Guest Post by Okodee Mmowere
“When I met you I knew you had everything right except for the packaging, and when I saw you I wasn’t expecting you to be as intelligent, driven, capable and well – spoken as you are” my new found mentor, a talent management executive, said to me over the phone.
I sat there in surprised silence, as my mentor proceeded by telling me, “When you’re in a professional environment and you dress in loud prints, feminine styles, heels that are higher or trendy, and have an unconventional hair style it supports stereotypes of a young, black, attractive, female.”
I managed some response, but really didn’t know what to say, so my mentor proceeded to tell me, “The fact that you’re black is already there. The fact that you are young is already there. The fact that you’re female is already there. The fact that you’re noticeably pretty is already there. Your packaging needs to emphasize what people may not already see or expect from you. The only thing I want people to see when they look at you is a smart professional who is ready to learn.”
When I met Ebony* wearing a bright printed sheath dress, geometric necklace, heels and my natural, curly hair down I felt great about myself. I felt like my ensemble was a professional translation of my bold, confident, energetic personality, and as a firm believer that “clothing should reflect the beauty and dynamism of oneself” I thought I was doing a pretty great job of presenting my true self in a professional way.
But Ebony does know what she’s talking about. Not only is she a powerful talent management executive with 8 employees under her charge, she is also black and female and working in the same white male dominated world as me.
In fact, when Ebony started out her career, her mentor instructed her to only wear dark pants suits to work with closed toed shoes and conservative face and hair styling so that Ebony’s professionalism would stand out against the blackness, the femaleness, the youthfulness. Now that Ebony is established, she does dress more creatively – but strategically puts on her conservative uniform in front of audiences likely to have a problem with her racial and gender identity.
“When you’re just starting out, sometimes you need to play a part to fight against people’s stereotypes and get your foot in the door” she advised me.
I felt overwhelmed by the sudden realization that all throughout my college internships and post-graduation fellowships I had been trying very hard to dress in a professional way, yet in reality presenting an image that plays into people’s stereotypes of a young, pretty, black, female.
Before we got off the phone Ebony comforted me with messages of encouragement and assured me that, “refining your packaging doesn’t mean being untrue to yourself. For now, I want you to balance being who you are with being heard, seen, and respected.”
After the conversation I stayed in my seat, stunned into delayed movement. I felt an overwhelming mix of emotions including gratitude at her honestly and ability to relate to me without judgment, mixed with horror at my past “packaging mistakes,” mixed with fuming anger that work stereotyping is so real I can’t wear a print to work without people thinking I’m trying to be sexual.
The thing is, the racism and sexism I’m used to is found in an academic setting. While it can be subtle, many times it’s right in your face. Your peers fumble at political correctness, utter slurs when they are drunk, and confess their real feelings about minority women when they think no one can hear their conversations in the campus center. In the creative environment of academia, some students even blare their racist, sexist ideas in print media in school newspapers in journals, unafraid of judgment or accusations of hatefulness.
But in the workplace, people know better. People won’t say shit that will land them a class action suit. Instead it comes out in hiring, in how your boss treats you, in if your boss gives you feedback and if so how it is delivered. After Ebony enlightened me with the realities of workplace stereotyping, I thought back to previous situations where by bosses seemed to be treating me as lesser than other interns, or made a strange comment about my appearance, or outright attacked me for personality qualities and I wondered if race had something to do with it. Specifically, I wondered if my fact of being black and female somehow suggested that I was trying to gain inappropriate attention, or was less serious about by job than my peers. But at the end of the day I couldn’t definitively prove it and even if I could have I didn’t know what I could do to fight it.
Now however, I realize that my mere presence in a company as a young, black, female is in itself progressive in the minds of my colleagues and supervisors. Then to exist in the office with a bold confident image that celebrates my blackness and femaleness is jarring, even angering to those around me, as if my bright colors and African prints are pushing the boundaries of appropriateness because they push the normative boundaries of whiteness and maleness in the workplace. As a result, I have been subjected to undue racist and sexist criticism, and limited in my career trajectory.
Is he more intelligent, dedicated, and professional than she is?
A week later, in preparation for in-person interviews I went out and purchased a plain black business dress, black suit, and separates in black, grey, and navy. While trying on my clothing, I felt a smoldering anger that this process of acquiring an interpretation of the straight white male wardrobe is so necessary to me, and other females of color.
Yet when I left with my purchases, I knew that this process has empowered me to take control of my image, rather than let others use it to control me.
*Name has been changed
Okodee Mmowere is an ambitious woman ready to take on the worlds of American Politics and Business. She is “two or more races” on applications and census forms, as the child of a White American mother and a Ghanaian immigrant father. Her name, in the Akan language of her father’s people, means strength, bravery, and power. She is passionate about making the American dream real in our country through social and economic justice. As an aspiring business woman and future federal Senator, Okodee Mmowere is determined to break barriers for women, the LGBTQ community, and people of color in systems dominated by straight, white men. As a Christian, Okodee Mmowere believes God is Love and seeks to end discrimination against women and the LGBTQ community within Church doctrine.
Okodee Mmowere is also a fashionista who believes style must reflect the beauty of the inner self, a fitness nerd who believes in the importance of being both an emotionally and physically strong woman, and an African dancer specializing in West African dance. She loves Hip Hop, Jazz, R&B, Gospel, Reggeaton and anything else with a good beat. For fun she loves to exercise, go out dancing with friends, meet new people, geek out over current politics and fashion week, and gets a kick out of intimidating lunk-head dudes at the gym.