by Kristen Rogers
Even though workplaces in many states cannot legally discriminate based on gender, sexual orientation, or race, it doesn’t mean that they don’t. Studies have already shown employment discrimination exists against women, Black people, and queer folks. For me, as a queer black woman, this means that I already face many barriers to enter into a position.
Once I get a job, being “professional” essentially means pretending to be as white, cis, and hetero as possible. At the workplace, anybody outside of white, cishet culture is often thought of as distasteful, and as a result, treated differently by coworkers and employers. If I’m not careful, I’m at risk of having my hair, speech, and clothing called out as unprofessional. I don’t want to have to hide important parts of my identities just to be respected by my coworkers.
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Some of the worst discrimination I’ve ever experienced came from white coworkers at the wide variety of jobs I’ve had over the years. Due to where I used to live, these jobs have consisted of mostly white people, which meant I was always one of the few employees of color.
The norms required to look or act “professional” are a subtle way my employers have policed my identities without being overtly racist or anti-gay. Those of us who did not fit the norms, like me, had to perform a type of cishet whiteness dance to be taken seriously and considered successful in the workplace.
Here’s 5 problems I’ve run into being queer and black in the workplace, especially in majority-white spaces:
1. The Angry Black Woman Trope
The combined forces of sexism and racism means that black women are seen as too emotional, too loud and too aggressive.
I have found that being a black woman in a majority white work environment often means not being heard. I have overcompensated to hide my emotions for fear of being labeled as aggressive or angry. I knew that if I expressed any emotions they could be used against me.
When I worked at a domestic violence agency, one of our black clients came into the office visibly upset about something she had every right to be upset about. The white caseworker in the office did not listen to the client and kept telling her that she was being too aggressive. Once the client left, I told the caseworker that she was playing into the angry black woman stereotype by calling the client aggressive. Instead of my coworker listening to me, she ran and told my supervisor that I, too, was being aggressive toward her.
2. Being Called “Articulate” Is Not a Compliment
All my life white people have told me that I am articulate. They mean this as a compliment, but they are actually saying that they do not think black people have the capacity to be articulate or educated. As a result, they are surprised by what comes out of my mouth. When they see me, they expect the stereotypes that they’ve seen on TV, and are flabbergasted by any black person who doesn’t fit into that box.
Now that I’m in the “professional” world, I get this more often. I once had a manager tell me after I was hired that they didn’t expect me to speak as well as I did at the interview. Let’s just say I wasn’t with that company for very long.
3. Natural Hair Is Exotified
For women, professional hair means straight, non-black hair because that is what is acceptable in the business world.
Fros are not typically worn in the business world because racism and white beauty standards deem them inappropriate. I’ve been told that my hair isn’t “professional” when I wear it natural, but I am told that it’s acceptable when my hair is straightened with a flatiron.
I’ve also experienced not being recognized by my white coworkers after changing my hair. Each time that I’ve gone from my fro, to braids, to a straight weave, I’ve gotten a dramatic reaction from my coworkers. They say, “Oh! I didn’t even recognize you with your hair like that,” while grabbing my hair, ruining an intricate style that took hours for me to complete. Is it really that hard to recognize me when my hair changes, especially when I’m the only black woman in the room?
4. Being Straight Is Expected
The microaggressions I’ve experienced as someone who identifies as queer have been just as harmful as the transgressions against me being black. Since I can pass for straight, the assumption is that I exclusively date men. I’ve often found my coworkers look surprised if my date from the night before was with a woman. It’s incredibly invalidating that they erase my identity like that.
I teeter back and forth between coming out to my coworkers in the beginning and letting it naturally happen later on. I’m scared whenever there is a work party. Do I bring my partner with me? Will I find out that my employer is homophobic? How should I respond if someone says something rude to me about it?
When one of my coworkers insulted the other by calling her a “carpet muncher”, I was the only one who spoke up about it. Being queer in the workplace means standing up for yourself and oftentimes being alone in doing that.
5. Gender Presentation Policing
I have straight-passing and femme privilege in this aspect because I never need to worry about gender policing. I don’t have to think about the way I dress being interpreted as anything less than professional due to my gender presentation aligning with what people expect.
My partner, however, has been told on multiple occasions that she didn’t have to “dress her sexuality” in the workplace, as if her appearance somehow made her less capable of doing her job. This is also ridiculous because the way someone dresses is not even how sexuality is defined.
At the end of the day, I know that how I choose to present myself should not change how I’m treated, nor does it change the value of my work.
With all of these barriers just to be considered a worthwhile employee, it can really make working a negative experience. This is why self-care is really important. We have to take care of ourselves first and foremost, because no matter what, maintaining self worth is what really matters.
Kristen Rogers is a graduate student studying clinical mental health counseling, and the author of a book of poetry, Kristen’s Diary. When she isn’t seeing clients, she’s drinking wine, in downward facing dog, writing a poem, or catching up on Modern Family. Catch up with her at Kristen.firstname.lastname@example.org, or follow her on twitter @believeth3_hype.
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