“If every time we felt unwelcome in a space we decided not to stay, then that space would, indeed, be no longer for us. In taking ourselves out of a place, we designate that place as not our own.”
~ Rori Picker Neiss
As a professional of color, I have a lot of experience being in spaces that seem to not be for me. When I say it wasn’t for me, I don’t mean that as a reflection on my ability. I say that as a reflection of the structures, expectations, and allowances of professionalism within those environments.
Last week, I attended ACRL. Frankly, I came into the conference feeling tired and not much like being there. I was coming out of a couple of emotionally intense weeks, because of stuff going on in my personal life. The last thing I felt like doing was going to sit with a bunch of strange people and talk about the same ol’ conference things. But before I got to ACRL, I attended the #critlib unconference that preceded it. There was a session at the end of unconference that ended up being mostly LIS practitioners of color talking about self-care. One of the things that came up over and over again was this feeling of isolation as an Only, along with all the accompanying issues that come with being an Only: the lack of community, the lack of understanding from administration and colleagues about social issues related to cultural identities, the lack of recognition of work and professional accomplishments, the need to work two or three times as hard in order to prove your existence was/is not a mistake. The microaggressions.
I attended #critlib with one of my good friends, which was cathartic in and of itself. The circle-talk on self-care was good, but I still wasn’t really feeling ACRL. On the second day, though, I ran into one of the women from the #critlib circle and we talked. And then I connected with other librarians of color and we talked. I ended up with a group of conference buddies who redeemed my conference experience. And it was nice to know that my frustrations with the conference and the profession were not all in my head. It also touched something deep inside that I didn’t realize needed touching.
The conversations I had with my professional peers of color at ACRL reminded me of one I had during my intergroup dialogue (IGD) facilitator training this past summer, in which one of my IGD peers of color and I talked about the idea of coming out as Black in the workplace. And what it means to work in a predominantly white workplace versus one with a high percentage of people of color. I volunteered at an African American cultural heritage institution before I started my residency and I remember telling my IGD colleague about how amazing it was to be in environment with so many African American professionals and to not have to feel on guard all the time or to feel like I had to constantly explain myself, my culture, or my existence. Being there felt like home. And that’s not a feeling I often get to have in a professional setting.
One might argue that your workplace shouldn’t feel like home. And I agree to a certain extent. I mean, I’m at work to do my job, get my paycheck, and go home. But when, like in one of my past workplaces, you overhear your white colleagues publicly joking about African American death as a good thing, because then there are less of them around…it does something to your psyche. How likely is advancement, professional support, or even exposure to the right information or opportunities, if the death of people who look like you is fodder for lunchtime jokes? It contributes to a hostile workplace.
I wasn’t always conscious of or vocal about these things, though.
I started my professional career in early childhood education. I worked as a literacy educator with a nonprofit that partnered with the local school system. My first year, I was one of few people of color on the team. The second year with that organization, I transitioned to a different role. For one part of my job, I worked solo in multiple elementary schools. The other part of my job was collaborative in a different school. My colleagues were all women of color. The leadership in our organization were mostly white. Most of the teachers in the schools I worked at were white. Most of the students and their parents were African American.
As an educator, I was trained to teach, but not make waves. I was supposed to be respectable, above reproach. Care for the children, yes. Advocate for them, yes. But also, stay in your lane. And don’t be visibly Black. I had private conversations with African American teachers about how frustrating it was for them to work in predominantly white environments. How they watched their colleagues of color get forced out. The pressures they dealt with. I would talk to white colleagues and hear about how so-and-so was such a horrible teacher, had attitude issues, etc. And then I’d talk to my Black colleagues and get a completely different story from their perspective. And one of my personal miffs: in most school systems, teachers aren’t allowed to wear anything on their heads unless it’s for religious reasons. I used to wear headwraps a lot, before I graduated undergrad. So I was particularly salty about that detail. I got over it, though. But you know who wears headwraps, right? Mostly Black and brown people.
