Why has professionalism historically excluded principles of blackness? Whether it’s taming naturally kinky coily hair into a bone-straight silk press, code-switching while talking to a boss or facing daily microaggressions, blackness is being attacked in modern-day corporate America. Black professionals do not feel like they can be successful while being themselves. They feel the need to acclimate so that they are not deemed loud, “ghetto” or difficult. But how did it get this way?
It goes back to the 18th century Tignon Laws in Antebellum New Orleans -we can go back further, but we’d be here all day- that forced newly emancipated black women to cover their hair with head wraps, so that white men were not distracted by the flaunting of their femininity through elaborate hairstyles with feathers and jewels. These laws aimed to return black women to a subordinate, inferior status and they set the stage for similar mandates that deemed natural black hair as inappropriate. Since its inception, the military has banned cornrows, afros, locs and other protective styles -only recently lifting the locs ban in 2017. Laws like this have created the narrative that black hair cannot be professional. This is why we are still seeing black girls and boys suspended from school for rocking their natural hair!
As professionals, black people are commonly forced to code switch. According to Dictionary.com, code switching is the modifying of one’s behavior, appearance, etc., to adapt to different sociocultural norms. Most African Americans are familiar with the term “white voice,” used to describe the voice they use when talking “proper” in professional spheres. Employing a “white voice” is a black person’s performance of whiteness and it ultimately serves to make white people feel more comfortable about their otherwise disturbing presence.
Even after code switching, black professionals can be subject to microaggressions. Microaggressions are also present outside of the workplace. A common example is a white woman clutching her purse while a black man walks past her on a sidewalk. However, in the workplace, microaggressions can be present with an assumption of criminal status, denial of intelligence, or inference of being a second-class citizen, such as tensing up when a black man enters an elevator or mistaking a black coworker for a janitor. “He’s smart for a black person.” “I don’t think of you as black.” Assuming a black teammate’s solution for a problem won’t work. All examples are offensive and reinforce stereotypes.
What can we do to change the narrative that attributes blackness to unprofessionalism? First, black professionals need to unapologetically be themselves. Stop code switching. Stop altering
yourselves to appease the masses. You are enough and worthy of being in your position, so be comfortable and claim your space! Next, stand up to microaggressions. If you are in the position to, calmly educate the person on how their comments or actions make you feel. If they are a level-headed, unbiased person, they should respond well to your criticisms and change their behavior. Lastly, more black people need to become entrepreneurs and create spaces where they would be comfortable. Corporate America was never intended for black professionals. Therefore, we need to support black businesses where being black is the norm and not shied away from!