Being a black woman at work adds a new element to the already tricky arena of corporate space. Not only do you have to know your job, but you also have to know how to brush off and step over from the subtle ways that corporate environments expose themselves to reveal that they were not built for people like you. Black women are scrutinized more closely than their white or other non-black counterparts, and any mistakes or shortcomings black women make on the job are often amplified beyond those of non-black employees. Black women are also afforded the fewer opportunities for advancement and growth in the workplace, and are offered lower wages for their work regardless of education or experience level.
And while these facts might align to spell out a not-so-sunny picture, it is important to note that black women are still capable of success in corporate spaces as long as they employ the correct outlook and attitude, both of which are obtained through being cognizant of the factors that surround and impact them. It is not wise to deny that race plays a part in one’s career growth. For black women, their dark skin and hair texture does not have to become a means for silencing, overlooking, or discounting them, but if/when it does, there are ways to handle it that can elevate even the lowest per-diem worker to a plane higher than a VP or C-level executive simply by staying classy. Here are five tips for how to be an “angry” black woman at work:
1. Raise your words, not your voice
Men are seen as passionate and dedicated when they shout or use harsh language in the workplace. Unfortunately, black women aren’t given this same level of latitude. In fact, we are often presumed to have negative attitudes even when we’re just breathing. Because of this, it’s best to act ‘above’ the expectation. Use precise words and a calm demeanor to express disagreement, defend yourself, and report issues in the workplace. At the very least, no one can accuse you of being a threat if you refuse to scream or yell.
2. Treat your skillset like an iceberg
Icebergs are beautiful, natural structures that look breathtaking from above water, but over half of their beauty is concealed below the surface. Black women are some of the most educated, skilled labor in the workforce, yet no Fortune 500 companies are run by black women, and black women professionals receive fewer opportunities to sit at the table. While being skilled and versatile is excellent, be sure that your skills and experience always count. Always negotiate your salary and request annual performance reviews as an opportunity to advocate for pay increases. If your employer refuses to offer these to you, find somewhere else to work where your skillset is valued.
3. Politely refuse to code switch
Socializing at work can be difficult because while you may not care to hear about your VP’s golf tournament or how one of the new hires is planning a free solo trip in Argentina, refusing to socialize can give a negative impression. To combat this, remember that exchanging small talk in the break room is necessary, but you do not need to abandon yourself in order to do so. Even though corporate spaces were set up and are largely controlled by white males, this does not mean white males get the monopoly on employees’ interests as well. Your hobbies and interests are no less valid or important just because your coworkers aren’t into them. You aren’t any less of a person if you don’t watch “Friends.” Chances are, none of your coworkers has watched “Girlfriends” or “Living Single,” and nobody is hounding them for it.
4. Document, document, document
On numerous occasions, at multiple different companies, I have been present in meetings where supervisors will deny having made statements just a week prior, executives will skirt responsibility even though they fully dropped the ball, and managers are able to create the narratives they want by choosing to act intellectually dishonest. This is where documentation of activities, correspondence, and your work tasks comes in handy. Save all emails, screenshot questionable IM conversations, and keep close track of how you are using your time at work. This is valuable evidence that will hold up in case anyone wants to deny having made certain statements, if someone accuses you of lying, or if someone accuses you of cheating the company with time clock theft.
5. Always know the rules
Just like with the law, claiming ignorance will not excuse you from consequence if you are caught breaking the rules. Keep yourself in the safe zone by always adhering to the dress code, reporting to work on time, practicing confidentiality as necessary for your field (school records, patient records, sensitive documents), and respecting company property. Note: Unless the dress code specifies that certain hairstyles or garb are prohibited, you can (and should) still represent yourself proudly at work. Braids, brightly colored blouses, or painted toenails do nothing to hinder you from being a professional, and you can demonstrate this each day through your professional poise at work. It is more than possible to be black, female, well spoken, highly skilled, and proud of your African ancestry at the same time.
Corporate spaces can be intimidating, uninviting, and stressful, but none of that has to determine anyone’s level of professional success. Though black women have hoops to jump through in order to be taken seriously at work, these obstacles can be navigated smoothly and calmly with a little preparation, patience, and consistence. A black woman who is meticulous with her words and stays focused on her own career vision will always find avenues that propel her forward professionally.