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  • February 10, 2022

    Tip of the Month: Check Your Assumptions When I 'Bring My Authentic Self to Work'

    The idea to “bring your authentic self to work” can be problematic for professionals of color, writes Jennifer Johnson. In this Tip of the Month, Johnson discusses how microaggressions make it difficult for her and other Black women to feel comfortable bringing their authentic selves to work.

    Jennifer L. Johnson

    attorney in law office

    “Bring your authentic self to work!” Sounds great, right? Unfortunately, this doesn’t bode so well for professionals of color.

    Specifically, I’m going to speak about Black women. One, I’m a Black woman. Two, it’s Black History Month.

    Let’s learn together.

    Microaggressions at Work

    Merriam-Webster defines “microaggression” as a comment or action that subtly and often unconsciously or unintentionally expresses a prejudiced attitude toward a member of a marginalized group (such as a racial minority).

    My authentic self sometimes shows up to work as waist-length box braids, sometimes it is a silk press, other times I may decide to wear my hair in its natural state, which includes, but is not limited to: a twist out, a braid out, a blow out, or an afro (all of these styles are Google-able). I express myself and my creativity through my hairstyles.

    Jennifer L. Johnson Jennifer L. Johnson, Indiana 2014, is the Director of Diversity & Inclusion with the Milwaukee office of Legal Action of Wisconsin

    So, when I come into work one week with braids down to my waist and the next week with a beautiful afro, it is inappropriate to ask “is that your real hair?” (I was asked this by a colleague).

    If you don’t see the harm in that, imagine me asking a mature-aged colleague “are those your real teeth?”

    Feels gross, right?

    Let’s Discuss Assumptions

    Microaggressions can make it difficult for me, and those like me, to feel comfortable bringing our authentic selves to work.

    Some microaggressions faced by Black women are in the form of assuming that all Black women come from the same background or have the same life experiences.

    There are Black women who grew up upper class. Some Black women come from a two-parent household with both parents holding college degrees. Others were less-privileged and all too familiar with the struggle life.

    Other common microaggressions include:

    • being told we are “too aggressive;”

    • being told we are “intimidating” (in reality, you are simply intimidated);

    • being considered or referred to as the “diversity hire” when our resume greatly outshines some of our colleagues and superiors;

    • assumptions that we are not the senior individual in the room (for example, I had a client direct her attention to my white law school intern while I was conducting intake); or

    • being told we are “well-spoken” or “articulate” – as though we wouldn’t be, when so many of us reading this article hold two degrees, at a minimum, one of which being a JD.

    Called Out? Do This

    So, what can you do if a Black woman calls you out about your microaggression?

    For one, do not get defensive and make yourself the victim. That is lazy. Some suggestions are as follows:

    • Take a breath.

    • Do not make it about you.

    • Listen.

    • Sincerely apologize.

    • Don’t overdo it.

    Think Before Speaking, Please

    The legal field, amongst many other professional careers, was not designed with Black women in mind. Because this is the case, we face some of these – and many other – microaggressions on a regular basis.

    In the year of 2022, let’s do better. Let’s think before speaking. And, in the event that we fall short with that, genuinely apologize and learn from your mistake. That way we can all truly bring our most authentic selves to work.

    For further reading, check out: The Microaggressions Towards Black Women You Might Be Complicit In At Work, Forbes.com, June 19, 2020.

    Editor: We also suggest reading Johnson’s January 2019 Tip of the Month, “How Diversity & Inclusion Benefits Us All.”

    This article was originally published on the State Bar of Wisconsin’s Public Interest Law Section Blog. Visit the State Bar sections or the Public Interest Law Section web pages to learn more about the benefits of section membership.



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    Public Interest Law Section Blog is published by the State Bar of Wisconsin; blog posts are written by section members. To contribute to this blog, contact Richard Lavigne and review Author Submission Guidelines. Learn more about the Public Interest Law Section or become a member.

    Disclaimer: Views presented in blog posts are those of the blog post authors, not necessarily those of the Section or the State Bar of Wisconsin. Due to the rapidly changing nature of law and our reliance on information provided by outside sources, the State Bar of Wisconsin makes no warranty or guarantee concerning the accuracy or completeness of this content.

    © 2022 State Bar of Wisconsin, P.O. Box 7158, Madison, WI 53707-7158.

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