What Masks and Identities Do You Bring to Work?
Black Enterprise Magazine July/August 2018 Issue

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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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Dr. Atira Charles

Dr. Atira Charles is CEO of Think Actuality, LLC and an Assistant Professor of Management at Florida A&M University. She is also founder of The Mask Project (www.ourmasks.com). She has presented her research internationally and has worked with many global organizations in her quest to better understand how identities impact one’s workplace and life experience. She provides workshops and consultative services to public and private sector organizations that aim to promote more productive and inclusive environments. Her research and consulting seek to shed light on the unique narratives of how people manage their individual identities while striving for professional and organizational success. Dr. Charles earned both her B.S. in Finance and her M.B.A. at Florida A&M University, and her Ph.D in Organizational Behavior from Arizona State University.


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