligence and professional conduct are biased against people of color—and, in particular, African Americans.

What happens when we don’t consider multiculturalism in the corporate setting within the design of EQ assessments? And how, then, do those assessments impact people of color? Robin DiAngelo (2018), in the author’s note to her book, White Fragility, Why It’s So Hard for White People to Talk About Racism, discusses why naming groups that face barriers is such a crucial aspect of social justice:

Not naming the groups that face barriers only serves those who already have access; the assumption is that the access enjoyed by the controlling group is universal. For example, although we are taught that women were granted suffrage in 1920, we ignore the fact that it was white women who received full access or that it was white men who granted it. Not until the 1960s, through the Voting Rights Act, were all women—regardless of race—granted full access to suffrage. Naming who has access and who doesn’t guides our efforts in challenging injustice (DiAngelo, 2018, p. xiv).

Robin J. DiAngelo

So, are EQ assessment designers naming the races and cultures of their target employees? Do they consider these multidimensional, multicultural differences when preparing these assessments? The Black professionals I’ve been interviewing suggest the answer is no based on their experiences, among which includes code-switching.

Code-switching, described by Harvard Business Review‘s Courtney L. McCluney, Kathrina Robotham, Serenity Lee, Richard Smith, and Myles Durkee (2019) in their article, “The Costs of Code-Switching,” is a “strategy for black people to successfully navigate interracial interactions [that] has large implications for their well-being, economic advancement, and even physical survival” (para. 2). McCluney, et al., (2019), explain:

Broadly, code-switching involves adjusting one’s style of speech, appearance, behavior, and expression in ways that will optimize the comfort of others in exchange for fair treatment, quality service, and employment opportunities. Research suggests that code-switching often occurs in spaces where negative stereotypes of black people run counter to what are considered ‘appropriate’ behaviors and norms for a specific environment. For example, research conducted in schools suggests that black students selectively code-switch between standard English in the classroom and African-American Vernacular English (AAVE) with their peers, which elevates their social standing with each intended audience. We also see examples of guidelines encouraging black people to code-switch to survive police interactions, such as ‘acting polite and respectful when stopped’ and ‘avoiding running even if you are afraid‘ (para. 3).

McCluney, et al.

The type of bias that necessitates code-switching is not necessarily intentional, as DiAngelo (2018) explains, “While implicit bias is always at play because all humans have bias, inequity can occur simply through homogeneity; if I am not aware of the barriers you face, then I won’t see them, much less be motivated to remove them” (pp. xiii-xiv).

Aysa Gray (2019) explains how the biases that favor white culture have dominated professionalism standards in her article for the Stanford Social Innovation Review:

These values, established over time as history and fact, have been used to create the narrative of white supremacy that underpins professionalism today, playing out in the hiring, firing, and day-to-day management of workplaces around the world. The story unfolds many ways: in white and Western standards of dress and hairstyle (straightened hairsuits but not saris, and burqa and beard bans in some countries); in speech, accent, word choice, and communication (never show emotionmust sound “American,” and must speak white standard English); in scrutiny (black employees are monitored more closely and face more penalties as a result); and in attitudes toward timeliness and work style (para. 4).

Aysa Gray

To become antiracist at work, to foster sustainable change that doesn’t simply exist on paper in our diversity program documents, we have to name the groups that face barriers and then take action.

And here, I’m speaking directly to white workers: We must understand our biases and preferences for a non-inclusive, non-diverse code of conduct—intentional or not—to even begin dismantling the systematic workplace racism our preferences have enabled to persevere, despite a majority of Americans expressing a preference for more diversity in the workplace.

And this is uncomfortable.

For all of us. It’s an uncomfortable topic. But as Mellody Hobson says, do you want to be color blind? Or color brave? Let’s face it. Most of us don’t know how to be color brave. Talking about race and the color of our skin makes us uncomfortable, especially at work.


That’s not such an easy question to answer and, as my first guest explains, you have to go back to the origins of slavery to untangle the complex relationship between white and Black Americans.

