6 Struggles of Being Unapologetically Black in a Professional Environment

Person standing behind a desk at work

Source: iStock

Today I’m wearing a colorful headscarf over my afro and big hoop earrings in my ears. I’m listening to songs from one of my all-time favorite musical eras, 90s hip-hop, and rocking my body to Salt-N-Pepa as I work.

That may not sound to you like a professional set-up, but it’s almost everything I need to get into the groove and stay on top of my day’s tasks.

I’ve never had a boss who (as far as I know) deliberately set out to make me uncomfortable as a Black person in the workplace, but I’ve had plenty who wouldn’t approve of bringing these things to work.

And I get it: Employers want the workplace to be a setting in which people can—well—work.

I know I can’t expect all of the comforts of home when I’m supposed to be focusing on being productive and representing my workplace in a professional way.

The problem is that many employers end up perpetuating racism just by following the norms that most people consider harmless, or even helpful, for creating a safe, professional work environment.

Which means you don’t have to spout openly racist views to make me feel uncomfortable as a Black person at work. You can unintentionally make me feel unwelcome just by upholding what’s widely considered to be “normal” workplace culture.

For instance, common standards of professional dress create dress codes that aren’t easy for many people of color – and pretty much anyone who isn’t a wealthy, able-bodied white man – to follow.

The requirement to adhere to such a dress code would make me not just uncomfortable, but also set me up for failure. There’s an expectation to look like someone other than myself in order to do a job I’m perfectly capable of succeeding at while I look like myself.

Maybe that doesn’t seem like a big deal. There are larger issues when it comes to race and work – like blatant discrimination in hiring or racist harassment.

But even so-called “trivial” things like dress code requirements and everyday microaggressions add up to to create big problems for access, safety, and equity for people of color in the workplace.

And it’s not just clothes that create obstacles for me.

When you think about it, all of our common ideas about professionalism in the United States are based on an ideal of upper middle class whiteness.

So let’s think about it and then do something about it – because following the status quo on professionalism is a sure way to cause unintentional harm.

Here are some of the ways common workplace culture has created struggles for me in the workplace, and how we can work to change them.

1. People Look Down on Me Because I Don’t Straighten My Hair

Like other aspects of the dress code, you may not think that hair is the most pressing issue when it comes to race and the workplace. But for me, it’s huge.

Like many other Black woman, my hair plays a significant role in expressing my pride in my identity.

But that’s not the only reason hair matters in this conversation. It’s also an important example of how even seemingly harmless workplace policies can set up Blackness as something I have to “overcome” in order to succeed.

Because the hairstyles that maintain my natural hair – like cornrows, afros, and dreadlocks – are often banned in professional settings. It’s just like saris or traditional Native braids – any culturally-specific style that differentiates people of color from a Eurocentric standard of appearance tends to go against the US’s social norms about what it means to look “put together.”

In order to fit many people’s standards of professionalism, I have to take time, put in money, and endure pain to permanently alter the texture of my hair through chemical straightening. Black folks with natural hair can be judged as everything from gang-affiliated to “distracting.”

But, shockingly, there is no correlation between straightening my hair and doing better work. When I put it that way, it’s obvious, right?

I’m a hard worker, and saying that I have to change my hair to do my job is misguided at best – and actually, it feels pretty downright insulting.

As Akilah Oliver wrote, “As Black women in America, we’ve been taught that aspects of our physical self are unacceptable in their natural forms.”

So by choosing to wear my natural hair, I’m taking a risk.

No matter how much self-love I build up, I still have to face external barriers that say that my natural beauty is not appealing or professional.

2. People Think My Natural Voice Sounds Unprofessional

Confession: If you call me on business, I’m probably going to use my White Girl Voice on you.

That sounds ridiculous, I know. There’s no one way of talking like a white person or a Black person, but usually in the US, the idea of “speaking professionally” brings to mind a specific form of Standard American English.

That form does not include the way I naturally speak, and it sure doesn’t include African American Vernacular English (AAVE), which many Black Americans are used to using.

That’s why African-Americans tend to get familiar with the process of code-switching – speaking one way when we’re with people we feel comfortable around, but adjusting to a more “standard” version of English when we need to make a good impression.

So yes, my voice does change when I’m trying to be taken seriously in a professional setting. It goes up a few octaves, becomes a little sing-songy, and always sounds like it’s being filtered through a smile.

The fact that I feel the need to change the way I speak is strange, because throughout my life, I’ve heard “compliments” about my so-called “proper” way of speaking – comments like “You’re so articulate!”

