Bringing Your Identity to Work When You’re the Underdog

When I started my first job out of graduate school, I was elated. I had just survived a quarter-life crisis and quit my soul-crushing PhD program and opted to work in student affairs in higher education. I had my own office, supervised a team, and believed in the work I was doing. But I had no clue how to be myself at work in a culturally authentic way. I was lost.

Up to that point I had spent most of my life code-switching–shifting the way i express myself, depending on the race and culture of my audience. This was actually something that I vividly remember learning from my father as a child. One night over dinner, he casually mentioned the ease he felt talking to my mother, sister and me at home in his “home voice” versus how he speaks around his White colleagues at work.  I had never given code-switching any thought prior to then, but from that point forward, I took his words to heart. If my father normalized expressing himself differently at home–versus in our community, and at work– I would, too. And I have ever since.

RELATED: How to Cope with the Pressures of Being a Black College Graduate

Now that I’ve worked for almost a decade in diversity and inclusion, I have learned that the anxieties of being culturally authentic at work are vast. I’ve had students and colleagues express fears of listing their real names on resumes (as opposed to listing White-sounding nicknames), stress over wearing ones natural hair to work, and even second thoughts about dressing in one’s cultural attire.

While I’m still a work in progress navigating being my culturally authentic self at work, I have picked up a few tricks over the years that have made me feel more at ease. Here are some approaches you can try out to bring your identity to work if you’re a cultural underdog:

Change your email signature

People have mispronounced my name since kindergarten, but only recently did i begin to incorporate my name’s pronunciation into my email signature. I saw someone do this trick on their Twitter profile and I thought i would give it a try. Let me tell you, it has worked wonders! This trick has helped prevent many awkward conversations and people have thanked me for it.

Go into work with confidence in your curls

On my first job I knew it was going to be important for me to wear my curls in a way that was both fun and professional. I searched natural hair blogs and social media personalities and began trying out their styles to see what looked best on me (and which ones garnered the most compliments). I haven’t looked back since.

Make your cultural style be your signature look

I have been fortunate to walk to work for my last two jobs, which has meant that I walk to work in my casual shoes. My sneaker game (while a work in progress) is distinctly urban and culturally Black. When colleagues and students step into my office, they are always tickled to see my casual and professional shoes lined up under my desk. And the conversations about my shoes ensue. Whether it’s your kicks, jewelry, or traditional wear, don’t be afraid to use your cultural dress as a conversation piece. You’ll be surprised at what people reveal about themselves once you start talking!

Frame your cultural perspective as an asset

One of my biggest fears about bringing my identity to work was that pointing out cultural differences would cause discomfort among my colleagues, and that i should instead focus on our similarities. Big mistake! I learned pretty early on that people are actually eager to talk about what makes our different cultures unique. Moreover, bringing your cultural perspective into the conversation while working on a team brings new ideas, which is better for teamwork and problem-solving.

Originally published on October 15, 2018.

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