This summer, me and my teenage sons spent almost five exciting, humbling, fascinating and educational weeks touring Thailand, Bali and Hong Kong. Besides ensuring that passports and immunizations were current, making housing and itinerary reservations, and packing; I had to deal with what to do with my hair, as I normally go weekly to the salon to get it trimmed and styled.
I ended up spending six hours getting my hair braided into long braids with blond highlights. I loved them: they gave me a new, fun look and allowed me the flexibility to go on my long adventure without worrying about having to do my hair. Surprisingly, my kids (who are my harshest critics), many of my friends, and my husband all loved the look. When I arrived back to the United States, however, I cut the braids out the first day I arrived home and went to my stylist on the second day. I needed the quick transition because I was flying to Texas on the third day to meet with two potential clients and to speak at a book talk.
Sadly, I believed that I had a greater chance of landing business with the potential clients if I didn’t have the braids. Yes, I know that some high-powered, successful women wear braids, but they are beautiful exceptions of an old and ugly rule.
My potential clients were White and in a conservative industry; braids are a style associated with Africans and Black Americans. And while I can’t possibly hide that I am indeed Black, I know that in 99% of jobs in America there is zero upside to appearing “too” Black. The unwritten rules for getting a job, and being successful in America are passed down from generation to generation, from mentors to mentees; from professors to students. No braids, afros or twists, nothing that boldly displays your natural hair, your Blackness, your difference.
Difference is historically divisive.
No one wants to admit this fact. It’s much more appealing to believe that we all celebrate diversity. Most of us do; theoretically. But, at base, we are animals run by instinct, reflexes, and psychology. And, we humans are naturally drawn to, feel safe around, and more quickly develop relationships with those who seem familiar, to whom we feel connected, and who seem most like us.
This phenomena isn’t a White thing, a man thing, a racist thing; it’s a human thing. I’ve felt immediate fondness for women I’ve interviewed who were mothers and juggling motherhood and work; a maternal feeling for the young Sistas who’ve recently graduated from college; and a bond for those graduates who also went to the College of William and Mary or the University of Virginia. This natural impulse to connect to those like us doesn’t mean we are bad people but it does mean that we can unconsciously make decisions that have bad implications in the workplace. Considering 72% of all corporate leadership positions are held by White men, it isn’t surprising that so many make efforts to hide their difference or differences in corporate America.
My braids or other overt Blackness could make the difference of me getting the contract or not. My education (in schools and on the streets) have taught me that my looks, dialect, interview answers, resume, and so on should say, “Yes, I’m Black, but I’m not so Black, Sir, that I will make you uncomfortable, that I will challenge your company’s culture, or make human resource complaints.“ I’m not “so Black” that you will stumble over your words and constantly be concerned if you said something offensive. Black will simply be a skin color (as many try to suggest it is) while I work for you. I won’t remind you that it’s actually a part of a painful American past, or that because of my skin color almost every experience in my life will be different from yours; or that I may be stressed about things like police violence or may be heavily involved in the Black Lives Matter movement. No, Sir, you won’t see that person. And you will also never really see me.”
We will all remain blind. You won’t fully ever know me or the efforts made daily to ensure that the full and complete me remains hidden and I blend. Our company will never know true diversity and inclusivity, since we’ve all been complicit in establishing a culture that is diverse enough on paper to meet benchmarks, but lacks meaningful diversity, true connection and true inclusivity.
My intention is for Black people to love themselves and each other. It sounds somewhat silly, I guess; but oftentimes my people are overwhelmed with negative images, bad news, and stereotyped characters about us. I’d like to flip that script. I’d like to remind us, as often as I can, how incredible we are. Read more