If you're a black professional in Corporate America, I'm willing to bet at some point in your career you have had to alter your appearance, your tone of voice, or even your name to feel more appealing to your fellow colleagues in the workplace. Maybe you've driven into the parking lot with your music on low (or off) to make sure no one heard you bumping "First things first rest in peace Uncle Phil" before you walked into the office. I see you, grabbing a plate at the company potluck only to toss it away in the next room because we don't eat food we can't trust, but we also can't allow ourselves to seem rude or ungrateful.
Like so many others, everyday I am internally policing my blackness so that my coworkers will find me acceptable in my corporate job. As the only black professional out of 120+ in my local office, I am under constant pressure to represent diversity within limitations. For example, it's okay for me to come into work with box braids... and spend the day responding to ignorant questions about the change of my hairstyle... but it would belittle my entire race if I came to work with a fire engine red quick weave. Neither the box braids or the quick weave have an affect on my knowledge or qualifications, but both send a message and induce a level of comfort for those around me.
Also notice how I said my entire race - because I am the sole representative of black culture for my local organization, everything I do (or don't do) is a reflection of everyone. If I was to have a mental breakdown in the bathroom, I would put a permanent stain on all black people's mental wellbeing for everyone in that building. Thus, I have to work extra hard not be an angry black woman - instead, I am mild mannered, always helpful, cheerful and welcoming so that not only I, but my race as a whole leaves a pleasant memory for my colleagues.
I'm not exactly sure who defined professionalism as crisp slacks, tone deaf conversations and the unequal pay rates (*cough* and promotions) between white and nonwhite employees, but that is Corporate America in a nutshell. It's a breeding ground for fake smiles, clinched handshakes and long, drawn out meetings to talk about stuff that should've been summed up in an email. And somehow, our global society has normalized the dilution of black professionals, inexplicitly saying "you can be here, but only to our comfort level". If it's unclear, "our" refers to the majority white employee.
Statistically, only 8% of people employed in white collar roles are black, according to a recent study by the Center for Talent Innovation. Despite being more ambitious and educated, black professionals are far less likely to achieve high ranking positions within their corporations. We often feel the need to work harder and prove our worth, just to keep our seat at the table. This is unfair and must be changed.
As we are in the midst of the #BlackLivesMatter movement, it is critical for us now to voice the need for change. We cannot continue to water down the inner versions of ourselves for the approval or comfort of our white counterparts. I'm not telling you to blast Roddie Rich on your lunch break, but its okay to wear your natural hair and motherland earrings.
I've come to a point in my life where I realize I have to set boundaries. It's not fair for me to assume people know how to talk to me about sensitive topics, or understand my history. The same goes for me and other cultures. I'm submerged in white America all the time. I can navigate it, but I miss tons of current references (ie green bean casserole) simply because that is not my heritage. Be mindful of this when you come across someone who says something a little off. They may be speaking from ignorance, not malice.
I am an advocate for unity - for all persons working in harmony. Am I tired of straightening my hair for an interview, removing my accent before I pick up my work phone and writing "Kay" in my signature so I don't have to correct yet another person on how to pronounce KaMariea... yes. I want to be unapologetically me in my workplace. I want feel like I can flip the switch without side eyes and backlash. But to be totally transparent with you, I don't think we are ready. Our offices haven't adjusted yet and our nation is still battling for a massive equality shift. Things will change, but seeing as how I'm still waiting on a promotion presented to me back in January, I'll wait. Remember, we play chess, not checkers.