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 didn’t approve of my dressing and the way I speak.
And I get it: Employers want the workplace to be a setting in which people can—well—work.
I know I’m supposed to be representing my workplace in a professional way but not at the expense of who I am.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 professional work environment.
One can unintentionally make one 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 colour – 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 one not just uncomfortable but also set one 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, racist harassment, or institutional racism.
But even so-called “trivial” things like dress code requirements and everyday micro-aggression add up to create big problems for access, safety, and equity for people of colour in the workplace.
And it’s not just clothes that create obstacles for people of colour.
When you think about it, all of our common ideas about professionalism in the UK are based on an idea 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. I once went to have biometrics done with a funky afro hair. On seeing me the lady at the counter shocked me by talking to me as if I was deaf and unable to comprehend what she was saying. I was given the classic, ‘Can- you- stand –over –there- and wait?’’ This was spoken slowly as if to a two-year-old. Why, because I looked very African possible since I was doing my biometric having arrived and therefore unable to speak English. I bet you if my hair was straightened, a bit of make-up she might have spoken to me in a normal voice.
Like many other Black women, my hair plays a significant role in expressing my pride and my identity.
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 people 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.
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
2. People Think My Natural Voice Sounds Unprofessional
There’s no one way of talking like a white person or a Black person, but usually in the UK, the idea of “speaking professionally” brings to mind a specific form of English.
That form does not include the way I naturally speak, and it sure doesn’t include Africans, African Caribbeans.
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!”
This 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 African/ African Caribbean accents. In a professional setting, Black users of thick African accent are judged as unintelligent, uneducated, gang-affiliated, and more. Fun enough, not Europeans. Theirs are seen as sweet and cool accents.
These racist and classist ideas about how we should speak in a professional setting actually affect most Black people, regardless of how we naturally speak, because we’re all judged based on the same stereotypes.
I went to a Christmas party once and a workmate having been drinking all evening had the guts to ask me to ‘speak like an English person’. That was not funny and to make it worse people laughed. It was as if he was saying I didn't belong thereAll 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
Studies show that potential employers associate “black-sounding names with violence and incompetence, making them much less likely to call back Muchecheti after an interview than Wesly or Smith.
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 CV 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 the hirer knows 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. 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. I once worked in an office where I constantly heard other teammates either laugh at people’s names or complain that more visa people were applying (even when some of these people were British people). And even if they were visa people, aren’t we living in the world of global competition where the best get the job?
Some Black people end up changing their names or going by initials to improve their chances of success in the job market. How bad is that? 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 co-worker.
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 a woman of colour, racism is part of my everyday life.
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 people 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. Often you hear ‘Oh she has a chip on the shoulder or she likes playing the race card’. 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 workspaces. Having more Black leaders and co-workers of colour isn’t a guarantee of better working conditions, because we can be guilty of these behaviours, 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.
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 labelled 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 CV.
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 the 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.