How to Fit in When You Stand Out
When I walk into an office I can trust there will be less than 10 other professionals that look like me, specifically meaning either black or black and female. True, this is in part due to my geographical location - the Midwest still has a long way to go before we can call ourselves diverse and multicultural. To paint a clearer picture, my current place of employment is in "the sticks", as in the middle of nowhere. Statistically, the township is 92% white. For some people of color, this would make them extremely uncomfortable, but throughout my entire life I've lived in areas where my family was racially outnumbered. In my high school graduating class, there were 12 black students out of 148 (8%), and when I crossed the stage at Purdue, only 3% of the undergrad campus identified as black.
Unless I'm around family and friends, I tend to present a watered down version of myself in a professional environment. Let's be clear: I am not ashamed of my pigmented tone, my curly hair or thick lips. I'll admit, years ago my extra curves made me feel like I was overweight and misshapen (remember, I grew up in the suburbs around mostly thin, white girls), but thankfully I've grown to love the skin I'm in.
Since I've always been the minority, I've subconsciously taught myself to internally police my habits around the masses. Everything from changing my tone of voice, vocabulary and accent, to straightening my hair for an interview or career fair so I could improve the first impression reaction. I've also abbreviated my name to "Kay" in the professional space. I've had many conversations about how my behavior is only coddling the prejudices, allowing myself to be diluted for the comfort of my white counterparts.
I understand this argument, but there is a reason for my actions. I tone down the southern twang when I'm speaking to global business partners because it can be a tough accent to decipher. I straighten my hair because although I don't necessarily like that it's "preferred", if it gives me an edge and allows the hiring manager to remember me for my qualifications, I'll take it. I changed my name because it takes less effort on my behalf to correct the constant errors in pronunciation of my legal name. It also allowed me to create professional references; whenever someone calls me "Kay" on the phone, in email or in public, I immediately know its a business reference.
Regardless of your opinion on my behavior, I can say with certainty I am still a young black female. It doesn't matter how advanced my vocabulary is, how bomb my silk press looks or if I say my name is Sarah - I am and always will look like the black professional woman that I am. So how do I fit in in an environment when I naturally stand out?
1. Do What Makes You Feel Comfortable - as I mentioned above, despite the opposing opinion I'm happy with my abbreviated name and articulating my words. Growing up, I was constantly told I "sounded white" by family members living in the hood. I've learned first hand a lot of people in my area have limited interaction with black people, so it works best that I don't take it upon myself to be the black person to expose them to our many differences.
2. Be Confident - if you aren't comfy in your own skin it will be noticed. Trust me you will, at some point, come across someone who disrespects you (probably due to ignorance) and when it happens you must be able to defend not only yourself but your entire race. Whenever I have to school up a sheltered colleague about her offensive comments I am doing it for all black women, not just me.
3. Socialize - being a hermit is the easiest way to stick out like a sore thumb, regardless of who you are. Make an effort to get to know your team and other coworkers by going on lunch dates, small talk in the break room and teaming up at fun offsite functions. The more connections you build, the less you will feel alone and like an outcast.
To be fully transparent, no matter what you do you may still face adversity and disapproval from those unwilling to accept our differences. Racism, classism an sexism are all still very alive today, which means there could be people in your workplace that don't like you and will never like you regardless of what you do. Let me tell you a secret... are you ready? You don't need them to like you. The only requirement in a safe professional space is respect. Use the tools above and let me know if you notice a difference in the way you feel as the minority.