As the first Black female professor in the Communication Department at my university, I consider myself to be a blessed imposter. I’ve been fortunate in my career. I’ve taught a variety of communications courses, incorporated social justice into the curriculum, created professional formation programs for students, and established the Dream. Plan. Do.™ departmental scholarship for students of color. I’ve played the “game” well enough to accomplish these tasks. What game? The game of code-switching and being inauthentic.
Code-switching involves alternating between languages, using different tonal registers, or making a dialectical shift. According to scholars Drs. Michael Hecht, Mary Jane Collier, and Sidney Ribeau (1993), code-switching “allows African Americans to identify what language is acceptable in different situations and modify their speech to the appropriate style” (p. 89). Rather than “allows,” I believe “forces” is a more appropriate word choice.
The microaggressive command, “Bring your authentic (or whole) self to work” is often spewed at people of color and women. It is an interesting command because 1) it’s unlikely that White men have ever been told this, and 2) people really don’t want me to bring my authentic self to work. In many instances, people of color, particularly Blacks, aren’t allowed to be culturally and linguistically diverse in the workplace. We are coerced and obligated to honor others above ourselves. Code-switching is a validation technique that considers others’ attitudes and affirms others’ language while denying one’s own.
I was born and raised in Seattle, a city with a liberal progressive reputation. I’ve tried to bring my authentic self to work; it didn’t turn out well. When I didn’t stop to chat with my colleagues because I had just five minutes to dash across campus to teach a class, I was called “mean” and “anti-social.” When I was seen interacting with other faculty and staff of color, I was deemed a “pro-Black radical.” When I laughed and expressed joy, I was labeled as “loud” or “ghetto.” When I disagreed with proposed changes, I was called “combative.” After enduring daily systemic violence from the acting department chair and dean who supposedly wanted me to bring my authentic self to work, I threw in the towel and resigned as a result of racial battle fatigue. I was tired of code-switching, tired of defending myself, and tired of the emotional labor it took to make my oppressor feel comfortable.
“Bring your authentic self to work” is a declaration with a narrow meaning akin to “Sorry, you’re just not the right fit” and “Don’t take it personally, but we don’t see you fitting in on the team.” All of these statements surmise that something is wrong with me. How can I not take it personally?
Though I am qualified to do my job, and I believe I do it well, I am a social imposter in the workplace. I, like many other people of color, demonstrate “acceptable” language behavior and force myself to buffer and stifle my true self to make others feel comfortable. Authenticity, like diversity, is a buzzword that is not completely embraced by mainstream society. I am acutely aware that being my authentic self in the workplace can, and often does, lead to negative consequences. Racial battle fatigue is real, and I know firsthand that “leaning in” oftentimes gets people of color thrown out of the job. Even Michelle Obama said, “That shit doesn’t always work.”
Instead of being forced to assimilate to the White patriarchal culture, women and people color should be allowed to simply be our awesome, creative, fun, productive selves. Organizations and companies must create a culture where all employees are free to bring their full selves to work every day without fear of judgment or retaliation. It is time to do away with checkbox diversity and exclusionary inclusion and create a real culture of belonging.
Dr. Kimberly Harden is the founder and CEO of Harden Consulting Group, LLC.