General Colin Powell and the Difficult Journey of BIPOC Leaders Who Are Firsts

This week, the US mourned the unexpected death of General Colin Powell from COVID-19 complications. Not surprisingly, scores of individuals took the occasion of his death to reflect upon his professional and personal legacy. While some chose to elevate General Powell’s life as a shining example of excellence, others elected to pursue a more critical route—listing a series of complications with honoring him given his role in spreading misinformation about Iraq (paywalled), which helped launch the subsequent war against that nation.

General Colin Powell at a Bush rally in 2000
General Colin Powell in 2000.

Photo credit: Joseph Sohm / Shutterstock.com

Showing the duality of his legacy is not a wrong path to take, although I struggle with the timing of doing this when a person dies. It feels like a passive-aggressive avoidance strategy to pick apart someone’s life history when they cannot provide context and some balance to the narrative. I particularly have a hard time with the delicate deconstruction of General Powell’s life because many people doing so on social media do not understand the proverbial tightrope and myriad challenges that BIPOC leaders encounter daily. These challenges make it difficult, if not impossible, for BIPOC leaders to do their jobs effectively, especially if they are the first BIPOC in their role. 

Those of us who viewed Netflix’s The Chair got to hear, for the first time in a major network program, a brilliantly delivered description of the glass cliff phenomenon by Sandra Oh in the role of Dr. Ji-Yoon Kim, a newly appointed BIPOC English department chair within a predominately white university. However, climbing the summit to arrive onto the glass cliff is a rough journey for BIPOC leaders. This is because many white colleagues and leaders are unwilling to accept the persistence of expressions of racism, bias, and othering as common workplace practices. Even self-described liberals and allies among white colleagues routinely engage in subtle and not-so-subtle behavior that undermines the authority and leadership voice of the BIPOC leaders they claim to support. 

Some of these behaviors—as identified in the research (paywalled)—that General Powell encountered and that other BIPOC leaders continue to contend with are as follows:

  1. Homophily (paywalled)—White colleagues tend to cluster with and support other white colleagues with formal and informal professional knowledge that assists in the ascension of white people into leadership positions at a higher rate than BIPOC. Homophily also manifests itself as selective knowledge sharing with BIPOC and exclusion from “buddy networks” where critical workplace decisions are made outside team meetings. 
  2. Reverse victimhood (paywalled)—Being called out on one’s bias is not easy. Some white colleagues take instances of being held accountable for non-inclusive behavior as opportunities to instead raise counternarratives of purported victimhood. 
  3. Perpetuating myths of the presumed incompetence of BIPOC leaders and people (preview/paywalled)—This entails white leaders in the workplace assuming that BIPOC leaders do not understand how to successfully complete core tasks without other white leaders’ and managers’ involvement or guidance. These white leaders will then deputize white managers with whom they are comfortable to serve as the de facto managers of BIPOC leaders and employees. This behavior happens overtly and covertly. It further operationalizes homophily with an even more damaging impact on BIPOC leaders’ reputation and authority. 

What steps should we in higher education take on the matter of these negative workplace behaviors? 

First, in examining the life history of BIPOC leaders, take all of these circumstances into consideration. BIPOC leaders are often not operating with the same support, advisement, and assistance as white leaders (paywalled). So, if missteps happen, it is usually because they were not provided the full range of tools and data to make better decisions. 

Secondly, if you are a white workplace leader, curb any tendencies to become defensive when called out for your engagement in any of these behaviors. It would be best if you honored the feelings of your BIPOC colleagues even when you believe that your intention was not to carry out non-inclusive behaviors. 

Third, identify these behaviors as a counter to inclusive workplace engagement and craft plans to address them. Striving toward inclusive excellence means being willing to continuously delve into the hard work daily. 

General Colin Powell’s life provides us an opportunity to lean into these tough conversations about the treatment of BIPOC leaders in bias-ridden workplaces. For me, among his greatest contributions was his willingness to articulate the pride and special burden BIPOC leaders shoulder each day to raise awareness and improve future workplace relations. We must study the insights of his history as a means of pulling forward together. 

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Header image is a detail of This is Harlem by Jacob Lawrence. Courtesy of Hirshhorn Museum and Sculpture Garden. © 2021 The Jacob and Gwendolyn Knight Lawrence Foundation, Seattle / Artists Rights Society (ARS), New York. For more information, click here.

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