I Thought Being Nice Would Shield Me From Racism At Work — I Was Wrong

Photographed by Eylul Aslan.
It will come as no surprise that I don’t have much in common with “Hot Girl” American rapper Megan Thee Stallion. But, turns out, we are the same height, and at least once in our lives, have both felt we are “too nice”. Upon the release of her new album, Traumazine, the 27-year-old claimed that, after years of mistreatment in the music industry, she was done with her nice reputation. “When you are nice for so long,” she told The Cut, “and you don’t really ever give too much back talk and nobody’s ever seen you step out of character, they assume what your character is. They assume you’re not going to stand up. That’s when people start to try you.” Megan’s denouncement of niceness is understandable, given what she’s been through over the past few years, including allegedly being shot in the feet by fellow musician Tory Lanez. I wouldn’t want to be nice either. Yet it’s a shame that niceness is the first thing Black women feel we need to let go of in the pursuit of respect, safety and success.
In a TikTok age where Black women are actively seeking to be soft, it appears many draw a line at being “too nice”, mainly because it feels like a close cousin of a people-pleaser — the habitual state of doing things for others in spite of yourself. The hashtag #peoplepleaser has 414.5M views on the app, with the majority of videos from users relinquishing former people-pleasing tendencies, and choosing not-so-nice behaviours to set necessary boundaries at work and in relationships. “I’ve been confronting my people-pleasing tendencies, and it really has me wondering if Black Women are people-pleasers at a disproportionate rate compared to other demographics,” reads a tweet, “[Because] so much of my people-pleasing is wrapped up in Black womanhood.” Official research on this is hard to find, yet it’s something I’ve also considered.
People tell me that I’m nice all the time (I am sincerely as happy to see you as my big gummy smile would suggest) but in recent years, it has felt less like a compliment and more like a thinly-veiled critique. My performance of “nice” in the eyes of concerned family members, colleagues, friends and my partner, is more akin to people-pleasing and inauthenticity. I have moved from off-duty Children’s TV presenter mode into “too nice” territory: saying yes, when I really mean no, holding back my true feelings to not hurt people’s feelings, and giving time to people I don’t actually like (KMT!). 
Many of us have been conditioned to believe “nice guys finish last” but that isn’t my experience. Like many Black women who have had to navigate all-white spaces, I mastered the art of being unthreatening in a world where Black women aren’t offered the assumption of being nice. As one person tweeted, “any other Black women on the [timeline] adopt extreme people-pleasing tendencies so you wouldn’t be labelled as the ‘rude Black girl’ for simply existing or is it just me? [Because] I'm done doing that shit.” Hard relate. 

How do we allow for both softness and niceness in our working lives without being taken advantage of?

I am based in the north of England, where magazine journalism roles can be few and far between, so I amped up my niceness to get ahead. In the early days of my career, I deflected microaggressions and overt racism with quick-witted funny retorts to show I didn’t take myself too seriously (you know, not to rock the boat) and for a long time it worked — I got hired a lot. “L’Oréal, you’re so nice,” former colleagues would say, with an undertone of both surprise and adulation. Until I wasn’t. On the days I finally spoke out against mistreatment in the workplace, I was told I was “aggressive.” “You know L’Oréal’s problem, she’s too Black,” a former employer told my white colleagues in a board meeting. “I should have hired her lighter-skinned friend,” he said. A sad but true story.
Given my experiences, it’s easy to see why I continue to use my niceness (and people-pleasing) as a bit of assurance in both work and relationships. My parents also gave me the “‘Black people have to work twice as hard to succeed” speech and I interpreted it as needing to be “twice as tough” and doing “twice as much.” Upon entering the working world, yes, I was tough, and resilient, and did so with a smile on my face.
So what’s a “too nice” Black girl to do? Considering we’re in a time of financial insecurity — where 40% of Black women in the UK are more likely to be living in poverty amid the cost surge, and nearly four in five have less than £1,500 in savings  — I understand why many of us people-pleasers may not want to rock the boat with employers. How do we allow for both softness and niceness in our working lives without being taken advantage of?
“First and foremost, I’d want to know how we define 'nice' in the Western world. What cultural lens are we looking at?” says Dr Ngozi Cadmus, a British Nigerian psychotherapist, social worker, business strategist and CEO & Founder of Frontline Therapy. “Because if we're all honest, 'nice' is presented differently depending on your race and ethnicity. Italian 'nice' is going to be different from Polish 'nice'."
Speaking to me over the phone, Dr Ngozi Cadmus, who also provides coaching for Black folks and people of colour in corporate settings, had a question for me: what did I mean by ‘nice’ anyway? “Do you mean that you’re being compliant, or trying to be subservient and acquiescing to every suggestion and demand? Or are you trying to be pleasant by sounding softer?” she probes.
None of the former sounds nice at all. But is possibly the best characterisation of how I’ve acted in the workplace in the past. Dr Cadmus explains how people-pleasing can be a deep-seated fear response from our youth. “We are afraid of either being left, forgotten, or rejected. We fear we’re not going to be liked. Who's going to want us if we do not please others?” 
 “A lot of Black women feel that they have to code-switch [at work] and they feel that they cannot be their true authentic self,” she goes on to explain. “You have to put on a very professional, and essentially, a white image because up until  50-60 years ago, working in the UK was the vocation of white people, white men. So we are working in a world where the norms and the values are Eurocentric.” 

While nice is my default, do I still need to rely on it as a means to get ahead in my career and relationships? What is the lasting impact of choosing ‘nice’ over being a little more direct?

One of the major criticisms of overt niceness is can appear inauthentic — the eager-to-please, perpetually agreeable person in the office can seem a little fake to those who are more jaded than most. “I doubt people describe me as ‘nice’,” said a fellow Black colleague with a shrug, “kind yes, but not nice.” Everyone else I spoke to, especially the men in my life, made a similar distinction: they are kind, courteous at work, and friendly, but certainly not nice — somehow, nice is an undesirable quality. No one could explain why.
But I am nice. Truly nice. Promise. I am vanilla ice cream. I smile a lot to diffuse tension and awkwardness. This is my authenticity, but it’s certainly not the full picture of my personality. While nice is my default, do I still need to rely on it as a means to get ahead in my career and relationships? What is the lasting impact of choosing ‘nice’ over being a little more direct?
“You can play the game without being inauthentic but it takes time,” reassures Ngozi. “Secondary school, college, and university do not adequately prepare you to understand the games of work in life. So, unfortunately, the majority of us have to go through a period of really trying to understand who are we at work. It's actually part of the process. But what is important is that you are honest.”
The very real truth is that, like Megan Thee Stallion, I’ve grown tired of always playing nice (I’ll never again say I enjoy the food after a sh*t meal in a restaurant). But I’ve also come to learn 'nice’ isn’t a character flaw. We need nice people. It’s when we hide behind ‘nice’ to avoid conflict or rejection that we should ask whether we are plain nice or just scared. It is more than reasonable to suggest that speaking up, setting boundaries, and airing our concerns are the nicest things we can do for ourselves at work or elsewhere.

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