Why career envy among BIPOC is so crushing

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As a writer still knee-deep in my first manuscript, seeing a peer debut a book or achieve some other form of literary success is one thing. Seeing a Filipinx like myself do so unleashes a particularly intense rush of envy, followed by an equally intense rush of guilt. (The competitive behavior that can ensue is known as crab mentality, a term activists and scholars in Filipinx and other BIPOC communities have cited in reference to how crabs in a bucket drag each other down to thwart escape, so that all of them perish.) The cognitive dissonance is real. I’m vocally antiracist, and I love my people. I want more of us to succeed, especially given our underrepresentation in the literary world. So why do I experience career envy toward one of my own, and how do I deal?

Lisa Orbé-Austin, a psychologist and executive coach in New York City and co-author of Own Your Greatness: Overcome Impostor Syndrome, Beat Self-Doubt, and Succeed in Life, reassures me that other BIPOC have similar experiences. She spoke with me about how to sort through the shame that can accompany this particular form of envy, as well as how to overcome it and move toward achieving meaningful equity in the workplace.

The scarcity mentality that many of us BIPOC fall into stems partly from a notion that our parents and others might have instilled in us from a young age — “that there’s only a certain amount of space for us,” Orbé-Austin explains. In an attempt to warn us of the limited opportunities for us because of our racial or ethnic background, maybe they gave us advice like, "You need to be twice as good to achieve half as much."

Some of this is based in reality, Orbé-Austin tells me. In academic and professional spaces, it's not uncommon for us to see only one or two other people, if any, who look like us, amidst a sea of white faces. But that likely differs from what we observe out in the world. There must be something deficient about us, we might reason, if only a few of us can get through the door. It conveys the message that “there may be only room for a certain amount of us, and only enough for successful ones” — a rationale that can make us view others like us as competition.

Orbé-Austin notes that this scarcity mentality might have worked for our parents if they had to exist in survival mode, say, if they were immigrants, like mine. “But when you’re moving beyond a survival mode, and trying to thrive and do more with more resources, the scarcity mentality can get you stuck in your career because these ideas don’t allow you to do things that are integral to the advancement of your career,” like building relationships in a thoughtful way.

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Contrary to what our families might have raised us to believe, it’s not enough to just put our heads down and let our work speak for itself, Orbé-Austin says. Buying into that meritocracy myth could even fuel our envy toward those who share our racial or ethnic identity. We fume that we work harder than they do, when in reality, they probably owe their success not so much to hard work as to factors like the relationships they built.

“It’s so important to have coalitions with people in the same identity group,” including mentors and sponsors who can help you grow in your career, Orbé-Austin tells me. “The more likely you see people in your group as competition, the harder it is to build these coalitions…. The more you have an abundance mentality, the more you have around you, and the more successful you become.”

So how do you cope with envy toward one of your own? First, know that it’s ok to feel your feelings, Orbé-Austin says. What matters is what you do with them. Express them to someone you trust, if you want, and focus on acting not with them, but counter to them. In other words, instead of competing with the object of your envy, connect with them. Congratulate and learn from them. Study what relationships they developed and strategies they employed to get to where they are, which will serve you way more in the long run than alienating them.

Also, be gentle with yourself. We're talking about a legacy of entrenched systemic oppression here. Remind yourself that racist systems, like those that often pervade corporate culture, benefit when you see people from your racial or ethnic group as your enemies, Orbé-Austin says. “If we duke it out or don’t get along, we don’t build coalitions, and coalitions are where we have strength.” You also pose less of a threat to the dominant group. “They get all the other pieces of the pie, while you get caught up competing for a small sliver.” White supremacy is truly a trip, I thought as I listened to Orbé-Austin's explanation. Whew.

Companies, for their part, need to take a hard look at their employee demographics, she says. Are there enough people from a certain racial or ethnic identity group for them to build coalitions with each other, or only one or two? The latter implies that only one or two are capable enough to work there, fostering toxic competitive dynamics. "You're setting them up for failure."

Speaking to Orbé-Austin helped pull me out of my shame spiral, reminding me that my knee-jerk envy is evidence that white supremacy is working just as it’s supposed to. Most importantly, though, I learned actionable steps to transcend it. Rather than compete with Filipinx writers I admire, I can connect with them — congratulate them on any accolades they post on social media, which, who knows, might lead to writing groups and other relationships. Much as white supremacy would like us to believe otherwise, there’s enough success for all of us.