“I don’t think Sequoia likes me,” is something I’ve heard secondhand my entire life, and most times it isn’t true. While the statement IS annoying, it wasn’t consequential until I became an adult in the workplace.
As a self-identified introverted Black woman navigating mostly white spaces, I often find that my peers and coworkers have preconceived assumptions about who I am, based on my Black-womanhood. When I fail to live up to the funny, entertaining, sassy, Black woman stereotype, they’re quick to assume my failure to entertain is because I don’t like them. This isn’t a huge problem until it’s time for peer reviews, promotions, or layoffs. Then, it quickly becomes an insidious dehumanization tool that can result in job termination because Black women are not afforded the luxury of introversion, especially not in the workplace. I’m used to feeling discriminated against because of my race and gender, but I’m only starting to understand that being an introverted Black woman has also been the source of discrimination throughout my life. From being roped into “sassy” banter with my white, gay, male coworker because that’s what I’m expected to do, to having my biggest criticism be, “You should talk more!” Black women are not allowed to exist in peace without providing entertainment to others, particularly not in the workplace where our livelihoods are at stake. These unfair expectations begin in childhood.
Design by: Mic Meraki
When I was a kid in middle school, my non-Black friends always wanted me to teach them how to dance, because, “Isn’t that what you Blacks do?!” And when I would refuse, they’d call me boring or an “oreo.” It was as if my job was to entertain them, and when I couldn’t, I was useless. Unfortunately, these same middle school kids grow up to be adults who hold these same notions of what Black women are like and how they should behave.
For about a year and a half I worked at a big-name digital media company where we were told to “bring your true self to work.” I did. I thought everything was going well until my first end-of-year review. The biggest critique I received was that I didn’t speak enough. Not that I wasn’t good at my job, not that I wasn’t hitting numbers, but that I didn’t SPEAK enough. Shortly after receiving that criticism, I was laid off. This is not to say that I was laid off because I didn’t speak often enough, but it felt as though I was being reprimanded for being introverted. It was like my personality type was somehow unacceptable, although my actual work was never criticized. When I consider the rest of my team members, other people were quiet as well. A Vietnamese team member spoke up about as often as I did, but did not receive the same criticism that I had. Although it’s false, Asian women are often perceived to be quiet and submissive by white people, so her behavior didn’t challenge their stereotypical views. I’m left to assume that preconceived notions about both Black and Asian women are the reason behind our differences in criticism based on similar behavior.
I know what this sounds like: “Boo-hoo, you have to be nice to your boss. Who doesn’t,” but it’s bigger than that. These expectations aren’t put on people of all races or genders. White men are given the freedom to act however they’d like as long as they’re good at their job (and sometimes even if they aren’t) because they’re seen as individuals and not as a stereotype. I’ve experienced white men who speak over me every time I talk, but they aren’t perceived as rude. I’ve experienced white men who have bad attitudes, but they hit their numbers, so it’s all good. Being good at your job and keeping things professional should be all that’s required to avoid negative criticism, but that only seems to hold true for white men.
Design by: Mic Meraki
Because of instances like the aforementioned, I lean into social conversation at work. I’ve gone out of my way to make small talk with my desk neighbors, I’ve laughed harder than usual at my coworkers’ jokes, and I’ve even cracked a few of my own. As a result of my efforts, at the end of the workday I am DRAINED both physically and emotionally. It feels shitty to keep up an extroverted facade for the sake of palatability and making other people more comfortable, but it feels even shittier to fear being let go because people don’t find me entertaining enough when I’m “supposed” to be.
From time to time, I have to remind myself and others that my time and energy are mine and mine only. It is not my job to entertain anyone regardless of how I’m perceived. While all of this is true, I’m forced to balance that fact with other people’s discomfort and implicit bias to have a career. It’s mentally draining.
It’s true, Black women aren’t rewarded for introversion, but being aware of the issue is the first step to changing it. The millennial generation has the opportunity to let Black girls, and anyone else, be exactly who they are all the time. We as Black women can start by avoiding policing the way other people display their Black-womanhood. We can reward people for being exactly who they are and offset some of the emotional labor many of us fight through everyday in the workplace.
Lead Illustration by: Kasandra Minchaca