Unless you’re self-employed or the CEO of a very successful company, chances are good that you make some sort of accommodations to your true self in order to fit into the culture of your workplace. And most people would agree that having to wear a tie or heels once in a while or checking salty language for a more polite form of discourse are, at the end of the day, a small price to pay for the rewards and benefits of meaningful employment.
But what if the culture of your workplace required you to change the very nature of the hair you were born with? Or affect an accent and vocabulary completely foreign to you? Or to not be able to talk about some of the things your colleagues share on a regular basis — stories of family, hobbies or weekend plans? Are those acceptable things to ask an employee to change? Of course not.
And yet it happens every day in workplaces across the country. Members of the majority may not even be aware of the phenomenon, but it’s a topic of constant conversation for people in minority groups. It has a name: dimming your light.
We asked Nicole Holland, the head of people and culture at Fingerpaint, to talk about some of the problems caused by people feeling the need to dim their light, to offer some examples and to provide some solutions — ways in which both employees and employers can help create more accepting and ultimately productive work environments. — Staff
First of all, some questions and answers: How much of our authentic selves should we check at the door at work? Zero percent. Should you have to dim your light to fit in? No. And when should we give up our true selves to make others comfortable? Never. Here are four ways we accommodate the majority.
1. Code switching (a secret world of survival for minorities in the workplace)
Most non-minorities don’t know what this is, but it’s a very real thing. Code switching is the practice of shifting from one linguistic code — a language or dialect — to another, depending on the social context or conversational setting. Why the need for a code switch? Phrases like “I can’t be myself at work or I won’t have a job” or “I put on my white voice to fit in” are all too common for minorities.
We talk about it with each other to cope, but never expose it to the majority. Most of us feel the need to code switch on a regular basis, to the point that it is just another part of our day and we learn to accept that we aren’t accepting ourselves. Boots Riley’s recent film, Sorry to Bother You, about a code-switching African-American telemarketer who uses his white voice to connect with the people he cold-calls, is a great primer on the topic.
2. The hair “issue”
Yes, it’s a thing, especially for black women/women with kinky and curly hair. If your hair is different than the majority it can naturally cause people to be uncomfortable or curious, when all you want is to have a hairstyle and not have it be a big deal. Sometimes our true hairstyle is flat out not accepted. We’ve all heard the stories of employers or even educational institutes across the country asking black or biracial women to change or tame their hair.
Is that OK? No it isn’t. Can I ask a Caucasian co-worker to kinken or curl up their hair because that’s what is acceptable in my world, and tell them their straight hair just doesn’t look neat and acceptable? Sounds crazy and rude, right? It still happens to minorities in America in 2019.
For example, a few months ago, a friend of mine who works in the banking industry felt the need to rush home from vacation for a salon appointment to straighten her hair because there was “no way the people at work would accept” her hair in braids. “Everyone would be in an uproar,” she said. I asked if she was OK with that and she said, “No, but that’s the way it is.” It made me very sad and outraged at the same time.
3. Authenticity at work
When is it OK to tailor who you are in a general sense versus being inauthentic? There’s a difference between fitting in to company or corporate environments and that company not accepting employees’ cultures.
Here’s an example: I would never want to work in a bank, where I would have to wear blazers every day and be part of an overstructured and extremely buttoned-up environment. But that’s very different from me not being comfortable at work or cast out because of my race or cultural background.
You can change jobs to find the company environment that’s right for you — that’s fine. But you cannot change who you fundamentally are, and your race can’t change. So if you’re at a company where race is an issue, or you’re scared to not be part of the majority group, that’s a different matter, and you need to do some soul-searching. Will you ever be comfortable there, and do you want that?
If you’re in an environment where you’re made to feel uneasy because of your ethnicity, can you ever truly advance? I don’t think so. I would advise assessing your long-term goals and asking if this company could support them, or you, as a person of color. If this question even comes up, the answer is likely no. Unconscious bias is a strong force that can undermine great people.
4. Sometimes we’re our own worst enemies
We (minorities) tend to stay where we are comfortable. Comfortable leads to complacent, which leads to nowhere. Unfortunately, this comes from a history of being oppressed and “staying in our place.” Don’t stunt your growth because you want to be comfortable. Uncomfortable or new experiences, like meeting different people, push us into new areas and open our minds to endless possibilities. You can always learn from people with different experiences.
• Open yourself to new experiences. Just because “your people” don’t do it doesn’t mean it’s “not for us or minorities don’t do that,” or not fun.
• Start networking early in your career. Be around people of different races and cultures. Expand your horizons.
• Tell your stories. They may not be spectacular, and may not involve a country club, but have something to say. Don’t be a dud in a room full of people. “More deals are made at a bar than in a boardroom” — never a truer phrase.
So, to return to the original question, should we dim our light? My answer is still no!
But I understand that maturity brings confidence. Earlier in my career, I probably wouldn’t have had such a firm stance. I’ve grown into who I am today, so I feel better standing my ground. It’s very hard to be a young minority breaking into corporate America while staying true to your culture and at the same time being accepted and given fair opportunity to advance. I don’t know that any minority ever truly cracks the code on exactly where to walk the line and how to be balanced.