During my six-month job evaluation at a popular tech company, my manager, a white woman who often praised my work performance, offered a personal side note for improvement that I found unsettling. She suggested that I bring my “authentic self” to the office.
I left puzzled because I thought I already mastered the balance of being professional and personable and I could not fathom being more authentic than I had already presented. As the only African American, and one of just 7 women in the office, I suspected she suggested that I be more authentic so that she and others could be more comfortable around me.
Growing up in a predominantly white suburban neighborhood, I was directly impacted by race- and gender-based prejudices that influenced perceptions of Black women. Knowing I was different from most of my peers, as a child I tried to fit in with them; and adapted to defying stereotypes. I talked and chuckled with a pretense high-pitch voiced and twirled my hair with my fingertips peeking from the cuffs of stretched out sweaters. I joined clubs and attended meetings knowing I was the only Black face present and felt privileged fitting in (as I foolishly thought and eventually learned different). I now refuse to compromise myself for the comfort of others. While it may be easier to try to blend in and morph into other cultures, it’s more rewarding to me to accept the challenge of embracing, defending, and showcasing my diversities; especially in corporate America.
Corporate America is a concrete jungle to me. While navigating through the forest of high rise buildings and low-rise cubicles, I take time to build and nurture business relationships and learning companies’ environment and lingo. While I am trying to make it to the so-called top, I remain cognizant of the so-called barriers; sexism, racism, nepotism, and classism. I’m constantly ducking and dodging these barriers, and maneuver through the field like an NFL quarterback. I admit that it’s exhausting but if I stop, I’ll end up someone’s prey.
According to my own life experiences and the 2017 Women in the Workplace study from McKinsey and LeanIn.org, women of color are the most underrepresented group in the corporate pipeline—behind white men, men of color, and white women—despite expressing far more interest in becoming an executive than our white women counterparts. So it is safe to assume my manager’s suggestion that I be more authentic came from her curiosity on what I was hiding. Could I be more talented, more expressive, more poised than I already was?
As Melissa Harris-Perry noted in Sister Citizen, “When they confront race and gender stereotypes, Black women are standing in a crooked room, and they have to figure out which way is up. Bombarded with warped images of their humanity, some Black women tilt and bend themselves to fit the distortion.”
When I asked my manager to elaborate on what being more authentic meant, she said I seemed quiet in the office, yet more approachable in our 1:1’s and felt that I wasn’t bringing my whole self to work. Maybe she assumed my lack of communication and assertion at times in the office was due to me being discrete of my plans. Regardless, she was clueless of how much more authenticity I was capable of giving her and I knew she couldn’t handle such a drastic change.
Calling my manager’s bluff, I took subtle steps to be “more authentic” by sharing more of my personality, asserting myself more, wearing my locs up, using family photos and African art as screen savers, etc.
These were all conversation pieces. Coworkers approached me more and I felt better opening up. I even stepped out of my comfort zone and sought sponsors and mentors of other races and invested in my interpersonal relationships with more of my white colleagues.
I called my own bluff as I learned more about myself and being more authentic. I found a new balance in the concrete jungle. I am not concerned about being perceived as the “Angry Black Woman” but am certainly not the “Acculturated Girl Next Door.” I stand my ground knowing that altering my identity to assimilate is not only psychologically exhausting but can also be another barrier in earning well-deserved promotions.
A few months later, I did not get the promotion that I sought at that job but the experience lasted a lifetime. Receiving that feedback has been one of my greatest learning lessons. To be queen of the jungle—I had to reassess my approach and not wait to engage the crowd.