Be Your Authentic Self At Work — But Only if You're White

When Cassius Green first started his new job at a telemarketing call center, he struggled with his sales pitches and was constantly hung up on. That is, until Langston, a veteran at the call center advised him to find and use his 'white voice' when making calls. Heeding Langston’s advice, Green was able to quickly rise through the ranks and score a promotion, securing the coveted company position of ‘power caller.’ Okay, yes. This narrative is a fictional one — from the brilliant mind of Boots Riley as a central plot point in the movie Sorry To Bother You — but the film does raise an important, real-life question: Who do people of color need to be in order to succeed at work?
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The idea of bringing one’s authentic self to work has taken off in recent years. And while the sentiment may be well-intentioned, it lacks a degree of nuance. Some argue that no one, regardless of race, can or should truly bring their whole selves to work. And, though this may be true, the issue is far more complex for people of color.
Emma Bracy, 31, a media professional, believes that many workplaces become toxic and inhospitable to people of color because there is a near-constant expectation of keeping white colleagues and employers feeling comfortable. “I'm generally expected to present as articulate, sometimes I'm expected to be the ‘cool’ one, the one who can dance and knows about hip hop and has an opinion on why blackface isn't cool,” Bracy told Refinery29. “Sometimes I'm expected to validate my non-Black colleague's political opinions [and] make them feel like they're being ‘good’ allies. But I'm almost always ‘supposed’ to be docile. To be safe.”
Professionalism has long been a synonym for whiteness, especially given that dreadlocks and other natural Black hairstyles, the use of Spanglish, Chicano English, or African American Vernacular English (AAVE), and many other non-white cultural signifiers are routinely flagged as inappropriate in the workplace. Basically, for many people of color, showing up ‘authentically’ in the workplace isn’t really an option. Doing so may risk you being deemed unprofessional.

I'm generally expected to present as articulate, sometimes I'm expected to be the ‘cool’ one, the one who can dance and knows about hip hop and has an opinion on why blackface isn't cool.

Before even entering the workplace, people of color face rampant discrimination in hiring practices. As of 2017, white applicants received significantly more callbacks than equally qualified Black and Latino applicants, 36 and 24 percent more, respectively. Of course, in a system that commonly measures professional compatibility by proximity to whiteness, it's no wonder that many people of color aren't seen as a cultural fit. And when people of color do finally land jobs, workplace dynamics do not always make space for them.
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For many workers of color, code-switching, or altering the way one speaks and acts depending on context, becomes the norm in order to make coworkers and superiors more comfortable. And succeeding in the workplace often requires a mastery of it. “Code-switching shows up in my professional life all the time — almost constantly,” Bracy said. “There is a huge difference between the way I speak with my family, with my close friends, and the way I speak in the workplace. I was just thinking the other day about how little I sound like ‘myself’ at work.”
Though Bracy’s native language is English, she most resonates with AAVE. “[It] feels most like home, but because I've spent so much time in formal institutions it's very easy for me to turn the AAVE off,” Bracy said, adding that, though she doesn't recall when she first started code-switching, the habit became most prominent when she started at New York University and was surrounded by mostly white, middle and upper class peers. “It happens unconsciously half the time.”
In many cases, language can define you just as much as the color of your skin. Linguistic prejudice is when people who speak English with an accent or dialect are discriminated against, and it’s rampant. Earlier this year, a white male lawyer named Aaron Schlossberg threatened to call U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE) on workers at a bodega who were speaking Spanish. (Schlossberg later issued an apology and claimed he is not a racist). Of course, while language is important, it’s not the only type of adapting people of color have to do to blend into traditional, white workspaces.
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“I'm a light-skinned black woman who doesn't really have to change how I talk to assimilate so I have a lot of privilege over people who are darker, bigger, [or talk] differently,” Nicole Weaver, an entertainment reporter, told Refinery29. “But there is one way I might code-switch. I don't always straighten my hair for job interviews, but if it's a job I really want, I do straighten my natural hair instead of doing a twist out.”
For Ambar Peña, a Latina from Los Angeles, the reality of code-switching at work became most evident after changing jobs. Previously, Peña worked as a receptionist at a law office and noticed she was never able to be herself at work. "I thought it was something I wanted at first because I felt it was 'professional' and I was fresh out of college," Peña said. She also noted that another Latina at the firm easily assimilated into the office's white culture and was favored by staff. "I felt sort of powerless. I just ended up feeling like shit all the time because I literally couldn't be me."
Now, Peña works full-time as a bartender and gets to be fully authentic while at work. "There's a change in power dynamics which makes the biggest difference," Peña said. "With the bar culture it's easy to be myself. My Latinxness is my personality; it starts conversations and makes me relatable."
Whether it’s aesthetic, linguistic, or other attitudinal shifts, in professional settings many people of color do have to alter themselves in order to make others more comfortable. Given this, is it even possible to 'be yourself' at work? “It's undeniable that it's easier for some people to feel way more comfortable at work,” Bracy said.
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Weaver agrees, adding that certain identities encounter more roadblocks to authenticity than others. “Minorities are often asked to leave a big part of themselves at the door to be accepted at work in order to not seem ‘intimidating’ or ‘too difficult’,” Weaver said. “This affects us when it comes to pay and moving up within a company. Even if you do agree to code-switch, you still may be punished for not being the ‘image’ the workplace wants to have because of skin color.”

Minorities are often asked to leave a big part of themselves at the door to be accepted at work in order to not seem ‘intimidating’ or ‘too difficult.’

Sheena Wadhawan, a consultant who specializes in racial equity planning with companies and organizations, recognizes that diversity and inclusivity have become overused buzzwords and are not necessarily attached to real change. “If a workplace culture hasn't truly evolved to one that is anti-racist and anti-oppressive, no amount of ‘diversity and inclusion’ efforts will be successful,” Wadhawan told Refinery29.
Wadhawan believes that workplaces where people of color are seen and valued are possible, but it takes work to get there. “We live in an oppressive society, and this is internalized by all of us and by organizations themselves,” Wadhawan said. “It takes an all-out transformation and commitment to creating an anti-oppressive culture to have a workplace that is truly inclusive of all types of folks and actually allows them to show up as themselves.”
This all starts with taking a long, hard look at workplace culture, the ways in which it may implicitly (and unintentionally) cater to whiteness, and whether it has parameters in place to recruit, support, and retain people of color. “If you have a culture of whiteness, or one that is racist, then you can recruit all the people of color you want, but you won't be able to retain them,” Wadhawan said. “An oppressive workplace culture will chew up and spit out people of color over and over.”
There remains a lot to be done before people of color can actually show up authentically in the workplace. However, Weaver believes that groundwork must be laid first when it comes to hiring practices: “It would be great if things like names would be removed from résumés before they are looked over.” Bracy also believes that recruiting and retention practices are at the core of these efforts, specifically ensuring that more than one type of person is holding jobs and dictating culture at a company. “Then, make sure your company's policies support us,” Bracy said, noting that simply hiring people of color isn’t enough.
“I don't know if anyone will ever be able to show up to work ‘authentically,’” Bracy concluded. “But I know [people of color] could all feel a lot more comfortable in work settings if the people with the most power in workspaces put in a modicum of effort.”
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