Trina’s recent Tiny Desk performance reminded us once again why she is truly the baddest b****. Her unapologetic embrace of everything from her curves, to her voice, to her personality is a shining example of what it means to live authentically as you.
While Tiny Desk might take place in an office, outside the confines of the small performance space, many Black women just like Trina seldom can show up as their authentic selves in their respective workspaces. Many are brought into organizations for being bold, highly skilled, direct, and strong leaders. Yet over time, Black women can easily become isolated, shunned, and punished for expressing the same qualities that once made them attractive to prospective employers. It leaves many stuck in the uncomfortable and tension-filled position of trying to fit themselves into the box their organizations tell them they must occupy. So what would it mean for Black women to truly show up as their most authentic selves in the workplace, and for organizations to create the space for them to do that?
Challenge your definition of ‘professionalism’
We know that professionalism and office norms (both spoken and unspoken) have a history of being rooted in anti-Black and racist beliefs. In an article in the UCLA Law Review, Leah Goodridge defines professionalism as, “a standard with a set of beliefs about how one should operate in the workplace.” She goes on to give important context about how professionalism is used as a means of control and to have power over people of color:
While professionalism seemingly applies to everyone, it is used to widely police and regulate people of color in various ways including hair, tone, and food scents. Thus, it is not merely that there is a double standard in how professionalism applies: It is that the standard itself is based on a set of beliefs grounded in racial subordination and white supremacy. Through this analysis, professionalism is revealed to be a racial construct.
For Black women who choose to express themselves and their authenticity through how they style their hair and nails, or how they speak, they’re often made to feel inferior or have their competency questioned. Doing away with expectations on how Black women should present themselves in the workplace, and most importantly uprooting why you once believed those standards should be adhered to, is a crucial first step in unlearning the racist practices that ‘professionalism’ would have us continue.
Understand that Black women are not a monolith
Being a bad b**** and showing up authentically at work can mean something different for every Black woman. Whether they wear their hair naturally or prefer bundles, there is no one way or set standard for Black women to feel like their best and most authentic selves. White supremacy culture would tell us that only European standards of beauty should apply. Yet to have an organization that values all Black women, a standard must be set that embraces Black women of all shades and sizes.
Embracing the authenticity of Black women in the workplace means embracing the full spectrum of Black women’s emotions and lived experiences. Whether the Black women leading your organization are more reserved in their demeanor or are more extroverted, removing limitations on how you think Black women must show up as professionals will allow them to do their best work, and feel valued– qualities that can ultimately lead to higher retention rates, satisfaction, and outcomes from employees.
If Trina can stand on the Tiny Desk stage and (rightfully) declare herself the baddest b****, there is surely room for your leadership and organization to embrace the authentic, bad b**** energy from the Black women on your team.