last month, i had the opportunity to start a new job and enter the next phase of my career. in the weeks leading up to my first day, i struggled to get past the “imposter syndrome,” an idea that once i started work everyone would know that i’m not as smart or capable as they previously perceived. i shed this insecurity, only to develop a new one. my hair.
honestly, it caught me by surprise. i was mining my closet for jazzy work attire and began to obsess about my hair. what will my co-workers think about my natural hair? will they accept my mohawk and penchant for pattern mixing and color blocking? will my black co-workers shy away as to not be associated with the girl from the wrong side of the tracks? i had painful visions of people giving me full body glances when i walked into the room and whispering about me behind my back. in a moment of panic-stricken desperation, i decided the inevitable must be done. i needed to straighten my hair.
thank goodness i said this aloud to a friend. you see, i spend lots of time
processing beating myself up, so it’s vital that i share my internal banter with an audience. after our conversation, i realized that i’d lost my mind. straighten my hair to gain preliminary acceptance from co-workers whom i’ve never met? change my attire because both my clothing AND my hairstyle can’t be expressions of my identity? tone down my “type” of blackness to make others more comfortable? all of that sounds absolutely absurd.
i don’t mean to belittle my struggle or a similar journey that very many sisters in professional environments are traversing. my fear of impending race and gender microagressions was motivated by the human instinct towards self-preservation. we protect ourselves from the psychic violence that tells black women they cannot be themselves by struggling to adopt a palatable form of blackness. we become antiseptic versions of ourselves, wearing proverbial masks that hide any semblance of our ancestry (unless, of course, it’s black history month). hair, style of dress, language, etc. all become defined by how we gain acceptance or derision from our white co-workers and superiors. in my opinion, this form of torture is one of the most dis-empowering experiences that black women have had to face in the post-civil-rights era.
among ourselves, we openly discuss how we are misunderstood, exocticized and/or marginalized by our co-workers; however, we rarely speak truth to power. how will the current socio-political hierarchy ever change if we don’t push it to it’s collapse? we must demand that the definition of “professionalism” include us. no, we don’t need protests and new laws–no amount of equal opportunity laws and workplace policies on diversity will undue the structural racism that black folks have internalized. instead, we must start by being unapologetically ourselves.
if you want to wear your hair natural (afro or locs), then rock it. if you want to forgo the black, brown, blue or grey color palette, then pull that patterned sweater from the back of your closet. if you want to eat lunch with the few black people in your office, then do it and let others deal with their outsider complex. if you are tired of mulling over things you say for fear of sounding too “black,” then stop editing your commentary and simply speak. if you don’t want to talk about white sitcoms, baseball teams and yoga, things in which you are completely disinterested, then change the topic to something that includes you or walk away. if you’re sick of your boss making comments about how you frequently change your hairstyle, then politely ask him/her why he/she is so fascinated with your hair. if you feel bad for not developing a relationship with the black people in administrative positions because you don’t want to be confused with the “menial” laborers, then you should. stop that craziness and invite the elder-black secretary out to lunch. overall, decide how you can make your professional experience more tolerable, and courageously go about creating that space for yourself.