There are numerous videos and articles about being authentic in the workplace. People are speaking out about battling Imposter Syndrome and letting their light shine. These are amazing concepts that I believe are relevant in your professional and personal life. One of the hardest challenges however, is the balance of ensuring your “best” self incorporates the parts of you that are the most vulnerable.
The days of business life and personal life as separate entities seem to have dissolved over the course of the past year. As a Black Professional for more than 25 years, I used to have my “fit in” persona, like armour that I put on during work hours and hung up as I walked through my home’s front door. This shield portrayed a person who was mild mannered and slightly funny. The shield had me swallow my replies to bosses as I realized early in my career that a male or even female non-racialized co-worker could be upset and say the same thing I did about a situation in the same manner and tone with wildly differing results. The co-workers’ forcefulness was accepted while mine incited a meeting with my manager about my “attitude”. My armour allowed me to smile when a former co-worker joked that “We look like an Oreo” as she spoke to a major client because there was another Black person that was standing to her right as I was to her left. The armour was required as people would touch my hair asking if it is real when I wore braids as though I was part of a petting zoo. The armour allowed me to not become “The Angry Black Woman” when people would speak derogatively about Black people, and then turn to me and say “oh I’m not talking about you – you’re nothing like those people”. It also pushed me to overcompensate in my work performance and in interviews to ensure I overcame any racial judgments superiors could have in their sub-consciousness.
A couple of years ago I decided I needed a change and to change. I wanted to showcase my intelligence and my assertive nature that I temper with my deep empathy towards others. I wanted to work at an organization that respected who I was and appreciated my true unarmoured personality. What I did not realize, is that the events of last summer would amplify my experiences over the past 40 plus years and would cause my armour to weaken and then shatter.
My personal concerns melded into my work life. Imagine worrying that every time your son went out to play or go to school, this would be the day that someone would say something racist or hurt him because of the colour of his skin. Imagine anytime your spouse went for a jog at dawn or dusk or even worse at night you would have to stay quiet but inside you would shake with worry that he would be attacked. My husband was an American and we used to go to the US four times a year to see family. Imagine the whole time you were in the US you watched out constantly to make sure no one could think you or your family were doing anything "suspicious". Imagine having a relative who was shot by cops; having family and friends that have similar stories.
George Floyd, Breonna Taylor and the thousands of other horrifying murders are unfortunately not new to the Black community – they brought a focus on what Black people deal with daily. Imagine having to share these situations with your 8-year old because to not tell him about it is to not prepare him for his life. Watching the confusion in his eyes as your heart breaks because you feel that you are ripping away some of his innocence. Then imagine living with that everyday as you get up, get positive and go to work. I had many people in the business world reach out with kindness last summer. I also had several non-racialized people want to discuss their new found feelings of horror and coming to terms with their complicity. As much as I appreciated the change in their understanding, I had nothing for them. The exhaustion and emotional desolation I felt is still healing. I also, however, had a very large A-ha moment. Being authentic at work is actually part of the solution. Speaking openly about my Black experience is a way for others to gain insight. Standing up for myself and others in a respectful manner is so much better than letting silence eat away at me. Sharing my experience during Black History Month reminds me of my ancestors who fought so hard to survive and thrive. They have provided the opportunities for myself and others to let our voices be heard.
My story is not new and is definitely not mine alone. We all have to take an active role to ensure that everyone has the ability to present their authentic self at work. For me, being authentic means I ensure that anyone I encounter is treated with respect and in turn I require that respect be reciprocated to me and to those around me.
Natalee Davis is a Marketing and Business Development Manager at Lerners LLP, where she leads campaigns, community initiatives and business plans for a variety of practice groups and industry areas.