By Delanie West
Coronavirus has changed everything. We have all had to adjust almost every aspect of our lives, including the way we show up for work. Pre-COVID and since 2017, 100% of my client communication and business operations have been virtual. I work from my home office and use video conferencing tools and other technologies to connect with my clients and teams, many of whom are based in other continents. Because of this, I have not felt much of the COVID work-from-home shift.
But what has been quite different for me is an observation of the way I present myself and my home office virtually in contrast to the way many colleagues have shown up virtually. It took some time to for me to recognize and understand exactly what was happening and why.
Here it is: Black people are judged on the way we dress, how we look and even the way we style our hair, and what is happening goes deeper than how I show up to a Zoom call.
As a young girl, burned ears and singed strands from my natural hair being straightened with a hot metal comb signified to me, and girls like me, that our curly hair was not acceptable, according to societal norms. When I started out in my career, the unspoken rule, and sometimes written in corporate handbook rules, had been “straight hair, no braids, no locked styles.” Because of this, I processed my natural hair with lye to make it permanently straight. After 10 years and more senior in my career, I had developed the confidence and gained the credibility and reputation in my profession to sport my natural hair; and have been doing so for the last 10 years.
Can you believe, that today, in 2020, Black people are still penalized for how our hair grows naturally? Thankfully, change is taking place, albeit s-l-o-w-l-y. In 2019, California became the first state to sign the CROWN Act into law. The CROWN Act, which stands for “Create a Respectful and Open Workplace for Natural Hair,” was created to ensure protection against discrimination based on racial-trait hairstyles.
As a woman with deep southern roots, I am shaped by the experiences and lessons of my grandparents, for whom proper dress and presentation were cultural practices in how they protected themselves and their family in spaces outside of their communities. The Negro Motorist Green Book (most often called the Green Book) was a travel guide published from 1936 to 1967 that helped African American tourists navigate a segregated nation. It listed hotels, restaurants and other business that were open to African Americans, and essentially helped make travel comfortable and safe for them. It was customary for “colored people” to dress in their finest, when traveling by car, train, boat or airplane, as part of the guidelines for “not being a curiosity” during travel, especially near regions of “sundown towns.” If you want to learn more about the unwritten rules Black people follow today to protect themselves, the Green Book shows the codes we had to follow to exist.
Things have changed since 1967 but have also remained very much the same. Black people continue to have to shield themselves when we leave the safety of our cultural spaces, and today this includes the virtual space of Zoom and other video conferencing portals. Black people do not have the luxury of leisurewear because for us, attire has been weaponized. A sweat hoodie sends a different signal for a young male tech-founder than it does for a young black male.
My work-from-home virtual behavior is modeled in direct response to these taught and learned experiences. Navigating business culture where my appearance pre-qualifies my business acumen is the primary reason why I always present myself in “business dress’” and not “business casual” in-person and virtually.
I am Co-Chair of the Ohio Chapter of Women in Toys, Licensing and Entertainment, and during one of our Zoom meetings with Chapter Co-Chairs across the country, I was recognized for how significantly different and polished my appearance was from others on the call. It was not just my presentation in dress, makeup and hair, it was also my planned environment.
As a Creative Director, I understand that perception is so very important to brand, and I not only style myself for my business and professional virtual meetings, I also carefully curate my physical surroundings, for the virtual “guests” in my home. In the same way that someone might decorate their office or work cube, I present my work-from-home space for the new virtual theater of video meetings. In my mind, I can’t show up to the Zoom meeting as casually as my non-Black counterparts do.
As a Black woman, I have experienced countless scenarios of implicit bias. Outside of my community, my professional business dress serves as a coat of armor against negative assumptions by those I have worked with, reported to and managed. I never dress down on casual Fridays; I simply can’t. I must show up to manage expectations and biases in the places where I’m present for business. I do not have the luxury of choosing between business dress and business casual.
Our society (and our industry) has a tremendous amount of work to do to overcome both unconscious and conscious bias. Achieving true workplace change takes education and training, yes. But companies must start with ongoing and honest conversations. These conversations will provide insight into the experiences of Black women and men, and will be a breeding ground for new ideas and solutions. I encourage you to do your part to be a part of the change.
Delanie West is founding Creativity Director at Be Super Creative, a product development and design consultancy; COO at Healthy Roots Dolls; and Partner and Creative Strategy office at Black Creatives, a global network of over 15,000 professionals in communications, media, advertising, technology, and fashion.
Delanie serves as chair of Women in Toys, Licensing & Entertainment (WIT) Diversity & Inclusion committee, as well as WIT Ohio Chapter Chair. WIT is a nonprofit global organization whose mission is to advance women through leadership, networking, and educational opportunities.