I remember getting perms as a child, and it was traumatizing. I don't at all blame my mother, whose mother had taught her that your edges must be slick and your hair must be bone straight to be presentable to mainstream America. It was a team effort as my mother, sister, and grandmother held my head under the sink, as my overdramatic ass screamed and kicked like my life was on the line, until they had completely rinsed the dangerous creamy crack from my scalp.
Fast forward to high school, where I attended a catholic school and was one of the maybe 15 black students that were enrolled at the institution. My catholicism teacher, a surly old Irish man from Augusta, GA named Mr. Kremin, told me once after I had gotten my hair done in Kinky Twists that he liked my hair better straight because it looked more "acceptable."
Now, as an adult woman who's voyaged plenty of corporate interviews to no avail, I realize a trend.
I think back to every time that I straightened my hair, changed my nail color, or altered my style of linguistics or dress in attempt to better fit in with corporate America. I would spend hours in the mirror trying on multitudes of professional clothes wondering, will this be good enough? Black women go to extraordinary lengths to suppress their blackness in the presence of their non-ethnic counterparts because those characteristics are deemed "unprofessional" in the workplace; but Political Analyst and commentator Symone Sanders has something to say about it.
Sanders recently set the record straight about the reality of respectability politics for black women after a fan said that her that her nails were not appropriate for cable news.
The commenter wrote:
"Hi Symone. You are so smart and beautiful. I like your comments on CNN. But may I give some advice? Okay, what do you think about your long nails? It's not appropriate when you are on CNN TV and discussing about politics. This is my opinion. Please don't take it bad. I'm one of your followers. Thank you."
Though the commenter seemed to have good intentions, you got it all wrong playa. Women of color are often heavily scrutinized in the workplace setting because not only are we women, but we're black and constantly told to fix our natural selves to be socially acceptable. In response, Symone tweeted:
"When someone tells me my nails, the dress or blouse I wore or my hair is 'unprofessional,' I find what they're really saying is it is out of the norm for what they're used to seeing on cable news,"
"*spoiler alert* there aren't a lot of black women on cable news."
Symone reminded her audience that not long ago, critics said that she wouldn't be a good fit for TV.
"B4 my 1st contract, I had an agent tell me I wasn't "palatable enough for cable tv" & another said I needed voice lessons because I didn't "sound professional enough." Translation: I didn't look or sound like any of the women they were used to seeing on tv."
Current mainstream media is inclusive af and the public better recognize. Since black women have paved their way into Corporate America, the idea of "professional" is no longer limited to a single standard. The thread continued:
"So I'm fully aware that when I show up curvy, with a low cut, a bold lip, an oversized bow, amazing nails & a chilling analysis...people don't know how to take it. B/c I am not "supposed" to be able to give you solid political commentary with a bedazzled nail right?"
"Nah. I'm completely comfortable with my authentic self. I have no problem showing up authentically as Symone and delivering. The problem is most of y'all aren't comfortable. Some of y'all keep showing up as K. Ashley when your name is really Keisha."
She made the point that sometimes we hide our true selves in the workplace because somewhere along the line, someone told us that being true selves wasn't good enough. She continued to say that usually when people tell her that something isn't professional, it really means that they uncomfortable with her because they're uncomfortable with themselves.
"I stopped looking for validation long ago from folks who didn't think I belonged in the first place. Don't let the non-melanated proverbial majority (proverbial b/c people of color are the actual global majority) tell you what's "acceptable." You will be left out every time."
Respectability politics were originally a tool used by Black Elitist to "uplift" the community by correcting undesirable traits of poor black people and have become a means of internalized racism that is rampant in our society and detrimental to the realities of black women.
I can remember preparing for almost every interview, knowing that I was overqualified, but wondering if my edges were slick enough, making sure my outfit didn't make me look too curvy.
Completely masking who I was to fit the mold of who I felt society needed me to be.
I felt I had to reach a level of conformity to be successful, but Symone Sanders proves that the standard now includes black women just being black women.
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