Discrimination in “Professional” Workspaces

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My number one advice to any person of color (especially Black people AND BLACK WOMEN) is to remain authentic in your work environment. When I talk about authenticity, I do not mean show up to work in the clothes you are going to go to the club in or speaking to your colleagues like you would your inner circle. When I talk about authenticity, I mean showing up to work as yourself. The best way to explain this is to talk about my experiences with discrimination in predominantly white professional work spaces and how I handled every situation, “professionally”.

First, what is professionalism? Where does it comes from? According to Fitzjarrald & Johnson (2015), (oh by the way, this citation…yes, it’s me <3) “Professionalism is a societal norm created by white culture but has been continuously recreated throughout history as a tool to block historically underrepresented individuals from assimilating into that professional sphere” (para. 1). As a person from an underrepresented group, if you do not “fit” into the cultural of professionalism in your work environment, then you are seen as going against the culture in which you are a part of.

Growing up, I vaguely remember my dad’s former job sending him on retreats to “help with his anger” in the workplace. I didn’t understand then but now as I reflect on my own experiences with professionalism and authenticity, I now know that sending my dad to an anger management retreat was an act of discrimination. My dad has a laid back but straight-forward personality and to some white people, that can come off as an angry Black man or disrespectful. Often times, some white people do not understand cultural differences and just because a Black person is confident in who they are, doesn’t mean they are angry.

But this is the culture that has shaped the way the country views people of color. Take the important history of The Black Panther Party. They were investigated by the FBI and labeled a danger to society just because they wanted to protect themselves and stand up for the rights of Black people (and let’s not forget they started as an organization to provide breakfast for families in need). Fast forward to recent years, the Black Lives Matter groups are “Black Extremists” but the rioters in Philadelphia after the Eagles won were just having “fun”. But I digress. I wanted to show the double standard.

Back to the topic at hand. I started working professionally in 2014 after I graduated with my masters degree. But the microaggressions I faced started in graduate school. (If you don’t know what a microaggression is, you can view a short video about it here https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=8RfwnibEd3A&t=2s  ) Supervisors would comment on my hair all the time and want to touch it if I didn’t have a weave in. Supervisors would tell me I was “too close” with the Black students I supervised because they felt more comfortable talking to me because they felt I was relatable.  Most of us let microaggressions fall off our shoulders because we don’t recognize that they are small forms of discrimination.

I have a very direct and laid back personality, kind of similar to my dad’s, so when I started working professionally, I soon realized that it was offensive to some white people in leadership positions. People mistake my passion for something as me being angry or having an attitude (the angry Black woman complex *insert eyeroll here* ). They also would think my emails were “aggressive” because of my lack of an exclamation mark or a smiley face at the end. Some felt that I did not want to be at work before I do not smile often so they thought I wasn’t passionate about what I was doing. Like…what? Yes, I was literally told that I could go home from an event because I looked like I didn’t want to be there…even though I was doing what I was assigned to do.

I started talking to other Black women in my field about how I could learn how to not offend people (another eyeroll is needed here) I started practicing how to be tactful in my delivery of messages. It got to the point where I would call someone to practice on them what I was going to say so they can let me know if it sounded too harsh. All that extra work is exhausting on one’s mental health. But these are unique ways in which things happen to us. When I started job searching and landed new positions, I would tell my supervisors up front about my personality so they have no reason to assume there was something wrong with me because of my facial expressions. Smh.

There was a time where I thought the conversation about my hair was over with…but I was wrong. I switch my hairstyles all of the time when I don’t have my sew-in in. One month I had some box braids in and then came to work with my natural hair. In the middle of the meeting a white man who was in a supervisory role (he was not my direct supervisor) decided to comment on my hair.

Him: Tristen, you took your braids out.

Me: I did.

Him: We should go get our hair done together one day (starts to chuckle).

Me: Uh. Nah.

Him: I can get one long braid down the front and then get one long pinky nail.

Me: *Blank stare* Umm. No.

I let that process and then sent him a follow up email (after I talked to my direct supervisor about the situation) and told him how microaggressive his comments were and that he literally stereotyped Black women. I copied my supervisor on the email.

(Read more about my experiences with microaggessions about my hair here in a post I wrote for the National organization I am a part of https://www.naspa.org/constituent-groups/posts/dont-touch-my-crown )

I started talking to mentors about my experiences and they started to help me formulate ways to ensure I am treated with respect from my peers and ensure that I am navigating my work environment with a peace of mind.

  1. Recognize when discrimination is happening: When you are aware of your surroundings and aware of cultural differences, you will be able to see if there is something wrong with comments people make about you or to you.
  2. Address it: After you notice what’s happening, it is important to set up a meeting with that person. Explain to them “intent” vs “impact” and how that statement was inappropriate. What I usually do is, have the conversation and then send a follow-up email highlighting our conversation and what we talked about. That way, you have everything documented.
  3. Figure out how to be tactful: Though it can be exhausting and annoying that you have to alter yourself a tad bit at work, you also have to keep in mind that these people are the ones who other employers are going to call when you are looking for your next job. It’s important to remain tactful and respectful when you are communicating and delivering your messages.
  4. If you continue to feel targeted: Go to Human Resources and file a report. Whatever you do, do not retaliate. Let HR step in at this point. Take all of your proper documentation to them.
  5. Remember who you are: Know your worth. Understand that you are competent in your work because you were hired for a reason.

I’ve learned how to be my authentic self at work. I am still very direct and I am outgoing. I am not afraid to wear any color lipstick or switch my hairstyle up like the weather or wear high heels because I feel like it. Remain strong. You got this! Sometimes in any situation you just have to #adjustyocrown and keep pushing.

Check out the full article a colleague and I wrote (the one I cited in the beginning of this blog post) back in 2015. You can view it at the link below. It was published in an official academic journal. 🙂

10.1002-jls.21450 (1)

❤ Queen T.

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