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“Acting White”: double consciousness in the workplace.

“Acting White”: double consciousness in the workplace.

Being black in corporate America is challenging, hell being in corporate America, in general, is pretty difficult. But for black people (and some other minorities) it is especially difficult. Often, the cultural identities of minority groups are seen as inappropriate, unprofessional, or somehow disruptive to those belonging to the majority or broader cultural groups at the workplace.

Over the years, I’ve heard stories of people being reprimanded by staff at their job for wearing their hair the way it naturally grows out of their head (i.e., Afros or locs). Or having their credibility questioned by other employees, not because they were lacking skills or experience but because people doubt that a person of color could obtain such a position strictly from the merit of their intelligence or talent in their field of expertise.

Throughout my career as a therapist, I, too, have been questioned–in a suspicious way–about whether I am a legitimate therapist by people who are surprised by my education and experience–which mainly, if not entirely, is based on the color of my skin and cultural background. One of my former coworkers has even gone as far as requesting a background check to verify my credentials (as if my credentials are any of their business anyway). Although this situation was pretty bad, I think the most upsetting experience I’ve had in the workplace was being criticized by my former clinical supervisor for speaking “too ghetto” to my clients merely because I don’t put enough “er’s” and “ing’s” at the end of my words for his liking, and I may use the word “ain’t” at times, which may be uncomfortable to someone who is not accustomed to contemporary African American dialect.

I imagine the fact that unlike my coworkers, I wear Jordans on causal Friday instead of “Toms” or “Vans” also plays a big part in why I’m perceived negatively at work as well. As if my cultural identity is somehow inappropriate juxtaposed to that of the broader culture. I notice the awkwardness when I am being too black during casual encounters almost as if they want me to turn down my blackness to maintain the prestige of the workplace. Why does everyone else get to be themselves but black people must be a shell of themselves and mirror the cultural norms of their white counterparts, to avoid being seen as ghetto?

It is truly astounding how we supposedly live in a “post-racial” society, yet everything that is African-American is pathologized by the broader American culture. Our names are too ghetto; the way we talk is unintelligible; and hair, the way it naturally grows from our head is unprofessional. Who decided that it’s improper to be black? For the most part, black people have to transform themselves physically, socially, and emotionally each day to be accepted in white workspaces.

Blacks have had to be a shell of themselves to navigate the terrains of white workplaces. By no means am I suggesting that ALL white people are racist. But, I will say is that in our society there is racist psychology that discourages cultural norms that are not consistent with the broader euro-normative standards we’ve become so accustomed to.

Many African Americans develop mental health issues such as depression and anxiety due to having to work in toxic environments where they are view as inferior merely because of socially constructed cultural differences.

In my time as a therapist, I have treated several clients that had mental health issues stem from racism. Many of my clients have expressed intense anxiety of feeling as if they have to be perfect and display a squeaky clean image at work. One client explained to me “In the workforce, black people rarely are given the benefit of the doubt. You either have to be perfect in their eyes, or they’ll start to label you” And as he was explaining this to me, I reflected back to my work experiences as a racial and ethnic minority. And I realized that in many cases–if not all– I was castigated by coworkers, manager, and sometimes (although to a much lesser extent) clients, merely for being my “cultural self”.  W.E.B Dubois, created the term “double-consciousness” to describe this cultural dilemma most black people experience in professional, social, and judicial environments.

Because much of our culture is pathologized by the broader eurocentric culture in the U.S., black people have found themselves “acting white,” or “code-switching” just to not be discredited or treated unfairly. This sort of social dynamic is a direct indication of privilege. The fact that people have to shift and contort their “cultural selves” is directly related to the privilege of those who belong to the broader cultural groups in our society.

Not having to worry will people think you’re ghetto because of your first name, skin color, hairstyle, or accent are all great examples of privilege. People should not have to change their cultural identity to be accepted at work. People of color should be judged merely by their work performance rather than implicit biases that are not in the least bit related to work performance.

To change this flawed socioculural dynamic, we must understand that there is no golden standard of how people should dress, wear their hair, and even to an extent speak. We have to come to realize that people behave according to their upbringing and cultural origin, and no one culture is better or more professional than others.

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1 comment found

  1. Mental Health and Black Choices
    can you imagine as a black man, working in corporate america or any where and not being able to be a man, act like a man, walk and talk like a man? I know some might be saying, I am a man, therefore anything I do is manly, wrong. A black mans inability to express himself at work in order to fit in over a thirty year period can cause mental illness. Imagine, the women at work think you are a threat or potential rapist, so you hide your sexuality adn maleness/ Men think you are a threat so your lower yourself and act non threatening. This type of action can cause mental illness and depression, Stop making others feel comfortable and you will feel a lot better about yourself. Then when the black man returns home or to the neighborhood he may act out more violent to show and let out his maleness he was holding back for 9-12 hours a day.

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