Let’s be honest, all corporate types know there are pros and cons to assimilating at the office. You can be the Black person at work who offers insight into Black things. Or you can be a person at work who hopes not to be seen as Black. Or you could be something else entirely.
EBONY.com talked with several African Americans working in corporate America about the issue. The players are: Jameel Rush, a Philadelphia-based engineering and construction industry guru; LaToya Montgomery Esq., a New York-based financial compliance officer; and Joseph Mackie, who is the assistant vice president and branch manager of a Philadelphia bank. They gave us insight about the plusses and minuses of the assimilation game.
Do you get unfairly labeled at work? Do you feel as if you have assimilated or disconnected from stereotypical “Blackness” by working a mainstream corporate job? How do you deal with the issue of assimilation and people perceiving you to be a race traitor or not?
Rush: I grew up in Philadelphia. I did not become the sole minority until corporate America. As an African American, it is unnatural to disjoin your lived experience from your work environment. So, references to sitcoms, favored by most African Americans, seemed relevant because of who I was. But, I realized how irrelevant the references were to the environment I was in. I ceased sharing them. This was not my attempt to misrepresent African Americans, nor, for me, was it assimilating. This was about relating to others based on a new set of shared experiences. I have always been proud of my story and my race being a part of that story. In fact, being amidst a majority White male population, I have always been satisfied with who I am.”
Montgomery: “I do not think that I have had to assimilate. The financial institution that I serve strives to be culturally conscious. They are more open to cultural variety and differences more likely because the company is not based in America and a large percentage of the employees are of different nationalities and ethnic backgrounds.
Mackie: “In a previous position, that I was licensed for, I was able to converse about mutual funds and other financial matters. My White colleagues and I shared an understanding for what we were all licensed to perform, but how we presented information varied because of our awareness of financial management as it related to cultural differences. In this regard, how I built clientele relationships or located a common denominator between the clientele and me mattered. Some may see this as assimilation. I saw it as the proper foundation for clientele building, not assimilating.”
Social forces have asked us to remain mindful of how we affirm our cultural differences at work. This could be a problem for some of today’s African American professionals who want to ascend the corporate ladder yet remain true to self. Have you had to defend your intrinsic value or external presentation as an African American?
Montgomery: I have been able to wear my hair “natural” or “non-natural.” So I do not feel as if I have had to choose to assimilate to the larger, dominating group. I have, however, witnessed another Black employee comment about his fellow Black colleague’s hair.
Mackie: I identify as a Black or African American man. With high net worth clients, I have been inquired [as to my race.] Emphasis was placed on how well spoken and intelligent I was. Oftentimes, when my work was assessed, it appeared as if [they set] lower expectations of me to thrive [because] I was a young Black male.
Rush: I am early in my career and although I am still unsure of whether it is due to my age or culture, my appearance causes people to question “where” I am. They are almost taken aback by what I do. It works for me in some cases because I surpass their expectations.
What assimilation advice would you offer to current African Americans working in corporate America or those interested in joining that workforce?
Rush: There is a balance between what you are willing to give up and what you are comfortable in giving up in order to be successful within a corporation.
Montgomery: Know the difference between being professional and losing your cultural identity in your effort to be professional.
Mackie: Less than one percent of Fortune 500 companies have Black CEO’s. Therefore, African Americans do represent diversity in Corporate America. However, in its attempt to infuse diversity related thrusts for the benefit of those who populate the minority, we must not forget it began with us. So, do not feel inferior for who and what you are.