Early on in my career, I didn’t spend too much time getting ready in the morning. Sure, I cared about how I looked – I work in fashion, after all. But somewhere along the way, as I climbed the slippery corporate ladder, my morning routine doubled.
Maybe it changed when I realized my curly hair was not considered professional. Comments like “I love your wild hair,” or that time I straightened my curly roots and was told, “You look good, it was getting crazy there for a minute,” from former bosses – didn’t sit well. Or when my Asian coworker and I wore the same skirt. I was written up for violating the dress code and she wasn’t. Or, maybe it was spending a year in a white-only office, with no one to talk to.
The actual moment my presentation habits shifted is a bit blurry, but I somehow became inherently aware that my hair is not ‘normal’, specific clothing on my natural body type can send the wrong message, and being black in professional spaces can be challenging.
Recently I came across a report called “Being Black in Corporate America” by the nonprofit Center for Talent Innovation. It shared information on code-switching, racism, and lack of promotion. Reading the report, I was shocked at how much I had in common with these experiences. Fortunately, being Black at work isn’t an overt thought of mine, but instead an awareness that developed over time.
Curious to hear the thoughts of other Black professionals, we asked seven African American employees across fashion, tech and education to weigh in on their experience working in corporate America.
Was I hired to fill a quota?
There was this one episode of Insecure. (I know, but hear me out.) Lawrence, the 30-something year-old male lead, had landed his dream job. He soon realized that, when he pitched ideas, he wasn’t receiving feedback from his manager. Instead of being taken seriously and valued for his talent, he was complimented on his shoe game and how stylish he was. Why were his Nike’s the focus?
It’s situations like these that make us question, were we hired simply to fill a quota?
“I was like their guinea pig,” says Amanda, a 31 year-old project marketing manager. “I was the only Black girl in the entire office.” She shared that working in an office where the majority of employees have never interacted with Black people, can make things awkward and is way too easy of a space for racism to thrive.
Brandon, an NYC public relations director, travels from Brooklyn to Manhattan every morning dressed in tailor-made trousers and perfectly shined loafers. He believes part of what got him to such a senior role is knowing the intention of the employer during the hiring stage, and dodging opportunities where intentions weren’t pure. “I knew they already had a perception of me,” he says as he remembers accepting the wrong roles. “Granted, they gave me the opportunity, but I feel like they were looking to prove themselves right, to say, ‘We hired a Black man or a Black woman, well done.’”
Diary of a mad Black wom(an).
Growing up in California – my father was convinced I could be Hollywood’s next big thing. Spoiler alert: I was not. But at one particular audition, a casting director asked me to snap my fingers, “you know, snap your fingers in a Z-formation.” If you don’t recall this saying, in 2009 Black artist Savion Simone came out with the song “Don’t Let Me Snap My Fingers.” The video shows Black school girls snapping their fingers in order to get their way. Clearly he thought it would be funny, and since I was Black I was the perfect person to ask, right? At the time I did it. I was 18, wanted the part and lacked retaliation. But what happens when this funny side is no longer dominant?
Mercy, a senior manager in education administration, regularly struggles balancing her natural social butterfly personality with a non-intimidating posture when receiving feedback. “I have to overcompensate and control my face and reaction,” she says. The issue is, suppressing her energy can then amplify any feelings of frustration.
In an offsite meeting, Amanda, being the only black person at the table, was asked for BBQ recommendations in New York. Appalled by the question, her first reaction was to “throw punches,” she said. “[Asking] this in front of a whole bunch of people, like this is mad disrespectful.” Again, remembering that Black people are often perceived as aggressive, she bit her tongue and politely told her white counterpart that she doesn’t eat BBQ, but has great Italian recommendations in the city. /
The struggle is real…
Imagine the type of energy it takes to alter your personality, language, and thoughts. All the employees we spoke to practice a certain level of code-switching, or the act of filtering your behavior and language. Travis, a 34-year old business analyst, works for a big global tech company. On any given day he could speak to developers in India, have a meeting with a Korean executive or give a presentation in Bangladesh.
For Travis, code-switching is a vital skill to have at work. He’s not switching gears because of his race, Travis clarifies, but for the different races around him, in order to create a cohesive experience for everyone. Mercy went from adjusting her thought process and slang to code-switching when it feels right, “I recognize that playing the game, and not playing the game will often lead us to the same end.”
It’s not about how often you do it, but instead knowing when it’s appropriate.
As an educator in a minority populated school, Carmen questions who set the standards. “Are we telling kids their culture and way of speaking is less valuable than that of our colonial friends?” The thing is, code-switching is inevitable but it’s also a survival tactic to succeed in the professional world.
You can’t be what you can’t see.
You’ve heard it at the Oscars, Grammys, and just about every other award show – representation matters. It’s hard to envision a life for yourself if you have no one to pave the way or create spaces for dreams to grow and ultimately become a reality. In all their interviews, the employees stressed the need to have someone in their corner. Amanda stated that “an advocate that has power to speak on your work, is definitely key.” At Carmen’s school, the need for Black voices is becoming more and more apparent. “That perspective in the classroom space is needed…even if I’m in the classroom trying to be invisible, it helps.”
There’s strength in numbers.
“Sometimes you need an extra set of eyes on things,” says Asja, a marketing executive. When discussing email edict between a difficult colleague, she “wanted someone to read it over because [she] knew that it was shitty, and that it was bitchy.” She’s elated to be at her current employer because “ if something jumps off like that, [she] has Black coworkers to put another set of eyes on it. Like to have someone like that to look at it, like that’s clutch.”
Travis gushed about how happy he is to have another minority on his team. “It provides a level of comfort. And to be honest, if he were not there – there’s certain types of situations where we have to talk about being a minority, it would be difficult,” he shares.
It was very clear that most Black professionals share similar experiences. It led us to wonder — are there any solutions to better our time in workspaces? There is a lot to do but we think the below are steps in the right direction.
If you see something – say something.
The MTA may be onto something. African American employees hope for better education and allies across races so that when something inappropriate is said, they have someone to advocate alongside them. This means instead of laughing it off, awkwardly changing the subject, or worst — going silent, all race groups will feel comfortable speaking out against such behavior.
Implement diversity programs.
Many employees of color feel diversity programs positively impact their work lives. It creates a safe space, a place they can be authentic, a place where they feel included. It allows them to connect with senior leaders and network in a way they might not be able to in their immediate teams.
Put the ‘human’ back in human resources.
We often joke at work spaces when something silly is said with, “I’m calling HR.” But what if HR departments reaffirmed their commitment to serve current employees as much as new hires?
Employees of color, specifically African Americans, often speak about racial and cultural challenges in exit interviews only to be challenged with, “Why didn’t you say anything?” If human resources were more welcoming and cared how people – all people – were treated, they should create policies protecting workers and actually follow through. If this was done, employees might feel safe and seen enough to speak up.
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For many Black employees, challenges to be authentic, filter personalities, and form relationships are daily practices. Although difficult, they don’t plan to give up, but instead hope other races, and companies policies are put into place to create better work days for all employees.