After such an empowering message of pro-Black everything at the Super Bowl half-time, I know it’s hard to go back to a corporate workplace where you see little to no representation of that beautiful melanin in the halls.
Working in corporate America is no joke. It’s where I see Frederick Douglass’ concept of double consciousness most vividly represented.
It is a peculiar sensation, this double-consciousness, this sense of always looking at one’s self through the eyes of others, of measuring one’s soul by the tape of a world that looks on in amused contempt and pity. Oneever feels his twoness, – an American, a Negro; two souls, two thoughts, two unreconciled strivings; two warring ideals in one dark body, whose dogged strength alone keeps it frombeing torn asunder.The Souls of Black Folk, 1903
We’ve come a long way since Frederick Douglass vocalized this strange sensation, but it’s still relevant to the Black experience. When one applies that experience to a traditional corporate environment, we have to understand a few things. White corporations where built like America was–for white, cisgender, heterosexual, skilled/educated men, by the same men. Even though there are many corporations founded by social others, the overall corporate culture structure is fundamentally the same. Because of that, social others are forced to try to assimilate rather than embrace their own identities, thus creating an intensely visible and divisive dichotomy between who you are and who you are expected to be.
So are we all on the same page? Great.
It’s easier to be a coon than it is to be pro-black. Meaning, it’s easier to buy the crap they’re selling about what a respectable employee acts like, looks. like, does, etc. It’s a lot easier to not question the kinda racist comments and privileged and sexist casual break room chatter.
It’s definitely easier to slip into their clearly outlined formula for success and ignore, avoid and even rewrite in your own mind your experiences of Blackness and Black history.
So to every Black person who choose to be unapologetically pro-Black everything everyday in the corporate world of whiteness–I see you. Your example is empowering. And thank you.
If you’re still trying to navigate your identity in this territory of capitalist white supremacy–maybe you’re new to the traditional corporate arena or you are just “waking up” to how you’ve internalized their respectability politics–I have a few tips from my own experience and that of others.
1. Don’t believe what they tell you about expressing your Blackness.
You wanna play some hood trap music via your headphones or in your office? Do it. You wanna wear your hair in some bantu twists? Do it and send me a snapchat. You wanna wear African print? Girl tell me where you got it from. Just because you have to follow the their rules (to some degree), it doesn’t mean you have to do it their way. Be you.
2. You have a right to call people out for racism, sexism, homophobia, etc. especially when they are making you uncomfortable.
You have a right to call attention to really oppressive and offensive language. You have a right to call attention to threatening and offensive behavior. You have a right to speak up when you no longer feel safe doing your work. But conversely, as messed up as it is, you have to put yourself first and be aware of how you may need to escalate certain situations. For example, when I was working at a Fortune 250 company downtown, one of the security desk’s guards used to stare and make crude jokes about my anatomy. I tolerated it for months until finally I started completely ignoring him. Once he realized I wouldn’t engage or acknowledge him in any way, shape or form he started following me around the building. I finally reported it to the Human Resources department. Already contentious, things with my boss got more tense, and over the rest of my time there others within the company I had looked at as mentors, coaches, champions and friends treated me differently. Would I have done things differently? The act in and of itself, no, but the method, maybe.
3. Speaking your mind and defending yourself is not being angry.
Dismantling that stereotype also dismantles respectability politics. You should feel empowered to speak up, participate and engage with your team in discussions and meetings. You should also not feel like you have to tone down your passion, enthusiasm or even anger and irritation because you might be labeled angry. Forbes made an interesting article on this last year titled Speaking Up As A Woman of Color at Work. Check it out.
My best advice though?
4. Find a support system.
I found another Black woman, Sheila, at one of the corporations I worked at. She and I joke about it, but she absolutely saved me. Coming to her cubicle when my boss was lumping additional job duties onto my already pages’ long job description, when my co-worker needed me to train him on basic Microsoft Office capabilities, when men in the hallways proposition or harrass me. The bond that created, the way that it helped me persevere was incredible. I wouldn’t have survived without it.
If you don’t have another woman to connect with, try some professional networking organizations in your field in the community. Chances are, there’s someone out there who can meet you for a mid-day coffee run or happy hour to help you stay spiritually balanced and keep your happy Blackness fully present.