Each morning after I’ve brushed my teeth, had a shower, and eaten some breakfast, I go to my wardrobe, put on my secret-identity-mask and get on my busy commute to work.
At least that’s what it sometimes feels like for me and a good number of my friends who also grew up black and poor, but have also found themselves employed at a large, successful workplace.
Trying to navigate the office can be difficult for anyone, but there is an added anxiety when social cues and conduct considered part of the fabric of office life, are your very first encounters with those behaviours.
Even few years into my career there are still things I don’t understand: why does everyone else seem to have been skiing?
Another is: would that person have called me aggressive if I wasn’t a black woman?
I have been accused of aggression in a past workplace and in my current place of work. The most recent came in the form of an anonymous complaint from an external person and it also came as quite a surprise.
There is a distinct racialised and gendered flavour to the word ‘aggressive’. Ask any black woman and I can guarantee that many would tell you the same thing.
It’s things like this that lead to the feeling of requiring a dual personality.
At work, you can end up being the most ‘professional’ version of yourself – speaking with a different tone and sanitising language, lest it be seen as vulgar; lowering your voice so not to attract any accusations of aggression; smiling politely while the third person in an hour asks you whether the new ’do on your head is “all yours”.
But then you clock out and all seems to be fine again. You’re free to express your hair, views, and moods however you want, and not feel as if your colleagues are speaking a different language to you as they discuss their holidays in the Cotswolds or wood burning stoves.
Well that is my experience. This freer, more HD version of my personality extends to social media. I was once told by somebody at work: “You’re so different online”, to which I replied: “No, I’m just different here.” My black female friends admit to me that they tone down their personalities at the office in order to avoid being labelled as loud or aggressive.
However, they also want to be their authentic selves and end up using middle names or aliases as usernames on social media accounts. That way, we’re free to be as loud, boisterous, and joyful as possible.
Fitting in at a respected legacy organisation can be a struggle. I don’t share the same experience, or come from the same background. Add to that an assertiveness and confidence that is misconstrued as arrogance or aggression, trying to be your authentic self at work can eventually become draining. Putting on a mask each day ends up feeling like it’s the best way to get through the day, and quite possibly the rest of your career.
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• This column is being published anonymously to allow the author to lift the lid on her experience in a high-profile organisation.