There are lessons to be learned about gender, age and race in the workplace…and scores more about where they meet. Whether talking politics during lunch or talking shop in a team meeting, cookie cutter ideas about professionalism and a job well done do not shield us from the goings-on of larger society – they illuminate them. So, pull up a chair while I share what I've observed as Black woman millennial in the workplace. Here are some of the things I’d tell my 18 year old self.
A Rose by Any Other Name: A name like Rayshauna Capri Gray packs a wallop. People will stumble over syllables that are fluid to you, adding a ‘w’ or a ‘d’ pulled out of the ether and driving you up a wall in the process. You’re worried that your name won’t be taken at face value – that it’s timestamped, raced and gendered in ways that are beyond your control. You’ve been advised to go by Ray, Shaun, or R.C. Gray, to strip your resume of valuable but "telling" experience in hopes of slipping unnoticed into an interview pile…
…but know this: any organization that whets its appetite with the notion of an ungendered and raceless resume is one you’ll loathe to work for anyway. Intolerance for variety (and the ignorance it telegraphs by thinking a workplace functions better without it) is one of the glaring hallmarks of a poisonous work culture. If a supervisor can't "handle" your name, how will they manage the points of view and experiences tethered to the way you appear and how you navigate the world as a result? Even if your heavily edited, blancmange resume managed to slip in undetected, you’ll still show up bodied the way you are, with a bundle of ideas and concerns (and ways of conveying them) that speak to your experience in the world.
It’s been said that "In the land of the blind, the one-eyed man is king". Well, in an increasingly multicultural workplace that will require that many minds come to the table with a variety of experiences and points of view, roses with complexly configured names are just as sweet...and very necessary.
To Infinity and Beyond: Working to get free from the grip of Impostor Syndrome is one of the most liberating gifts you will ever give yourself. Like me, you might’ve been told that your ability must far exceed expectations in order to get a percentage of your due respect. Women are told this, Black folks drill this into our children’s minds, young people encounter this routinely in a country that thinks unpaid internships are Nobel prizes. My personal bar has always been no less than 150% percent of whatever markers my employer had in place because I was taught to account for others’ “soft bigotry of low expectations”.
Now, you might wonder why low expectations are oppressive.
Low expectations are not privileges; they are oppressive because they are the linchpin of a narrative that devalues your potential contributions and assumes your lack of ability…all under the guise of giving you leeway. Now, I’m a tough nut to crack in the workplace – I’m no stranger to a 60 hour workweek, to performing three jobs and daring anyone to attempt to take the reins from me, but know this, 18 year old Rayshauna –
Drive yourself, but do so because hard work strengthens mettle and tests resolve. Work with intention and grit because it builds character and makes you dynamic. Be wise and exacting because while vision and temerity are qualities that are hard to come by in youth, once attained, they’ve got quite the ROI.
Don’t cut off your nose to spite your face…and don’t operate from a place of privation, a place of fear or self-loathing to prove others wrong. The only person you have to honor and prove right is yourself – and in doing that as a young Black woman, you will often prove most of the world wrong. The poison of –isms and –phobias will be their hosts’ own undoing and do not require your help.
You are well within your rights by occupying your seat at the table. The richness of the lesson rests in remaining worthy of it.
Jill of All Trades, Mistress of Some: Albert Einstein said it best: “I have no special talents. I am only passionately curious.” My love of learning (paired with a healthy dose of discernment) has always served me well. Whether I decided topick up and make a life across the country or leave a job to pursue something healthier, I always had my experience to draw on because I made cultivating my own mind a priority.
Since moving to New England to make my bones, I’ve run organizations, planned and hosted events, and picked up tidbits from knowledgeable people I met along the way - outside of work. I’m known in my personal circles as a person that makes magic happen. I’m the one that wanted to learn Icelandic, so I began watching movies and listening to music to develop an ear (I also went down to the Icelandic embassy during a trip to DC). I wanted to ask my favorite authors and scholars questions, so I wrote emails asking for fifteen minutes to chat during their office hours (while not a student).
I became this person because I recognized that my personal standard for success meant being self-aware, curiously engaged, and able to tell my own story.
I learned early on that every bit of information and context I had in my arsenal was always at my disposal. Whether I’m at a bus stop in Boston or at a wharf in San Francisco, I can draw on what I’ve learned or a passion I pursued to inform my life going forward.
The only thing more potent than curiosity is the ability to use what you’ve learned. Fellow Millennials, make sure you have both in spades. Your skills and passion will always belong to you, not an employer – own your riches. We live in an age where anything we want to know is readily available, but the reverse is also true: our ability to become a source of information is unparalleled. While we can't create our own truth, we do each have a monopoly on our experiences.
Learn, draw on what you know, (re)interpret, and shout it from the virtual rooftop!