From the Cubicle to the Boardroom: When “A Seat at The Table” Affects Your Mental Health
I remember the moment like it was yesterday. I was working for a high-profile company for only seven months and was ready to quit.
Considering the short amount of time I was there, most people would’ve seen this as drastic.
Yet, I knew it was the only way out.
I was emotionally and mentally exhausted.
Initially, I had nothing to attribute my feelings to, but then it dawned on me that I was the only black person in my office.
During my tenure, my workplace environment became increasingly toxic as I was overlooked for input on office projects, kept out of substantial conversations, and reprimanded when speaking out against microaggressions.
As I reflected on what brought me to this point I went down a list of all I had to offer.
I had the academic credentials and previous work experience to get me there. My references were solid and throughout the interview process I was praised for being "so articulate".
Although I was more than competent, I spent more time trying to prove my worth among my white colleagues than learning the role I was given.
Weekly conversations with a close girlfriend turned into venting sessions and I found myself in a perpetual state of anxiety.
Little did I know the deterioration of my mental health was triggered by what is called “Code Switching”.
While diversity is sought-after in phenotype, it's not celebrated in work product.
From the interview to onboarding, to maintaining a “Seat at the Table,” we have all found ourselves emulating our white counterparts to stay afloat in the workplace.
The old adage that you have to work ten times as hard to be half as good has subconsciously become a means to an end, as it becomes ingrained in our daily interactions in the workplace.
My use of code-switching has become second nature.
Through the years, I have found myself in privileged spaces, only to realize I wouldn’t be there without the suppression of my racial identity.
According to an article published by Black Enterprise, “A handful of African-American academics are highlighting the “social and psychological repercussions” of code-switching, noting that previous research has shown it can “deplete cognitive resources and hinder performance” and also “reduces authentic self-expression and contributes to burnout.”
In turn, what does this mean for black women?
The path forward is identifying it and acting accordingly.
While racist tendencies won’t change, our attitudes toward the behavior can.
As black women, there is a cultural shift taking place.
We are creating space and opportunities for mentorship and professional development amongst ourselves.
While I understand the act of code-switching, I am also advocating for more self-care for black women as they navigate their careers.
Below are steps that can be taken in your professional journey:
Step 1: Understand what code-switching is and how it may be triggering.
Step 2: Lean on your support system. Your support system can be other Black women at your job and/or other professionals in your line of work.
Step 3: Celebrate your similarities and your differences. If you are the only "one" in your office, find common ground with your colleagues but also don't be afraid to showcase your unique talents, personality, and cultural experiences. You don't have to be best friends with your colleagues but you can enjoy your time there.
Step 4: More importantly, you don't have to internalize the racist hiring and work practices of Corporate America. Find outlets, people, activities that bring you joy. You may not be able to control what happens at work, but you can control how you take care of yourself outside of it.
While everyone's experience will be different, it's important that you are able to work in an environment where you can be your whole authentic self without feeling like you have to mimic the vocal fry of your white colleagues; and yes it is absolutely OK to flaunt your beautiful crown of hair in any style you choose.