Additionally, becoming a professional in predominantly white spaces meant learning whole new schemas about how to conduct oneself; the language, the ways you interacted with those in seniority. For example, I grew up in a pretty traditional African American community. There, elders were highly respected. You don’t talk to adults any old kind of way and you don’t call them by their first name without a title (Aunt, Uncle, Ms., Mr., Brother, Sister). And there are reasons for this that go back to historical oppression outside the community. It was really hard for me to transition to calling those older than me and those in authority by their first names. Likewise, becoming comfortable with challenging authority and speaking out when I saw something wrong. It took time to get to that point. To make it more difficult, when I encountered older Black adults in my work, if I accidentally step outside the bounds of what I knew to be culturally acceptable, I would be scolded. Because I should know better. I had to know both worlds and when to apply which rules with which people.
My first LIS job was a private university, which had a predominantly white student body. I was the only person of color on my team and maybe department (there may have been one other, but I don’t know how she self-identified). There were a handful of us on the entire library staff, but it was a very siloed institution. It was here that I first “came out as Black.” Growing up and training to be a teacher, there was a strong emphasis put on looking professional. For this reason, I typically wore my thick, natural hair in braids or twists, I wore small earrings, etc. But while at that institution, a few things happened:
- I was deep in the middle of genealogy research. Something about learning who I was and where I came from gave me confidence. You know they don’t teach African American history…anywhere. It’s a niche subject. But as I realized my family has been here a long time and played a major role in building this country; even after being disrespected, mistreated, and forgotten, we’re still here. So you can’t tell me what to do.
- Wearing natural hair became more en vogue. I’ve always been natural, but I used to think natural hair worn “out” was not professional. Seeing other people rocking their tresses made me curious to try it.
- I began studying African American studies and gender studies as a discipline (self-taught knowledge is still knowledge). The library had a decent collections budget and I voraciously read anything that came in in my interest areas and mulled over things a lot.
- I found my voice. The school was a very liberal institution, meaning that people considered themselves open minded (whether they were or not). It was a great environment to start pushing the envelope and having dialogues with colleagues and students about critical issues. The more I raised my voice, the less I was inclined to stay quiet. And there were always things to bring up.
- The dress code was very casual. Like, t-shirt and jeans casual. I still tried to be semi-professional, because as an Only…well, you know.
- I met other Black women in academia. Let me tell you, Black women in academia are a special breed. Black women in general are some of the most supportive, giving, fierce, amazing people that ever were. Then add the fire and tenacity it takes to deal with academia nonsense on a daily basis and you get the picture. They opened their arms to me.
The end result was that one day I said, To hell with all this. And one day, I came to work with my hair out and hoop earrings. And that was my coming out day. Granted, I think my speaking against stereotypes of Southeast DC, objecting to generalizations about Black folk and microaggressions, and staging a mini temper tantrum over being ignored in staff meetings had already outed me. But it was now complete. And there was no going back. I had some of my best hair experiment days while at that job. My signature earrings made their way into my professional wardrobe during that time. And you know what? I was still regarded as a quality employee. You know what they say about positive-negative reinforcement.
When I came into my current job, I toned it down a bit. At least initially, until I got the feel of the environment. Though I did inquire prior to my first day, whether purple hair would be okay, as I was on a purple braids kick at the time. I ended up showing up with red braids instead. And proceeded to go through purple, red, and blue braids for my first several months. People commented on my frequent dye jobs. I forget that a lot of white people don’t know many Black people and don’t know about extensions. 🙂
It’s also a more conservative professional vibe, when it comes to dress and attire. (I miss my jeans.) Over time, I’ve tested the waters by rocking my fro. Which at times, feels uncomfortable, because I am, once again, one of a handful of people of color. I’ve found that no one has said anything, at least not to me directly, but that some of the white faculty I work with are endlessly fascinated by my hair and the rapid transitions I undertake in styling. I’ve gotten used to the comments about my earrings and take it in stride. I get that I am different. Every day is another lesson in code-switching and identity balancing.
On the weekends, you might find me in a headwrap with sunglasses and wide-legged pants, being all the way Black. Or you might find me in sweats and braids, curled up under a blanket, being all the way introvert and Black.
Disclaimer: I was talking to a friend some time ago about code switching and the process of “becoming professional,” both within and outside of academia. She encouraged me to write about my experiences. This is my attempt to do so. In so doing, I make no claims of speaking from the black experience, the black female experience, or the black information professional’s experience. Though there may be some similarity to the experiences of others, I speak from my experience alone.