I’ve been working full time at a local advertising agency for over a year and a half. When I first started, I wasn’t surprised to see that I was the only brown girl in my department or that I was one of 4 brown girls in my company of 200 plus people. (Two of the others work remote and one is half black.) I was outnumbered. Before starting my career in media buying, I didn’t understand the importance of representation in the workplace. I have always worked jobs that were very diverse. I graduated from an HBCU and I grew up in a predominantly black, rural Alabama town. Since my new job was also in Alabama, I didn’t expect things to be any different. I had no idea what I was walking into at the time. It was culture shock that I never expected, but after coming to terms with a few things, I’ve managed to survive. There are five things I’ve learned since being the only brown girl in the office.
It’s difficult to make friends.
The people at my job are very nice, but it’s clear that I don’t necessarily “fit in”. I didn’t graduate from the University of Alabama. I never had intentions or dreams of becoming a media buyer. My parents don’t own a lake home or a boat. When my white counterparts do decide to include me in a group conversation, I usually can’t relate to the topic. It didn’t take long before I realized that I wouldn’t be making any friends. I struggled with this at first. I moved to a new city, where I didn’t have many friends to begin with. Usually, people make a friend or two at work, right? At least a person you can call if you’re lost or need help. Maybe someone to go to happy hour with after work. Nope. Not at my job. I would watch them go to lunch together, while I ate lunch by myself. Then, I would watch them get together after work, as I was leaving to go home to an empty house. I won’t lie. I was a little salty at first. Today, the silver lining is that whenever there is workplace drama, my name isn’t in it. I’m riding solo and steering clear of conversations and relationships that could get me in trouble. I ended up making friends outside of work, meeting my boyfriend and traveling more to visit my friends. Not having work friends has helped me to keep my job and stay out of unnecessary trouble.
The code-switch is real.
Listen, the professional me and the personal me are two VERY different people. A huge part of my job is being aggressive and making sure my company’s client gets the best quality in ad spots, because they spend millions of dollars each year. It’s difficult to do this without being stern and “getting people together” because TV reps will try to sell you anything. It can be very frustrating. I’ve heard buyers lay people out on the phone and it’s all giggles around the office. I don’t have that privilege. When black girls act aggressively in the workplace, we’re often coded as ‘angry black girl’ or ‘girl with an attitude’. I’ve had to master the ability to not only code-switch in normal conversations, but code-switch my aggression. This makes it even more difficult to say what I need to say on behalf of my company’s client. My professional self might say “This is not acceptable for our client.” Yet, on the inside, my personal self is saying “Oh, hell no! That’s some BS!” I know that code-switching is necessary in most professional settings, but it’s a survival skill when you’re one of one.
Offensive questions will be asked.
There’s one thing that I haven’t sacrificed for my workplace: My hair. I change my hair often. Very often. These are usually drastic changes because I love to switch up my style. I’ve worn my hair natural, long Brazilian bundles, short pixie cuts, braids, twists, you name it! I usually get looks of confusion or compliments, but every now and then, I get questions. I’ve been at my job for over a year and I’m the only brown girl in the office. There is still a lady who thinks I’m a new employee every time she sees me. Whenever I correct her, she says, “Oh! You changed your hair! I didn’t recognize you.” It’s becoming a routine. I’ve also gotten the infamous “Your hair is so curly! Can I touch it?” question. The latest question was in a more public setting. One of my colleagues was leaving to start a new job, so we celebrated with cupcakes. During the celebration, a new, white, male employee asked “Jasmine, do you change your hair every day?” The whole room got quiet and looked at me. I assumed they either all wanted an answer to the question or they were waiting to see if I was offended. I responded, “No, not every day. Just enough to keep y’ all guessing.” They all laughed and carried on with their conversations. I could’ve been offended, but I’ve realized that they ask because they don’t know. Instead of taking offense, I try to educated them as much as possible.
Be careful to avoid embarrassment.
My office is very quiet. Most of us wear headphones while we work because our cubicles are in the same room and very close together. One day, I decided to listen to a Spotify playlist on my computer. I put my headphones in a jack on my computer without looking and pressed play. It took me about 15 seconds to realize that Bounce Back by Big Sean wasn’t playing in my headphones, but instead, playing all through the office. I scrambled to turn it off before he cursed or said the N-word to no avail. Epic fail. When I finally managed to turn it off, I heard giggles across the office. I knew that they knew exactly where the music had come from. I was mortified, but thankful it wasn’t worse than it could’ve been. If you know you love trap music, make sure your headphones are connected.
They won’t relate to your struggles.
On the day after Philando Castile died, I came into work with a heavy heart. The fear and hurt that I felt as a black woman with a dad, brother, and boyfriend was almost too much to bear. I was expected to sit at my desk and happily negotiate millions of dollars in advertisements for companies owned and operated by white men. These same white men voted to make America “great” again. These same white men wanted to pass out ice cream to local police officers and call the event “Pops for Cops”. They wanted us to carry on, even though young, black men’s bodies were laying slain in the streets by those who promised to protect and serve. The world was in an uproar, but in my office, it was business as usual. For Halloween, an older female colleague dressed up as Colin Kaepernick. She wore a huge afro, sideburns, and a jersey that said “Krappernick” on the back. She won the company Halloween costume contest. When they presented her with her award, she took a knee. The entire company erupted in laughter and cheered. They have no idea what we feel or what we go through. They can’t relate to most of our individual struggles and they can’t relate to the struggles we face as a community. I’ve learned that I can’t expect them to get it. I can’t expect them to read the distress on my face and understand. I’ve learned to exist in their world without losing my connection to my own.
Being the only brown girl in the office has taught me survival skills, but it’s also pushed me to achieve other things. That is why you’re reading this post. It’s encouraged me to begin building my own business. It’s taught me to continue to sharpen my skills and take in as much as I can. If you’re the only brown girl in your office, know they you are not alone. Learn as much as is available, accept what you must, and move on when you can. We have all the tools we need to build our own generational wealth. I’m patiently waiting for the day when I’m no longer working to achieve another man’s dream, but instead, working to build a better world for brown girls to come.
What have you learned as a black girl in the workforce?