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I’m Exhausted From Trying To Be The ‘Right’ Kind Of Black Girl At Work

Much of my experience as a black woman has been learning to survive in white spaces.  

The last time I was able to exist in a majority black environment was in elementary school, more than 15 years ago. Once I matriculated into the next level of academia, my parents decided to place me into a more “diverse” middle and high school. Diverse, as in majority white, with a few people of color sprinkled throughout.  

I didn’t have a hard time transitioning into my new white environment. I embraced it as any eager middle school girl would. What I do recognize, in hindsight, were the tiny ways in which I went into survival mode. This was the beginning of a life filled with endless code-switching, always modifying my behavior and appearance to adapt to my new sociocultural normal.

My fashion choices changed from RocaWear to Hollister and Abercrombie. I begged my parents for Birkenstock shoes and Vera Bradley handbags, and I only wore my naturally curly hair pressed bone straight. I was doing everything in my power to transcend my race, to be more relatable to my peers. “Yes, I’m black but look at how much we have in common. It’s OK to be friends with me!”

There were thousands of subtle ways that I changed myself to make sure I was the right kind of black girl for the white people who suddenly surrounded me. Safe. Sweet. Not too bossy. Not too loud. Not “ghetto” at all. Enunciate every word. Diction is done with the tip of the tongue.

I had to make sure that I didn’t to stand out more than I already did. I felt like everyone was looking at me, waiting for the moment that I dropped the ball so that I could confirm their preconceived notions about black people. 

It wasn’t until graduated from high school and enrolled in my PWI (predominately white institution) that I realized how much I was playing pretend. I loved my college, and the majority white demographic was something I was very well adjusted to. But I suddenly felt like I didn’t belong, and that this experience was going to be different. The mask that I religiously wore wasn’t serving me anymore ― so I finally gave myself permission to let it go.

I stopped straightening my hair all the time. I stopped worrying so much about what people thought of me and I stopped trying so hard to be accepted by the white people around me. I didn’t need to pretend anymore. I finally felt at peace about who I was. I found my community of black friends in college who I could be my complete self around. I didn’t have to worry about surviving under a white gaze anymore ― or, so I thought.

By the time I graduated from college, I finally had a real sense of who I was. I had worked hard to find myself and I had achieved some pretty stellar goals along the way. Being my authentic self in college opened so many doors for me. I was proud to have graduated with a job in public relations, unlike most of my peers, and I thought adjusting to my new adult career would be a breeze.

I didn’t realize that my survival mode was about to kick into overdrive.

Being one of the few black girls at school came with its own social pressures, but it was nothing compared to being part of the very limited number of black people at work. The stakes were suddenly much higher and the pressure was worse. The adage “You have to work twice as hard for half as much” never rang more true. Not only did I find myself slowly putting on the mask again, I hated myself for the constant code-switching I was forced to do.

I started focusing on the way my words sounded coming out of my mouth again. I hate meaningless conversation but when I go to work, I become a master at small talk. I transform into a watered-down version of myself to ensure that I am palatable.

Conversations at work were more about my hair and clothes than the job. I became the spokesperson for the black community and “diversity” in the office. I had a mental list of things that I shouldn’t do, wear or say at work.

  1. Wear your natural curls, but not too big so you don’t bring too much attention to your fro.
  2. Don’t wear your hair in two low buns anymore, because last time you did someone grabbed them and called you a powerpuff girl in a meeting. You were so embarrassed that you wanted to cry.
  3. Avoid political conversations by any means necessary.
  4. Be stylish ― but not too stylish at work because people have commented on the length of your legs, the height of your heels and your body at work. Don’t bring too much attention to your body.
  5. Be soft spoken when you speak, not too firm or harsh.
  6. Don’t show any emotions, especially anger or irritation.
  7. Be careful about who you talk to and what you say.
  8. Don’t bring too much attention to yourself.
  9. Don’t bring too much attention to yourself.
  10. Don’t bring too much attention to yourself.

Being a young black girl in a majority white professional environment also has its own complexities. I recall the day I was called “little girl” at work by a colleague in the most condescending manner. I have thick skin, and rarely does anything bring me to tears, but in that instant, I never felt so small. I called my mom and cried. After 10 minutes, I had to pick myself up and pretend like nothing happened. I was already young and black, I couldn’t afford to let anyone see me crying. I had to be strong or they would never take me seriously.

The microaggressions I was dealing with at work led to an enormous amount of self-doubt and caused me to put more pressure on myself than I could ever imagine. The code-switching was exhausting, but I needed to keep it up for survival. This was my job now.

I’m usually a confident person, but that confidence dwindles on bad days. I do my best to work hard and be the best that I can be, but I still tense up in meetings and question if I even belong there. I want to make sure I present myself in the most professional way possible. As a black woman, my actions represent an entire community. I am fully aware of the stereotypes, and I try to tear them down one by one by not reinforcing them.

Sometimes I suffer from impostor syndrome, despite all of the hard work I put in for my career. I still get paranoid and second-guess every word that comes out of my mouth. I feel like I’m holding my breath everyday from 9-5, and when I leave the office I can breathe again. 

I find my balance outside of work. I indulge in environments that let me live unapologetically. I read too many books, volunteer and network with people I admire. I have real conversations with my friends about the world around us. I also have allies and safe zones in the office that allow me to come completely undone and express how I feel during frustrating moments. I’m working on learning how to function, fearlessly, in these spaces without constricting who I am.

But until I completely arrive at that moment, I’ll keep my mask handy ― a shield keeping me safe.

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