by LaTisha Hammond
On any given workday I am most likely wearing something I have little desire to wear. (I’ll preface this by saying that I have the privilege to choose what I want to wear to work…for the most part.) I admit that I have average style, and my default outfit is a t-shirt/plain shirt and jeans. That is what I feel good in. It also works with my gender presentation of something in the middle. When it comes to work, I have usually found myself in spaces (it’s debatable whether by coincidence or self-selected) that have allowed me to wear very near what I felt most comfortable in, both on an aesthetic level, and a personal level.
But now I have a “real” job, and have been told on numerous occasions by my peers that I need to dress like it. Sometimes they’ll also throw in the fact that my native west coast ways (and perceived laid-back and casual dress) don’t cut it on this east coast… To be honest, I have less issue with dressing “professionally,” strictly in the context of just dressing a little different for work. Though I have many feelings about what is considered “professional” and who gets to determine this professionalism (knowing full well that they never had me and my black body in mind). What I have more issue with is the fact that, in my field, my colleagues can come into work wearing whatever they want (jeans, t-shirts, khakis, slacks, shorts, “hawaiian” shirts, etc.), but I, as a black woman, have to make sure I am professional and dressed accordingly, everyday, all the time. I have to dress up (read: blouses, necklaces, blazers, slacks, skirts, etc.). I have to show that I am serious, show that I’m actually supposed to be there (because skin alone will make me seem suspect until I open my mouth to “prove” myself). It’s the old and tired notion that I will have to work 10 times harder than my peers, just to be considered equal. Now, though, I have to dress up that much more to ensure that I’ll be recognized and given due respect, from my colleagues, and my newly adult students – since standing in front of them in class is not enough to ensure that I am worthy of respect.
I have locs. Outside of wishing I was more creative with hairstyles, having locs is not something I think about often. That is, until I’m preparing for job interviews, or meeting colleagues for the first time, where I am one of the few QPOC around, if not the only one, and I remember all the accounts I have read about how people are turned down from jobs, let go, or told to modify their locs to something more “appropriate” for the workplace. It is especially sad when these notions of “appropriateness” trickle down to the children, where little kids are made to feel bad and denied education (http://thegrio.com/2013/09/
I am not naive enough to be surprised by these notions of hair and dress, but I am dismayed by them. I am dismayed because what we put on our bodies is an expression of who we are. In many cases, what we wear represents some aspect of ourselves. Sometimes, our clothes create spaces for us to be ourselves and feel at home and at peace in spaces that attempt to silence us and make us invisible. I don’t believe I am my clothes (in the India Arie “I am not my hair” sense), but I do place things on my body with purpose. The things I put on myself have meaning to me, in one way or another. Walking around in dressed-up, “professional” attire is like walking around in emotionally ill-fitted clothes, ill-fitted to my persona and sense of self.
I am dismayed when those close to me, in an effort to help me, tell me that I need to dress in a way that will make my colleagues respect me. Not for the reason of being in line with the dress-code of a workplace (I don’t have much issue with that since everyone would be held to the same standards), but specifically to legitimize myself in the presence of my majority non-POC colleagues. They police my body and tell me to don a mask so that I will fit into the space. I hear it so often where we, as POC, and black people specifically, have to wear this, not wear that, put our hair this way, not have that hairstyle, etc., because, you know, we have to prove that we’re professional, that we’re approachable, that we’re acceptable, and so on. I fully understand the historical and present necessity of this – we pull on these masks as strategic survival. It is a means to an end. But what are the costs of doing this time and time again?
Does there come a point in time where I can take these masks off? Where I can just show up in myself? I feel I spend so much of my time just trying to be the best me I can be, to me and for me, expressing all of myself, being my fullest self, and then I am asked to go an extra step that few others of my colleagues have to make just to make them feel at ease. I am obviously not going to show up to work in my bathing suit, but showing up dressed to the nines, performing “presentable black person” is emotionally draining.
I am dismayed by the response of my friends. Their fervent insistence that in order to be recognized and respected, I have to perform in ways that few others in my field have to. I am dismayed by their negative reactions to my desire to interrogate these notions. There seems to be some internalization of equating presumed professional/acceptable dress with legitimacy for POC. In expressing this desire to interrogate, I am brushed-off, because to them I obviously need to grow up, be professional, start acting right, and get with the program. What happened to critically engaging “the program?” When can we interrogate this notion of professional dress, performance, and personal representation, and what that means for black bodies/POC bodies in non-POC spaces? At what point is it ok? How can we support each other in our endeavors to be ourselves, to fully represent ourselves, and to support us feeling at home in ourselves without scrutiny?
LaTisha Hammond is a black, qwoc, educator, science academic, west-coast transplant in the DC area. Aside from teaching, she reads, writes, and bikes (though, not often enough).
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