Being 'too black' in corporate America

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Issa Rae (right) stars in HBO's "Insecure"
Issa Rae (right) stars in HBO's "Insecure"

How many times have I put on a mask to avoid being perceived as "too black," asks the president of Ming Utility and Entertainment.

I have attempted to write about this topic for months.

First, when Beyoncé stepped onto the Super Bowl 50 field in Black Panther-inspired gear singing about "a black Bill Gates" and "negro nose." The response was nothing less than outrage. We knew Beyoncé was black, but how dare she be that black? And most recently, while watching the HBO comedy, "Insecure." It's the story of two black women in Los Angeles, navigating relationships, dating and living in a world where you are a minority.

It's a phenomenal show, created and written by Issa Rae, a black woman, and executive produced by Larry Wilmore, a black man. So why did my "too black" antennae shoot up? Issa works at a nonprofit and has natural hair. Molly is a lawyer with a long weave. And did I mention her name is Molly? Every week I ignore the stereotyping and watch their adventures, while laughing so hard I sometimes cry. And then in episode 3, they introduced Rasheeda, an intern at Molly's law firm. "DaDa," as she likes to be called, is loud and brash. Molly pulls her to the side and suggests she start "switching it up" for the office. DaDa refuses and by episode 4, the (white) partners are talking to her about how to better fit into the firm's culture.

Well, that reality check was like a bucket of cold water thrown in my face. This wasn’t Beyoncé being critiqued and ridiculed by on-air pundits, this was my world exposed in harsh light. And it forced me to ask, how many times have I switched it up? To survive in corporate culture, have I put on a mask to avoid being perceived as "too black" to fit in?

A quick poll of some black professionals proved I'm not alone. I asked a simple question, "Please share some things you've done (or not done) to keep from appearing 'too Black' in the office?" Some replies:

  • I try not to show my anger or frustration. I don't want to be seen as too aggressive.
  • I've pretended I wash my hair everyday like everyone else to avoid getting into the conversation of what I do with my hair.
  • I only eat chicken in my office with the door closed. You know they think all black people love chicken.
  • We can't congregate in the halls. Seeing more than two of us together is scary.
  • I only listen to my music with headphones.
  • I try not to show how offended I am during casting conversations. They always want a certain "type" of look or voice. All coded references for non-black.
  • I pretend to think their bro-humor is funny.
  • I pretend to panic when I receive urgent requests from my boss. They just don't understand laid-back blacks. In order to believe things are getting done, we have to outwardly show we are jumping to it when they crack the whip.

While you're digesting these, also consider this: I never had to explain what being "too black" meant. Why is this a problem? Doesn't everyone have a work face that is slightly different than who they are at home? Maybe. But when blacks switch it up, we aren't just wearing Louboutins or khakis, when we'd really rather be in Uggs or sweats. We are wearing a mask—literally trying to cover our skin. Doing our best to camouflage our blackness for fear of making others uncomfortable.

And, at what cost? There's a reason a candidate for president of the United States can win while generalizing African Americans as struggling to find work and living in neighborhoods where we dodge bullets. They don't know us. Not really.

If Nov. 8 has taught us anything it's that we are living in an extremely divided society. Where people of all races, ethnicities, sex and political parties purposely separate themselves from anyone not like them. Perhaps the only place we will ever truly experience "the others" is in the office. If that's true, a diverse office culture is critical and "switching it up" is dangerous, not only to us personally, but to the culture at large.

So, what do we do?

Throw the mask away. Flaunt our skin as the enviable gift it is. Be loud. Relentless. Stop avoiding the responsibility that comes with sometimes being the only black voice in the room. Speak up when we hear something culturally insensitive. Those of us in advertising and client-side marketing must always push for more culturally relevant work. Black people have transformed all areas of pop culture, why should the ad world be any different? So play your music and wear your hair however you like. Brag about that much-anticipated trip to the National Museum of African American History and Culture in the same way you did about finally scoring tickets to "Hamilton." Interrupt water-cooler conversation about "Westworld" with, "Have you seen 'Atlanta'? The social commentary is on point and I love me some Paper Boi!"

Because in the self-segregated world we now live in, if these conversations aren't happening at work, they may very well not be happening at all.