I remember the days when it was easy to separate home and work life; Covid stripped away that barrier for so many of us. I must admit, it took some getting used to; I felt completely exposed knowing my colleagues were going to see my limited space, the non-glamourised version of me, the fact that I live in one headscarf on most days, and my outrageously energetic children. Although it was never my intention to put on a façade, there was undeniably a big part of my life that I’d kept detached from work.
What I hadn’t realised was just how tactical my approach was to navigating the workplace. Small things such as dropping my natural vernacular for ‘professional talk’ left me stuck between assimilation and authenticity, something at the time I hadn’t really understood the damage it’d had on my measurement of self-worth. My entire career, I felt a pressure to fit into the ‘white spaces’ my profession had led me to. There were so many reasons for this, mainly the guidance recruiters provided, the people you witnessed climbing up the success ladder, and the lack of true black representation in the workplace, which in my opinion signified what was welcomed and what wasn’t.
This stuck with me for so long since nothing in my environment changed to make me think any differently. It was a funny position to be in because there was so much I felt disconnected from at work; things were so far removed from my own culture and natural surroundings. Our working lives are important, if only because it’s where we spend a significant amount of our time, so feeling the need to conform to an unspoken set of standards that suppresses our real self can be highly detrimental to anyone’s mental health.
I myself acquired a number of insecurities that still haunt me up to this day, even though I’ve worked my ass off to successfully progress in my profession. Working from home during Covid, I felt the need to counteract the negative stereotypes that so often follow black people around; however, it’s not very easy to ‘code-switch’ when your colleagues are basically in your yard! According to Harvard Business Review, “‘code-switching’ comes with costs: Black employees who code-switch report feeling burnout, depletion in cognitive resources, and in-group hostility from other Black people. Across the board, Black workers report lower levels of authenticity at work than their non-Black counterparts, largely due to assimilation pressures”.
Last year everything changed. Where I’d unintentionally downplayed my racial identity in the past, I knew that that was about to come to an end. The black community made it clear that enough was enough; the world has no choice but to accept us for who we are, which is no less than any other race or group. As aware as I was about my lack of office space and my children’s drawers in full view of Zoom, my fear of judgement dissolved when I focused on how irrelevant the thoughts and opinions of others were to my life and professional performance.
I love our cubby-hole; I walk out my door and am surrounded by family, the London skyline, the river banks and a safe space for my children. Comparing ourselves to others is wasted energy; being happy is what matters. However, opening ourselves up to others requires trust; employers have a duty of care to create an environment that encourages employees to turn up as their authentic selves, which will help build deeper relationships that lead to success and positive wellbeing for everyone at work.
Research shows that similarity attracts. This is only natural. Companies seeking to become more diverse and inclusive need to hire from a wider ethnicity pool and consider and invest in mentorship and sponsorship programs. This will ensure that minority employees flourish, feel valued and trust that they are in an environment that recognises the importance of the contributions they bring.
Turn up as your authentic self, even when things return to ‘normal’ and we physically enter the office. Throw away the notion that professionalism is inherently linked to ‘whiteness’; representing your true self will create enormous benefits for you and the business.
Being proud of who you are will enable you to define your own version of success.
Sending light and love always.