A Muslim and Black Woman in the Workplace
March 12, 2018
It was Saturday afternoon and I was well into my weekend routine of pajamas and catching up on my favorite daytime talk shows on YouTube. The day’s topic of discussion? A recent question posed by The New York Times: “Should you be yourself in the workplace?” I chuckled the moment I heard the question. I’ve never dedicated time to reflect on it, but it was already deeply rooted in me and in most women of color: being yourself in the workplace is simply not an option.
I know it may seem ridiculous to write about racial identity in the workplace in 2018, in a supposedly progressive America where more and more companies are celebrating and embracing diversity. However, I find that diversity in the workplace typically means a two-hour conference on race that leaves white people nervous to offend anyone, and people of color feeling dissatisfied. Diversity is much more complex than that; it should be a long-term commitment to hold people accountable for the ways company cultures lead to a lot of discomfort for the one-in-twenty person of color on the team. We could have endless conversations about what’s offensive and what to avoid saying, but the truth of the matter is that I can’t run to management every time a coworker says something inappropriate or offensive to me; I’d literally never get anything done. Furthermore, I don’t want to reinforce the stereotype of the “angry Black woman.”
I wasn’t always so wise though. I was under the impression that workplaces who value diversity would also want diversity of thought. I thought my disdain for Trump would be appreciated, if not celebrated. I thought my mourning of Philando and Trayvon would be understood. But that was not the case. Instead, I was summoned to a meeting with managers who were confused at the idea that someone would want to be themselves–that a person of color would be so bold as to carry their political views and emotions to their desk. I was equally baffled that a company that celebrated diversity and wanted people of color as part of their culture would expect their workers to be “normal” when something so tragic happens within my community.
That was my awakening. No matter how much a company celebrates diversity, Black women must still water down our identities. These companies want us to be ourselves just enough to add some color, (and to be able to say 6.4% of their employees are African-American) but not so much that white people get uncomfortable. We as Black women have to master the art of code-switching, of learning to speak office language so as not to be deemed “ratchet” or unprofessional. We must know whiteness so well so we can be delicate with it. I find that white women—not all, but many — have mastered the art of crying wolf. As with many other aspects of my life, this is of course deeply rooted in slavery. White women have always been deemed more feminine, and therefore needing more protection from the dangerous Blacks. It’s no surprise that the aftermath of this can still be seen in our daily lives today.
My Muslim identity adds another layer of complexity, so I’ve also learned to hide that as well. For the first week or so at a new position, I always wear a turban, as opposed to my traditional hijab. I do not know how to explain this except that people of color know that everything we do must consider white people’s comfort. Everything I say, wear, and express must be white-washed enough to let white people into my world, but not to the point of shoving my identity in their faces. There’s always been this unspoken vibe that my identity is not the default in the workplace (or anywhere in mainstream culture). So I must know just how Black, just how Muslim, just how feminine I can be in public spaces without further perpetuating the stereotypes associated with these identities.
Black women must show up to work every day knowing that everything we do will be associated with our race. We show up to work knowing that our performance will be used, for better or for worse, in the hiring process of future candidates of color. We come to work every day knowing that we must be someone else for the next eight hours. Being our authentic selves is a privilege most of us will never experience at work.
Aichetou Waiga is a recent college graduate with a B.S. degree in Biology, Spanish and Peace and Justice studies. She is originally from Mauritania, West Africa, but has been living in the U.S. since 2007. She was recently accepted into Ohio University School of Medicine and aspires to be an OB/GYN and work with underrepresented women around the world. Before then, Aichetou is taking advantage of her time off from school by indulging in her hobbies which include her YouTube Channel (Bintou Waiga), reading, traveling and writing for her blog.