CBR: Thank you so much for sharing your story with me.

DSM: First, thank you so much. It is such an important time in my life. I am a baby boomer, and an African American woman. I have raised three very successful children. I don’t want to brag, but I usually say my best resume is the resume of my children. All my children are college-educated. My daughter has a degree in Hospitality and Hotel Management from Johnson & Wales University and serves our country in the United States Army as an enlisted soldier. My eldest son has a Ph.D. in Applied Physics from the University of Michigan. And my youngest son is a nurse in a neuro ICU unit. So two of my children are literally on the front lines of a global pandemic. I am also a grandmother, and I homeschool my grandson, who is the second generation of homeschoolers in my family.

I have multiple whammies in my life: Two of my children are young Black men and my grandson is a young Black boy. My daughter is an African American female soldier. So racism and sexism loom real in our lives. But thankfully, we are not products of either. My home, and my children’s home, was diverse and open to every culture and ethnicity. Our family members included those who intermarried with white people.

CBR: Would you share with me the primary reasons you have agreed to participate in this article?

DSM: I want to share my story because of what I have learned through the generations of my well educated, emotionally stable, culturally diverse family. I want to be a part of the difference needed in a new discussion, which is germane to the corporate workplace. Just like Mellody Hobson said, “it’s time for us to be uncomfortable with the uncomfortable conversation about race.”

I’m addressing the issue of what I think has been clearly defined in corporate America, but not scientifically defined, and that is what is known as emotional intelligence; the ability for a person to perceive, understand, harness, and manage their emotions, in themselves and in others. Emotional intelligence is not only necessary in the general sense of the word, but I believe this type of intelligence has redefined what it means to be smart inside the walls of corporate America.

But corporate America will never really be a place where an employee of color feels comfortable with the uncomfortable discussion of race and racism. This is a primary concern for me because I’ve seen firsthand the negative effects of the misuse of this type of “intelligence” as a gauge to promote or not promote employees of color. What will happen if we don’t look at the reality of this and how it is misused by those in authority for this very reason?

CBR: For your white colleagues who want to have this conversation with you, what advice do you have for them? Especially if they are afraid of starting this conversation?

DSM: Well, my first reaction is: I don’t want you to be afraid. Who made you afraid? Why are you afraid? There’s no reason to be afraid. You’ve never done it, but already, in your mind, you’ve created an atmosphere of fear. Where is this fear coming from? I just showed up to talk about it. And you’re already afraid. In fact, we can’t even discuss it because you’re afraid. Usually, when you’re afraid, there’s something you don’t trust or you don’t know, so you make your ignorance the victim and if you are white, it becomes the very thing you use to divert the true matter you want to avoid.

So, what I say to my white colleagues who want to have this discussion with me as a Black person is: Don’t be afraid. I can’t control that—you control that. All I can tell you is don’t be afraid. Black people don’t bite.

But I think the response to this question—within the context of corporate America—depends on the generation of the audience. I expect to have a very different conversation and a different response with baby boomers than millennials. There are five generations in the American workplace right now and I think that’s unprecedented. We must take these generational differences into consideration when we have these conversations about race. And I think corporate America is really the main place where this discussion is most feared; mainly because corporate America has not even adjusted to the reality of what the discussions should have been with my generation let alone those after mine.

CBR: Harvard Business Review published an article in 2002 called Dear White Boss that presents a fictional letter written by an African American director of strategic planning to his white manager. The author of the letter explains that, during one of his introductory meetings after he was hired, he expected to answer questions about strategy or his insights, but instead was asked a lot of questions about diversity. He said the discussion left him demoralized. He writes, “Despite my 15 years of experience, despite my solid track record, my new colleagues appeared to have little interest in my business expertise. Instead, they seemed to have assigned me some special role: official interpreter of minority concerns for the organization.”

