An interview on neurodiversity and intersectionality
What is the cost of navigating a white, neurotypical corporate landscape?
Photo by Zachary Nunn
One of the most important aspects of diversity, equity, and inclusion (DEI) is intersectionality—the idea that no one is contained to one single identity. Intersectionality can sometimes have an impact on how inclusion plays out.
One of the leaders of Neurotopia, our employee resource group (ERG) for neurodivergent folks, started to realize this as she began thinking about diversity within the group. Tegan Parkes is autistic and has ADHD, and is one of the founding members of the community. She wanted to ensure that people of every racial background felt welcome. As she started to notice a lack of diversity, she wondered whether that made the group feel less accessible. But as she did more research, she also realized why joining an ERG for neurodivergent employees might be more difficult for someone from a historically marginalized racial group.
Parkes sat down with Zachary Nunn, a DEI and employee experience executive leader, to share her thought process, talk through the intersection between neurodivergence and race, and understand how to support employees across the board.
The workplace experience for neurodivergent people of color
Parkes: As a leader of a community, especially one as close to my heart as Neurotopia, I want to do everything I can to make it supportive, welcoming, and successful. That’s part of why I became interested in diversity, equity, and inclusion.
I had watched these pushes for diversity and representation across the company, which I found to be incredibly inspiring. At the same time, I was increasingly aware of the lack of racial and ethnic diversity in my own ERG, which concerned me. Wasn’t our whole purpose to help people feel like they had a community? I know from personal experience how alienating it can feel to be the only one who doesn’t fit in.
Our initial goal as an ERG was to seek out more direct representation, both among members and, ideally, as leaders in the group. But when we started to learn more about the overlap between racial diversity and neurodivergence, we quickly realized that “representation” in a group like ours is a very different thing from representation in leadership or in a certain department. For Neurotopia, representation also involves disclosure. That’s a major consideration when you’re already part of a group that has already spent a lifetime facing both implicit and explicit bias.
We realized that if we pursued our concept of “representation,” it might actually look more like tokenism.
I decided to chat with Zach about this, and learn what it’s really like for neurodivergent people of color, and how Neurotopia could be more inclusive.
Nunn: The first thing that you have to realize about people of color in the workplace is that we have almost all faced some kind of prejudice. When it comes to emotions, it’s often something of a catch-22; if you’re always extra calm and rational, your coworkers might accuse you of being cold, unmotivated, or disconnected. If you speak about your feelings, those emotions can be weaponized against you—used as evidence that you aren’t stable or reliable.
I’m not saying that this only happens to people of color, but I do think that it happens to us more often. On a recent episode of my podcast, Living Corporate, I talked about this with therapist and educator Dr. Nikki Coleman, who works with clients that are navigating this workplace balance. She confirmed that it is a common experience, and people of color are likely to have more at stake.
Because people of color don’t usually have generational wealth to fall on due to decades of predatory and discriminatory lending and structural racism, there’s no safety net for you if you get fired. So, if you come forward and say that you’re struggling with mental health challenges, and your company, boss, or peers decide that that means they can’t work with you, you are vulnerable.
Supporting neurodivergent people of color
Parkes: Since talking to Zach, I realized that we just have to approach diversity for Neurotopia differently. If we want to have different voices highlighted, it’s better to reach out to guest speakers who are already comfortable having a public role.
I also realized that we need to address the inequitable circumstances neurodivergent people of color face, without putting more pressure on them. A book called Unmasking Autism by Dr. Devon Price deals with the intersectionality of neurodiversity and race. The author explains that autistic people often need to “mask”—actively and constantly adjust their behavior, facial expressions and tone to appear more neurotypical. People of color often need to do the same thing, often sticking to language, clothing, and mannerisms that don’t offend traditional white sensibilities. Neurodivergent burnout is only compounded by the stress of further adjusting how you present yourself to others in a racial context.
I’ve thought a lot about how different the journey through diagnosis and identifying as neurodivergent is for different groups of people, and how we as a community can understand and support those differences. It’s a complicated, emotional, and personal experience.
In the end, I came away with the conviction that the best way to support neurodivergent people of color is to create avenues where everyone gets mental health support and a chance at accomodations, without having to “come out” or ask for special treatment. I think our Choice program, where employees can elect to come into the office or work remotely, is a good example of how companies can do that.
As an ERG, we’re also able to make these conversations public within the company through events, guest speakers, and even articles like this, so that people can join the conversation without being put on the spot.
I personally know that I have an immense amount of privilege because I never felt like I couldn’t talk to my boss about my neurodivergence. In fact, she was helpful and supportive every step of the way. I never felt like I might be taken less seriously or held back by my diagnoses. Because I was lucky enough to have such a positive experience, my goal is to use that privilege to advocate for others who don’t have that same safety net.
Nunn: So often, we task marginalized employees with the responsibility of fixing the very environments they are harmed by. The reality is, mental health is important for everyone, so it’s something employers should be thinking about regardless and embedding into their systems, policies, and practices. Our data shows that 75% of people think mental health benefits should be a high priority for businesses, and the benefits for workplace culture are well-documented.
But on top of that, people of color are also more likely to have trauma they have to process and are less likely to be diagnosed or taken seriously. I read that only 31% of people of color with mental health challenges are getting support for them.
Even neurotypical folks benefit from healthcare that covers mental health and empowers flexibility. But imagine what a difference it makes for someone with ADHD or PTSD if they can work from a quiet room instead of a hectic office, or if a person who needs meds can have help navigating the healthcare system.
I think it’s helpful to educate managers about the mental health challenges that people of color face as a result of structural inequity, and teach them to offer resources to their teams proactively and not compound those challenges by perpetuating micro and macro aggressive behaviors in the workplace. The more empathy and competence that companies can build at the leadership level, the better their employee experience will be for all, but especially marginalized communities.
Neurodivergence is slowly becoming less stigmatized, and the more that trend continues, work will be for everyone. But for people of color, it’s especially important to create an environment where everyone feels like they can get what they need, wholeheartedly, without penalty.