Before one of my very first job interviews, I called my grandmother. After her typical glowing praise and assurances that they’d be fools not to hire me, she posed a question I’d known to expect: Had I straightened my hair? I was disappointed, though I knew why she asked. She was afraid that whatever white person interviewed me—for there was little doubt that they would be white—wouldn’t think I “looked the part” if I showed up to the interview with natural hair. And while I wanted to explain to her that I wouldn’t want to work anywhere that thought me unprofessional for refusing to change my hair, I knew that she’d spent her life straightening her hair to pre-emptively ward off suspicions of unworthiness.
Any person of color working in an industry historically dominated by white people knows what it’s like to be underestimated, or even mistaken for a lower-tier employee. “I have been handed a tray before and asked if I am there to take their order,” Mallory Whitley, a doctor, told the New York Times in a series of interviews with professionals of color about countering bias at work. “If a nurse walks in — say, a white male — that is their doctor all of a sudden.” Dr. Whitley’s experience is mirrored by the other lawyers, doctors, and politicians in the piece, who describe a constant checking of their credentials and repeatedly being addressed as valets and assistants. All described tactics to reinforce their authority, from prominently displaying badges that identify them to avoiding casual Friday.
What stuck out to me as I read these stories, though, was the additional toll these countermeasures to bigotry come with, beyond the emotional and mental energy it takes to try to pre-empt a quietly toxic form of racism. In almost all of the cases, those interviewed spoke of a delicate balancing act: While deploying these countermeasures they had to simultaneously ensure that they weren’t “causing trouble” or being “too loud.” “I tend to not speak a certain way at work,” Dr. Whitley said, “to make sure in other people’s eyes I am less menacing or less aggressive.”
That balancing act, universal to people of color in mostly white workplaces, becomes more fraught when an unavoidable instance of casual bigotry provokes an emotional response. The result is a spiral of questions: Am I overreacting? Was it unintentional? Shouldn’t I point it out even if it was unintentional? I just spoke up about this other unrelated but still racist thing two weeks ago—will they think I’m that person? Am I calm enough to discuss this in a voice that won’t scare them? Rahmah Abdulaleem, a black Muslim lawyer, remembers a colleague from nearly two decades in the past telling her that she needed to “tone it down so people will feel comfortable.” “And that sticks with me,” she said. “I make sure that I am not the loud black woman.”
But what is lost when black people can’t speak up, for fear of being labeled the “loud black one”? In fields where these professionals are often one of the only people of color in the room, their inability to cause trouble or be loud is a fundamental loss to their workplace. In the game of diversity, individual people of color are touted as markers of change, not just to the aesthetics of the workplace but to the culture. But what vice presidents of inclusion so often forget to think about is the personal risk that comes with being an agent of systemic change, a role that, at times, necessitates being blunt. Being loud and direct in the workplace is an advantage when you’re a white man; it’s a liability when you’re already fighting against a stereotype of being too loud and too angry.
So when people of color bump up against institutional bias and attempt to explain that bias to their white colleagues—in the hope that things might change—language gets softened and truths get elided. In many ways, it’s just easier to let instances of casual racism slide by—easier not to ask the security guard why he asked for ID from you and not your white co-workers, to swallow the small indignities so that when an instance comes where you feel like you have to speak up, you’re not already exhausted. But how do you know when you have to speak up, and what happens when you do? There’s no way to know. Each battle you so carefully choose, each moment you assert yourself in a workplace culture that prides assertiveness from everyone but you, is one in which you could be labeled the office problem. It’s a moment in which you could lose your colleague’s respect, your manager’s trust or even your job. It’s a moment that so often just isn’t worth it. And there’s no guidebook to figuring out the one that is.
So, who gains from a system that forces people of color to suffer such offenses silently, to develop tactics to counter ignorance, as if we are the problem? Certainly not the workplaces that hire us to change them. Perhaps the colleagues who get to muddle along in their ignorance. Most assuredly the white men who win a workplace that is aesthetically diverse but which, at the end of the day, remains their playground.