By: Ashley Robinson
Young. Black. Woman. Who knew 3 words would mean so much in corporate America? I guess I should’ve known when I put it that way. Those identifiers hold weight individually, but the combination lends itself to an especially critical eye from my predominantly white co-workers.
I just graduated college so I might have been a little naïve coming in. First, I thought it was my age, but then I started really paying attention. I heard stories about how race and gender impacted work relations, but those situations always seem different until you’re actually in one.
I remember the first moment I noticed so vividly. I had just been hired full time to work in a marketing position. I had the job lined up after graduation and was putting my degree to use so needless to say I was excited. The Chief Marketing Officer (CMO) was originally supposed to give me the job offer so I found it a little odd when my supervisor did instead. As weeks went by, he had yet to set his one-on-one meeting with me.
I noticed he seemed to be bonding and making an effort with the white, male intern very quickly though. About a week in, their one-on-one meeting was set to discuss the intern’s career goals. I sat back and realized that the CMO had no idea what I did on the day-to-day nor did he care to understand. He would come say good morning to everyone in the office including the intern, directly beside me, while ignoring my presence for months. I channeled my growing resentment into motivation.
I work in an office environment that allows casual attire everyday. Initially, I found myself admiring the fact that when my white female peers put on a dress or skirt they looked effortlessly classy. Because words like aggressive and dirty are sometimes associated with black women, I felt as though I wasn’t as “lady-like” and had to work harder to appear softer.
My day-to-day routine still requires more thought than my peers due to the fact that I am an African-American woman. Are my hoops too big? Does this dress hug my curves a little too much? Is my Afro “tamed” enough? Are my nails too long – the color too bright? The overly positive response to my straight hair over curly isn’t race driven, right? I found these thoughts, and often times doubts, flow into my on-the-job performance.
While I’m great at my job, I sometimes wonder if I overcompensate by trying to prove my value and myself. I second-guess decisions I normally might not have. I strive to be solely a team player and overly positive even on my off daysin an attempt to not fit into the stereotype of the angry, black woman. This has led to coworkers perceiving me as weak and trying to get ahead by taking advantage of my kindness. I find myself working harder for less recognition. And I see the bit of surprise at my accomplishments as if my abilities were doubted. The pressure is on to represent for the educated black woman.
One of my least favorite parts about the racial divide in the workplace is being the spokesperson for all things black. If a controversial news story comes out, I seem to be the representative of the black community. If a slang term needs defining or a joke needs context, I’m the go-to. It’s almost as if my blackness isn’t up to par if I can’t help my white peers better understand black culture.
Pop culture office discussions are always trendy and appropriate until they creep to that line touching black culture. A specific example occurred when there was talk of mentioning music on our social media channels. While the Taylor Swift and One Direction part of the conversation was received well, the slightest mention of Drake (i.e. hip hop) was deemed as too risky and “targeting only black audiences”.
The irony is that black culture is embraced when it comes from a white co-worker. Using words like “gangster” and “ratchet”, majority of the time out of context, is seen as humorous. I’ve found my coworkers fall into one of two categories. The ones that do everything in their power to prove how hip they are or the completely ignorant ones.
I’ve come to the realization that is everything I mentioned stems from ignorance really. My ignorance about the worth of my melanin. Their ignorance to the queen that is before them. Ignorance that black culture is the catalyst that births pop culture. Ignorance to the power that comes with being an educated, young black woman.