“Show them how to do the dab!” my beautiful brunette boss volun-tells me. I stare back at a sea of white anticipated faces as I hesitantly show my clients the overused dance that they had just discovered.
Can I be real with you?
Being the token black girl can be a draining occupation.
It’s something you don’t intentionally sign up for yet you constantly battle between holding back and letting your “I’m Black and I’m Proud” personality show.
When I started my first real job in public relations in 2015, I admit that I entered with a purse full of assumptions. Out of about 60 employees, I was one of two African Americans in the company. And based on a few internships in the field, I wasn’t new to this. Statistics consistently showed that less than 10% of African Americans were represented in my industry.
“You have to always be two steps ahead just to play on the same level as them,” I often heard from family members.
It made me nervous. Would they accept me? Would I even make friends?
And who can blame me. Just last year a judge ruled that denying a person a job for wearing “unprofessional” dreadlocks wasn’t discrimination. The struggle was still very real and I wasn’t sure how to prepare for it in the workplace.
I braced myself on the first day, hiding behind my long 20-inch bundles and turning my call center voice on ten. They loved me. But little did they know that as soon as I stepped foot off the property I was banging a car filled up to the brim of Future, Anita Baker and some old Jagged Edge. I called my best girl friends to get the latest tea spill, indulged in Black Twitter memes and wrapped my hair in a perfect circle at night; only to start the next day as the first. Reserved, held back and filtered.
This act went on for months. I felt stuck because I constantly had this nagging reminder that they would never fully accept me for me. Until one day I decided to wear my natural hair for the first time.
I couldn’t believe all the compliments I got from my white friends and bosses. It wasn’t the typical “can I touch it” pleads either. They truly admired the beauty of my hair, showing me for the first time that I could be authentically accepted in an environment that wasn’t like my own.
The Two Major Keys To Being Unapologetic About Being Black in the Workplace
With an open mind and a peaceful spirit, I learned two important things:
1. Never Apologize For Being Who You Are
I’m lucky enough to work in a profession that is more laid back when it comes to expressing individuality. However, I have interned in many corporate environments that have also been showered with large beautiful afros and the latest Beyonce discussions. Being different is what makes us beautiful and I didn’t fully see that until I started to live it out unapologetically. I still know how to keep it professional but I am able to encourage myself to be me without the fear of ridicule. Not everyone is going to get that. But dimming your light to make others “comfortable” will never fully allow you to give your job all that you’ve got. Reconsider working for places that make you question who you naturally are.
2. Have The Conversations They May Be Afraid To Have
I realized that for a lot of my co-workers, I was the first black friend that they had ever had. Being me and expressing the issues within my community in a respectful way helped to open up conversations they were afraid to have. It also helped to understand each other’s background and cultures in a new way. I often did this by just mentioning an article I read or tweet I saw on Twitter. Ask important questions like:
What did you think about this?
How did it make you feel?
Do you agree or disagree with any of the opinions?
Since the first day, I have continued to come out of my shell which has led to a promotion, raises, hands on client work and so much more. I realized that being my black self didn’t lessen my credibility or worth. It helped me love it in a much bolder way.
It’s Time To Start Being More Bold About Yourself
A lot of times the ridicule of being unprofessional doesn’t even come from other races, it comes from our own.
I realize that not everyone is fortunate enough to be in an embracing environment at work. I also realize that there are so many things my co-workers still don’t understand. But blocking who I am was subconsciously blocking my potential to be confident and successful.
Your are not doing the most by repping your culture. The world needs it more than ever.
So take the mask off like Future and start fully walking in who you are.
Isn’t it worth it?