Opinion

Returning to the office means a return to code switching

Bringing my 'whole self' to work wasn't possible before remote life

Somewhere right now there's probably a company survey waiting for its chance to hit your inbox to ask you a series of diversity questions— including queries about how you feel regarding career opportunities— your manager's performance and, alas, whether you think you can "bring your whole self" to work. 

The earnest question usually suggests the company is getting a temperature reading on their inclusivity efforts and wants to know that all employees feel free to be themselves. But I've never believed employers actually want that. It's hard to trust that any company expected me to show up in my true, unapologetic Blackness without judgment. Because, in a world of constant micro-aggressions, a bias-free zone feels unlikely to happen in any corporate office.

Then one March day in 2020, those with the privilege of having flexible jobs were told to work remotely for what we thought would be two weeks.

It was only then, when I made the switch from office work to an indefinite remote life, I was finally free from the bondage of respectability politics. And for the first time, I felt comfortable enough to "bring my whole self to work." 

Black people and people of color working in predominantly-white spaces can sometimes feel the pressure to present themselves in a way that's devoid of cultural signifiers or quirks in order to appear less "threatening," or more "palatable" to "fit in" and navigate corporate life— in other words, be the right "culture fit" for a white world.

In a physical office, I often have to be hyper-aware of how my clothes fit around my natural curves, attempt to keep a conservative aesthetic to not draw any more bias or judgment than I might already receive, and be cognizant of the fact that my hairstyles might be seen as "unprofessional" when based on euro-centric standards. 

And I'm tired of code-switching.

While President Biden made calls for a return to the office and some semblance of normalcy, I never want to be required to see another physical office space again for the rest of my working life. 

Since working from home, I've donned a circular gold septum ring every single day, dramatically changed my hair, consistently put brightly colored nail polish atop my nail-extension manicures, and wear whatever I want from athleisure, to crop tops, to form-fitting dresses. And I've never had to answer to anyone for it.

As a matter of fact, I've never even changed my nails or removed my septum ring for a single video job interview and still managed to land two new roles since the start of the pandemic.

While I sometimes miss the office perks like free snacks and company-sponsored activities and camaraderie, I'd trade every happy hour for the benefit of sitting at my desk, camera-off with my bonnet on my head.

The great thing about video calls and rarely seeing your coworkers is that my work has a greater opportunity to speak for itself. So, when I do appear on camera, I feel a boldness I've never had before in an office. Because when they can only see me from the chest up, people have less of an opportunity to assess my appearance and grill every detail.

And if I'm exceeding my goals and receiving accolades sight-(mostly)-unseen, then no one can tell me anything about my neon nails and blue lipstick. While I won't show up to a Zoom call in my bathrobe, there is a sense of "I'm at home and I will look however I feel comfortable when I'm in my own home."

There's also a profound freedom that comes with not having to worry about being judged for the way I look when I already have to be aware of the inherent implicit biases I face for my gender and the color of my skin. For some, working from home has afforded them child- and elder-care opportunities, the ability to move to cheaper locations and a greater work-life balance.

For me and many other Black and minority employees, it allows us the ability to feel the secure and micro-aggression-free work environment many of our employers claim they want us to experience.

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