I’ve learned that this is not a compliment. It’s basically another way of saying “Wow, you don’t fit the stereotypes that come to my mind when I picture a Black person!”

Which is a problem, and not only because people expect me to be something I’m not. It’s also a problem because of the negative misconceptions people associate with the use of AAVE. In a professional setting, Black users of AAVE are judged as unintelligent, uneducated, gang-affiliated, and more.

This does affect me, in spite of the impressions I leave of speaking “properly” when I’m using my White Girl Voice. When I’m speaking naturally, I use some AAVE affectations that some would judge as signs of inferior intellect.

These racist and classist ideas about how we should speak in a professional setting actually affect all Black folks, regardless of how we naturally speak, because we’re all judged based on the same stereotypes.

Some of us have to drastically change the way we talk, and live in fear of being misjudged if we slip back into our natural vernacular. Some of us share the unpleasant experience of having professional contacts show surprise upon meeting us and discovering that we’re Black, because they believe our voices could only belong to white people.

All of us should be evaluated on how well we do our jobs, not on how well our voices can hide the fact that we’re Black.

3. People Doubt My Capabilities Because of My Name

Raven-Symoné recently made headlines when she declared on The View that she wouldn’t hire people with “ghetto” names – demonstrating how even Black employers can internalize the ways our ethnicity is used against us in the workplace.

Raven and co-host Michelle Collins used racist stereotypes to create names like “Watermelondrea” and “King’Kong’Quisha” as examples they’d reject from a pile of resumés. So although Raven says her stance is not racist, but “discriminatory,” it’s clear that this attitude is very much based on anti-Black racism.

And she’s not the only one who feels this way.

Studies show that potential employers associate “black-sounding names” like Jamal and DeShawn with violence and incompetence, making them much less likely to call back Jamal than Connor.

Job-hunting can be discouraging enough as it is – and it’s even more demoralizing when you realize potential employers might be throwing away your resumé upon reading your name, without even considering your qualifications.

My name reveals my Blackness, and I really shouldn’t have to think of it that way – like it exposes something negative about me. Turning down my application because you know I’m Black is racist discrimination, period.

But oftentimes it’s more subtle than potential employers thinking, “She’s Black, so I won’t hire her.”

Even people who don’t think they’re racist can hold subconscious biases like believing Black people aren’t hard-working. These combine with classist views like Raven’s characterization of “ghetto” names, leading people to avoid hiring people they believe are poor and Black.

And even beyond hiring, these biases can come through in ways like laughing at our names or insisting on calling us by nicknames you find more appealing or easier to pronounce.

Some Black people end up changing their names or going by initials to improve their chances of success in the job market. I haven’t resorted to going by M.Z. Johnson yet, but it’s a very real possibility that someday I will.

It’s just one of the many ways Black folks feel pressure to change or hide who we are to avoid being misjudged.

4. People Judge Me as Excessively Angry If I Get Mad or Set Boundaries

Emotion is a natural part of life – everyone gets mad sometimes, including at work.

There’s an understandable expectation to keep emotions in check, to a certain degree, in a professional setting. I wouldn’t be a very good employee if I lost my cool with every condescending customer or irritating coworker.

But you wouldn’t be a very supportive employer if you held my emotions to a stricter standard because I’m Black.

Unfortunately, this tends to happen.

As the study on “black-sounding” names revealed, many people associate Blackness with being violent and dangerous. Further research on implicit biases shows that people who don’t even realize they hold racist views can feel this way.

I used to think my ability to be patient in all kinds of situations would help me avoid being misjudged as excessively angry.

But now I know that it doesn’t have anything to do with whether or not I’m actually angry – I can be stereotyped as an Angry Black Woman just for sharing my opinion, asserting my boundaries, or speaking in anything other than a sugar-sweet tone of voice.

That makes things really inconvenient, to say the least, in a work setting.

For white men, confidence and assertiveness are treated as positive qualities and leadership skills. But when I was a supervising manager at a retail store, I had to balance taking leadership – like telling a habitually late employee to be on time – with gentleness, so as not to be judged as aggressive when I was just trying to do my job.

I need to be able to be assertive at work not only to get my job done, but also to take care of myself while I do it.

Since emotion is part of a natural human experience, it’s unhealthy for me to suppress all emotion at work. And since setting boundaries is absolutely necessary for self-care, it’s oppressive to expect me to put up with being mistreated because people judge my assertiveness as excessive anger.

5. I Have to Stay Quiet About the Pain of Racism

As woman of color, racism is part of my everyday life.