For me, I think some of my reticence has been, if I bring race up, I might make people feel like that’s all I see is the color of their skin. So, I want to talk about it, but there’s this fear of offending someone by bringing it up and saying, Can we talk about race in the workplace? Can we talk about how we can better understand each other?

DSM: I’m going to say two things: First, we need to discuss the difference between race and racism. So, there could be some similarities and differences that we can identify, but every human being belongs to a particular race, right?

Just like Mellody Hobson says about the whole issue of being color blind versus color brave—I want you to see my color. You need to see my color to know who I am. But we have made my color into more than what it should be. It’s not what I do nor who I am. It’s how I was made—the person made in the image of God. That is the color of us all; the color God made us. But when we talk about being respected human beings, we’re now in this whole discussion about “Black Lives Matter.” And we have already gotten into a discussion where the racists have attempted to change the narrative to “All Lives Matter.” They have tried to suck us all into something that is divisive: “Black Lives Matter versus All Lives Matter.” When we say, “Black Lives Matter,” we are not saying only Black lives matter. We are simply asking, If all lives truly matter, when will you realize our lives matter, too?

But here is another view: I am a human being who is not a matter! And if anyone sees me as a topic for discussion because I am a person of color—not only the topic, but the crux of the so-called matter—then I demand respect, which doesn’t make me disrespectful. Just because I am discussing a matter that’s difficult for a white person to have doesn’t make me difficult. It’s the topic that’s difficult. This is where so many have gotten it twisted!

So, I say to my white colleagues—it’s not just me that matters in this discussion—what you think matters, too. Because, clearly, how you think of me defines how you treat me. Whether your knee is on my neck or my performance review is in your hands, it can often mean the same thing to me!

CBR: We need to normalize conversations about race in the workplace so we can confront it and have honest discussions free from fear. What recommendations do you have for businesses as they reform diversity programs and enable employees to safely confront racism?

DSM: My recommendation is really simple: I want to go back to this thing about leveling the playing field on emotional intelligence. Without it, diversity means nothing. Emotional intelligence must be revisited. We must go back to the drawing board on this issue and assess whatever comprises the quotient for success in corporate America to ensure equality in the workplace. We must dissect the issue where inequality and racism are part of its sum and redefine how it is used as a measurement of intelligence in corporate America. And in order to really level the playing field on this matter, we must demand an understanding of emotional intelligence from a Black person’s or a person of color’s perspective and then readjust the emotional intelligence quotient!

I think it’s important to understand emotional intelligence within the context of a relationship that is based on fear. And we must understand this if we’re going to answer this issue about having discussions free from fear. You must understand that there are so many survival tactics that are tied to a person’s emotional intelligence, mainly for a person of color and particularly for Black people. And in order to truly understand that, you must understand the institution of slavery and how an entire race was programmed and made to think like white people so white people were not afraid of them.

We must have this conversation about how emotional intelligence is designed to put people of color in their place in corporate America so white people will feel comfortable with Black people.

Danne Smith Mathis

So if you define emotional intelligence in a way that is antithetical to my survival skills as a Black person—to my need to survive as a person, to my need to survive as a single mother, to my need to survive as the only breadwinner in my house—if you don’t factor these elements into the quotient, then we are continuing to play a game with this issue at the expense of an entire race of people! This, to me, is very much at the core of how racism works; what racism is in corporate America.

You must go back to the institution of slavery and look at the tenets of that institution that made white people afraid of Black people. That fear comes from white people not wanting us to do to them what they did to us. So, the whole retaliation issue in corporate America—the whole issue of beating someone up on a performance review or gaslighting them, making them think that they were really the problem—these are all issues tied to the use of emotional intelligence in racism.

