Melany Justice, Associate | February 2022
In April of 2020, the CDC recommended mask-wearing in public to reduce the transmission of COVID-19. In the weeks that followed, I often pondered the metaphoric similarity between the “new” precaution of wearing a mask to remain safe in public and the long-standing precaution of wearing a “mask” while navigating professional workspaces given the many identities I carry.
The notion of covering or concealing an aspect of one’s self was a recent phenomenon to some and yet just another layer added for too many of us.
To Be Seen
Of all the identities I carry, there are three that often pose the cautionary question in professional environments of whether it’s safe to remove the mask.
I am a Christian, I am a Black woman, and I am a first-generation professional.
As organizations across the nation gain consciousness of the value and necessity to both acknowledge and appreciate the many identities their employees bring with them, it’s important to dually recognize the full spectrum and intersectionality of such identities, which can affect the degree to which staff feel safe being themselves at work.
In my personal experience, the murkiness and complexity of contemplating how much of myself would be embraced, understood, or valued if I were maskless in the workplace has generally resulted in inaction and introversion.
Many of us with these identities have opted to stay in our respective corners, concealing the most prominent aspects of who we are and looking forward to the relief, or fresh air, that comes at the conclusion of our workday. Meanwhile, colleagues and workplaces pride themselves on fostering environments where everyone can bring their full selves to work with limited insight into who we really are. In no way does this suggest that workplaces don’t have a genuine value and commitment to inclusivity, but rather that we may not yet feel conditions are safe enough to unmask.
Before going any further, I’ll name that this does not suggest the experience of those belonging to any identity group is monolithic, nor that those sharing similar identities with me navigate professional environments in the same manner.
The beauty in humanity is reflected in our multifaceted nature. We all have intersecting identities and they are all equally worth exploring. I, however, can only speak to the identities I possess.
To be Understood
As the proud daughter of a homemaker and custodian, I come from humble beginnings and was raised with the values of putting God first, working hard, minding my business, and speaking when spoken to, unless of course, I had indignation – at that point I was taught to stand for something or fall for anything.
The Center for the Study of Global Christianity at Gordon-Conwell Theological Seminary reports that there are over 40,000 Christian denominations in the world. The diversity that exists among and within religious groups and the subsequent experiences they entail leaves room for immense education but is often unexplored relative to topics of race, sexual orientation, and women in the workplace.
Nearly four in five Americans are affiliated with a form of religion. This research suggests that organizations may be filled with more religiously affiliated staff than they perceive. When determining which aspect of my identity to conceal at work, I’ve historically started with my faith and been least likely to share aspects of how it shows up in my daily life. Though almost four in ten adults attend religious services on a weekly basis, myself included, very seldom do I reference any religious activities I’ve taken part in when detailing my weekend with colleagues.
Though I and many friends have admittedly placed more thought towards uncovering what it means to be both Black women and first-generation professionals, which I’ll explore in a moment, many of us have yet to uncover what it means to be Christians in the workplace, even if our faith is in fact the most pertinent of all the identities we embody.
While more and more organizations observe various religious holidays, there seems to be an underlying tension that exists between openly discussing faith within the context of more socially acceptable identities. Throughout my career, I have always been fascinated by how much more interested colleagues were in the race and economic-related obstacles I’ve faced than in the faith I’ve held onto, which brought me through said obstacles. Given that, I ultimately resolved not to discuss the details of either and thus have yet to unmask.
To be Acknowledged
Gloria Ladson-Billings, former president of the American Educational Research Association and former Distinguished Professor of Urban Education at the University of Wisconsin-Madison, introduced the concept of an educational debt in 2006.
Her research suggests that the education debt “comprises historical, economic, sociopolitical, and moral components”. As a first-generation Black woman from a lower socioeconomic background, each component of the education debt outlined by Ladson-Billings resonates with me.
- The historical debt considers the legacy of educational inequities in the United States, which continues to broaden the opportunity gap.
- The economic debt relates to the stark funding disparities between schools serving a predominant demographic of White students versus students of color, particularly African American students.
- The sociopolitical debt reflects the extent to which communities of color are disproportionately disenfranchised from participation in the civic process in ways that have suppressed their agency.
