What Masks and Identities Do You Bring to Work?

Using Rachel Dolezal as an opportunity to self-reflect

Rachel Dolezal, former president of the Spokane chapter of the NAACP. Dolezal was discovered to be Caucasian after identifying as black for some 10 years. (Image: Vibe.com)
Rachel Dolezal, former president of the Spokane chapter of the NAACP. Dolezal was discovered to be Caucasian after identifying as black for some 10 years. (Image: Vibe.com)

This week the nation has been awakened by many shocking race moments, from the McKinney, Texas,  officer’s use of excessive force on black teenagers while on the job, to the many principals and teachers fired for their racial social media posts. However, what currently has the county intrigued is the story of the white woman from the state of Washington, Rachel Dolezal, who has lived her life and come to work for years representing herself as a woman of black racial identity.

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As people gather around the water cooler this week, they are asking many questions about how Dolezal has chosen to enact a black identity: “What is wrong with her?” “Why is she perpetrating a fraud?” While it is easy to psychoanalyze this woman and her choices from a distance, it is very important for us to realize that she has chosen to represent herself in this manner, the same way many of us choose to represent a certain ‘self’ at work. While the assessment of Dolezal’s situation is interesting, the larger opportunity for the black professional community is to use it as a moment to better understand how our own identities are at play in our personal and professional lives. Identities are very complex, multidimensional, self-defined, and fluid.

The identities that we utilize in our lives are based on the experiences, values, and beliefs that we hold to be true. However, these identities come in many flavors, and can often conflict with each other. For example, if a black employee at a corporation chooses not to wear an afro to their conservative corporate space, they are ‘choosing’ to present a beauty identity that is not aligned with their true preferences, but is most strategic for navigating that particular environment. Or, the professional black employee that listens to the newest ratchet rap mix-tape on the way to work, but puts on smooth jazz as they pull into the parking lot with the hopes of avoiding judgment. And let us not forget the awkward moments of black employees choosing not to eat watermelon or fried chicken at the company picnic, due to the fear of confirming a stereotype. Lastly, let us consider the many moments black employee’s silence their voice in a meeting in an attempt to present a more non-confrontational and non-combative self.

While we may look at the case of Rachel Dolezal as confusing or odd, we have to be clear that everyday we wake up to go to work, we are making clear choices as well. What would happen if the identity management techniques of black talent became uncovered?   Would people think that we were crazy and fraudulent? Would they fully understand the motives behind the choice to self-preserve in certain work environments?

There are many reasons for why black professionals choose to conform or assimilate at work, such as politics, social pressure, limited resources, and non-inclusive environments.  In the case of Rachel Dolezal, while it is counter to the traditional rhetoric, was the mask of ‘blackness’ one that allowed her to more easily navigate her personal and professional environments?

Paul Laurence Dunbar, in his poem We Wear the Mask, discusses the idea of wearing a mask to conceal, hide, or protect parts of ourselves from being seen. There are multiple explanations for why “we wear the mask.” Do you wear the mask to prevent others from thinking negatively about you? Do you wear the mask to keep up a certain set of impressions? Do you wear the mask to communicate to the world that you have it all together? Or do you wear the mask to hide the fear and self-doubt that can sometimes get the best of you?  These are the questions that we must begin to ask ourselves in order to maximize our personal and professional success.

We tend to forget to ask ourselves an important set of questions at the end of the day: Who am I? What masks am I wearing? What toll are all of these masks taking on me psychologically, emotionally, and physically? How are these masks impacting my personal and professional life?

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5 Responses to What Masks and Identities Do You Bring to Work?

  1. Cora says:

    ———- that’s a full enjoy with blackenterprise……. ^^–^^ _________ Continue Reading

  2. LC says:

    I don’t believe we as “Black” people wear a mask
    to hide our true selves. Different circumstances and situations require
    different behavior. The old adage that … there is a time and place… When we
    wake up to go to work, we are not putting on a persona to conform to another
    culture or to fit it but to represent our true selves in a professional manor.

    Now I have no issues with individuals adopting cultures and
    wanting to claim them as their own. This is done a lot with individuals
    converting to different religious beliefs and cultures. What I do have a
    problem with is how “Black” is viewed, Rachel Dolezal choses to identify with
    being black. Well I don’t believe black is a culture. Black is a representation
    of a certain pigment of people or geographic background.

    A white person born in Africa is still African but not
    considered black just like a black person born in America or Europe is never
    considered white. You are what you were born as. Being black is not a choice.

    I don’t have a problem with Rachel identifying with African American
    culture, if she enjoys the music, the food, the history, or whatever makes her
    happy, but I do believe she did not need to lie about her origins or miss
    represent where she came from. I she was a pro black white supporter as the
    head of NAACP chapter well kudo’s but straight up lieing? That’s no Bueno.

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