Even when I’m not personally experiencing racism, I’m waking up to news like the death of Sandra Bland. Bland was a Black woman who was my age when she died in police custody, so I couldn’t help feeling personally affected by her story.

Stories like these weigh on me, which is part of what it means to be Black in the United States – understanding that people are being killed every day just because their skin is the color of mine.

Sadly, Black employees’ experience often also includes having to hide the struggle of dealing with this when we’re at work.

Uche W.’s article about being let go from her job shortly after speaking about Sandra Bland on social media hit close to home.

She writes, “I’ve come to the conclusion that people of color deserve to be in a work environment where we don’t have to be silent in the face of social injustice for the comfort of others.”

We’re often expected to carry the burden of racism silently, because when we talk about it, we’re seen as rocking the boat. And that even includes when racism shows up at work.

Many Black folks are familiar with this cycle: We witness or experience racism, point it out or stand up for ourselves, and then a white person cries, or feels guilty, or says they’re being attacked.

Then suddenly, we’re seen as the aggressors creating a hostile environment, rather than being supported through the hurtful process of experiencing racism and gathering the courage to call for it to stop.

Racism is a part of my life, and especially if it’s part of my workplace, I need to be able to express my frustration with it without being seen as “attacking” white people.

6. I’m Tokenized as the ‘Only One in the Room’

Many of the examples I’ve discussed so far have come up for me in white-dominated work spaces. Having more Black leaders and coworkers of color isn’t a guarantee of better working conditions, because we can be guilty of these behaviors, too.

But there’s something special – and by “special,” I mean “oppressive” – about being the only Black person at work.

Even employers making an effort to diversify make mistakes when it comes to tokenizing, hiring one person of a certain race and expecting them to represent everyone from their community.

It’s a lot of pressure.

It comes with knowing that your every move, every misstep, every blunder will be used to judge everyone like you. When I’m in this situation, I feel like any small failure will confirm someone’s racist ideas about Black people being incompetent or lazy.

I know this fear doesn’t just come from my imagination, because of how often employers come right out and ask Black employees to speak for all Black people.

Sometimes the request comes in coded language, like asking for the “urban” perspective, as one episode of television’s Blackish put it. Sometimes it’s as straight-forward as asking for my help in appealing to Black consumers or assuring my company that their ad campaign isn’t racist.

For an idea of how well that works out for me, refer back to what happens when I’m judged as excessively angry. As the only Black person, I feel the pressure to make sure others see me as a “good” Black person – as in, one who won’t call out racism or get angry or “make” white people feel bad about themselves by naming oppression.

In the end, even if I’m being tokenized as the only Black person, I’m still expected to conform to whiteness in a way that’s simply impossible for me. But it can feel like the financial support I need to survive is at risk if I don’t suppress my pain and try.

***

These are some of the struggles of not just being Black in professional settings, but especially of being unapologetically Black. I’m essentially more likely to be accepted at work if I’m ashamed of who I am.

I can laugh at racist jokes instead of admitting that they hurt me, to try to avoid being labeled as an Angry Black woman. I can straighten my hair to avoid the negative stereotypes about what it means to be a Black person with natural hair. I can change my name so my ethnicity isn’t clear on business cards or on a resumé. I can switch from Salt-N-Pepa to soft rock to come closer to the white, upper middle class ideal of a professional setting.

But I don’t have to do any of these things in order to get my work done, and I shouldn’t have to do them to convince anyone else that I’m an effective worker.

I should be able to be myself – and to be proud of who I am – while I’m at work.

The expectation of conformity with upper middle class whiteness means fewer job opportunities. It can also mean having to work at a job that requires me to put time, money, and effort into changing myself to fit in.

So pressure to conform put me at a disadvantage and adds the stress of knowing that if I slip back into my natural self, my financial stability could be at risk.

But being unapologetically Black doesn’t mean I’m incapable of doing my job. It means I feel free to be me, and that’s a feeling everyone deserves to experience at work.

Maisha Z. Johnson is the Digital Content Associate and Staff Writer of Everyday Feminism. You can find her writing at the intersections and shamelessly indulging in her obsession with pop culture around the web. Maisha’s past work includes Community United Against Violence (CUAV), the nation’s oldest LGBTQ anti-violence organization, and Fired Up!, a program of California Coalition for Women Prisoners. Through her own project, Inkblot ArtsMaisha taps into the creative arts and digital media to amplify the voices of those often silenced. Like her on Facebook or follow her on Twitter @mzjwords.