- And the moral debt reflects the tension between our societal belief of what is right that often runs counter with what we actually do.
Acknowledging the identity of first-generation professionals, along with the intersectionality of those whose race, ethnicity, or socioeconomic background resulted in an education debt, means acknowledging their diverse and unequal starting points. There is an inevitable mental toll, the trauma of trying, that comes with navigating the lingering side-effects of the opportunity gap.
Not only were we raised without access to the book of unwritten rules and corporate jargon used by our peers to maneuver in professional spaces, but the competencies and skills we developed growing up are often not as transferable or profitable for us to employ at work. Employees with such intersecting identities have undoubtedly faced a unique blend of challenges related to the opportunity gap that required perseverance and audacity in order to obtain and maintain their positions in the workplace, which is something their counterparts could never fully understand.
To Redefine Normalcy
As the nation continues working to contain the spread of COVID-19, we’re all working to redefine our concept of normalcy. Research and observation have proven the harmful risks of removing masks prematurely and ensuring environments are conducive to safety before doing so. It is my hope that organizations prioritize assessing their talent systems and practices such that it is truly safe for all employees to embrace their intersecting identities in the workplace, eliminating the need for such mandates in the future.
In honor of Black History Month, I’d like to pay special tribute to Paul Lawerence Dunbar, one of the pioneering Black poets in American literature.
We Wear the Mask
By Paul Laurence Dunbar
We wear the mask that grins and lies,
It hides our cheeks and shades our eyes,—
This debt we pay to human guile;
With torn and bleeding hearts we smile,
And mouth with myriad subtleties.
Why should the world be over-wise,
In counting all our tears and sighs?
Nay, let them only see us, while
We wear the mask.
We smile, but, O great Christ, our cries
To thee from tortured souls arise.
We sing, but oh the clay is vile
Beneath our feet, and long the mile;
But let the world dream otherwise,
We wear the mask!
Religion in the Workplace
- Eight Steps to the Accommodation Mindset https://tanenbaum.org/about-us/what-we-do/workplace/workplace-resources/eight-steps-to-the-accommodation-mindset/
- Navigating Religious Beliefs in the Workplace https://www.shrm.org/resourcesandtools/tools-and-samples/toolkits/pages/accommodating-religion,-belief-and-spirituality-in-the-workplace.aspx
Supporting First-Generation Professionals
- How Does Your Company Support “First-Generation Professionals”? https://hbr-org.cdn.ampproject.org/c/s/hbr.org/amp/2022/01/how-does-your-company-support-first-generation-professionals#%3A%7E%3Atext%3DMake+inclusive+communication+a+core+competency+for+everyone
1Maldonado, B. (2019, October 24). 4 insights about the first generation professional experience. LinkedIn. Retrieved from https://www.linkedin.com/pulse/4-insights-first-generation-professional-experience-bernice-maldonado
2 Tanenbaum. (2021, July 1). Eight Steps to the Accommodation Mindset. https://tanenbaum.org/about-us/what-we-do/workplace/workplace-resources/eight-steps-to-the-accommodation-mindset/
3 “Nones” on the Rise. (2020, May 30). Pew Research Center’s Religion & Public Life Project. https://www.pewforum.org/2012/10/09/nones-on-the-rise/
4Nones” on the Rise. (2020, May 30). Pew Research Center’s Religion & Public Life Project. https://www.pewforum.org/2012/10/09/nones-on-the-rise/
5The Education Debt. (2018, November 20). National Education Policy Center. https://nepc.colorado.edu/publication/newsletter-education-debt-112018#:%7E:text=Gloria%20Ladson%2DBillings%20coined%20the,directed%20at%20students%20of%20color
6Ladson-Billings (2006) From the Achievement Gap to the Education Debt: Understanding Achievement in U.S. Schools.
7Opportunity Gap. (2021). Close the Gap Foundation. https://www.closethegapfoundation.org/glossary/opportunity-gap
8Maldonado, B. (2019, October 24). 4 insights about the first generation professional experience. LinkedIn. Retrieved from https://www.linkedin.com/pulse/4-insights-first-generation-professional-experience-bernice-maldonado