[Women of Power] Embracing Your “Masks” and Using Them to Your Advantage

"The identities that we have are the masks that we wear. It’s about knowing which one to pull out when."

Founder and Executive Director of The Mask Project, Dr. Atira Charles, has spent several of her professional years dissecting individual narratives and the necessity of masks for personal, professional, and organizational success.

Her expertise focuses on the many ways individuals manage their differences while striving in varying social and professional climates.

In preparation for the The Mask Mixer executive leadership session at the 2016 Black Enterprise Women of Power Summit, BlackEnterprise.com spoke with Dr. Charles as she eased the apprehension in claiming the masks we wear daily and shifted the focus to how each mask we wear can ultimately be empowering, but only if we let it.

BlackEnterprise.com: How did you get into developing a business around how individuals manage their identities?
Dr. Charles: I worked in corporate America and had some experiences, and I realized that people were presenting different selves at different points of the day; that was intriguing. I then started seeing it connect to how people evaluated them; their perceptions, and I thought this is a human experience but it’s definitely an experience that is a little bit different for minorities and women. I decided to create the mask project as an opportunity for people to stay connected to learning more about identities and, more specifically, to share their stories.

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A lot of times people feel alone in their experience of wearing masks and hiding parts of themselves, and I think there is a lot of power in people hearing other people’s experiences. With the mask project I can communicate that there are strategies and solutions. What I hope to do is transform the perception that a mask is a negative thing for hiding, into this transformative tool that we can use. What masks do you wear? What are the ones that can help you navigate your work experience or your personal life? What are ways that you can utilize an aspect of yourself that may not come out all the [time], but needs to come out more in certain spaces? It’s about the awareness of the masks you wear and the management of them. It isn’t about not having any mask. The reality is we’re human—we have a lot of identities and roles.

Do you think wearing any particular mask, at any given time, is necessary to thrive in corporate America?
Yes. We all have different mask profiles that work for us. We’re all in different environments with different needs. You have to not only be aware of who you are, but you have to be aware of the expectations of your environment. Your environment will dictate what you need to do to adapt.

How can one leverage their true identity with wearing the masks, when trying to move up the ranks?
They are one in the same. The identities that we have are the masks that we wear. It’s about knowing which one to pull out when. There is no place ever where we can bring 1000% of ourselves to any one given situation. Any part of who we are is a part of who we are. Accepting the good, the bad, and the ugly of who we are is what allows us to balance more effectively. It isn’t a matter of my real self vs. my fake self. It’s really the idea of being aware of your whole self.

Is wearing a mask necessary on the CEO level?
Yes. There are always going to be external expectations of you. There will always be people subjectively evaluating you. The reality is, being a professional woman of color, we always have to think about the consequences of our statements and actions differently than anybody else. We’re operating with two identities that are stigmatized–we’re black and we’re female. We always have to be aware of how we’re presenting ourselves. Your profile can shift, but being aware and managing never goes away.

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