We must have this conversation about how emotional intelligence is designed to put people of color in their place in corporate America so white people will feel comfortable with Black people. We need to look at it and how it is designed to assess and penalize Black people for the way they naturally emote and respond in various situations and scenarios within corporate America. Why is it that when I use my hands a little bit more in a corporate meeting, I’m getting too emotional? Why can’t you understand I’m not only from New Jersey but I also grew up with second generation Italian Americans who were bilingual because their parents did not speak English and my life assimilated with theirs? Why am I “angry” because I do not smile all the time? Why do these things inevitably lower my emotional intelligence quotient? And by the way—they watch us—all of us. They watch if more than two of us gather to talk. They listen to the tone of our voice, watch our body language. But they want you to think the playing field is level because supposedly we were all tasked to take an emotional intelligence course as part of our corporate training!

So, you see, the less threatening a Black person is to a white person in corporate America, the more likely that Black person is to be promoted! They have defined emotional intelligence based on that need to feel comfortable and unafraid especially of Black people. This is simply my experiential understanding.

I have nothing against Daniel Goleman and all he has done in this area. But what I’m saying is that if we’re going to truly level the playing field, we have to take a hard look at how emotional intelligence has been defined and how it factors into what was done to an entire enslaved race and the part it plays in an effort by Black people to maintain their jobs and positions in corporate America—how emotional intelligence is designed to either hold Black back or thrust them forward in corporate America.

CBR: I used to work for a company headquartered in another country. During my experience there, I learned that the culture rewarded more emotive behavior. I can be a very quiet person and I am not that animated. I was constantly asked, What is wrong with you? Several coworkers seemed to intentionally push my buttons. They pushed and pushed until one day I reached my limit and I started yelling. They said, Now, you’re making sense. This is how you should be all the time. Now you’re normal.

DSM: You know exactly what I’m talking about then. Let’s think about it. You have a predominate culture, the white culture, that enslaved an entire race of people. You cannot tell me that those in the predominant culture didn’t know what they were doing was wrong. And so usually when you’re the dominator and you’re wrong, abuse in the relationship—oppression thrives. So, think about this, America, the whole culture of enslavement of Black people was based on fear, domination, and abuse.

If you go back and look at the whole issue of emotional intelligence, you have the enslaved person who has to decide how to play in this arena. We must play the corporate game. To become emotionally intelligent, we learned the same things you learned at that company—how to play the game to fit in. But we learned that as a race. This is the norm for Black people in corporate America, unless you have a slave owner that likes you. And that’s what we call a champion in corporate America.

So, I would say, let’s go back to the institution of slavery and align emotional intelligence and the whole issue of abuse and power and how these line up in corporate America.

But who is going to want to spend time on that? That is way too deep and way too heavy and will make people cry and not sleep and feel guilty. No one wants to discuss this. This is probably the most uncomfortable thing anybody would ever do in a lifetime.

But to me, this is where we are.

The interesting thing is that you didn’t say discuss you said confront. So, there is an anticipation of confrontation on this subject, right? Let’s grow, people. Let’s have a discussion. Let’s talk about it. I don’t know if I can change it. I don’t know if our discussion will go anywhere. But let’s talk about it. Who knows? This whole thing about having hope about diversity and enabling employees to safely confront racism—you must first define what is safe.

CBR: What is a priority for you? What is a key question I should ask you for this article, and what is your response to the question?

DSM: You know what the question is? Why are we still here?

I think the priority for me is to begin with that topic of emotional intelligence. I’m telling you, that’s it for me. This topic has been defined for Black people since slavery was officially instituted here in America over 400 years ago. I no longer accept how it is misused on people of color to determine their worth inside of corporate America and to advance into corporate leadership. So, a key question that should be asked is, why are you using it? We must look at refining its definition and even defining it altogether differently before we can redefine it so that everyone is playing on the field without fear.


DiAngelo, Robin J. (2018). White Fragility. Beacon Press. Kindle Edition.

Gray, Aysa. (2019, June 4). The Bias of ‘Professionalism’ Standards. Retrieved from:

McCluney, C.L., Robotham, K., Lee, S., Smith, R., and Durkee, M. (2019, November 15). The Costs of Code Switching. Retrieved from:

Smith, James E. (2002). Race, Emotions, and Socialization. Race, Gender & Class 9, no. 4: 94-110.

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