Hello guys, gals, and non-binary pals, my name is Alan Henry, author of Seen, Heard, and Paid: The New Work Rules for the Marginalized, and I’ll be honest with all of you: this is not going to be a newsletter about The Slap. It will, however, be a newsletter about respectability, and about the images—the masks—we build of ourselves, out of necessity, to put in front of the people that we work with. It’s also going to be about what happens when those masks come down, and people get a view of who we are underneath, for better or for worse.
Before that though, I have to ask: have you preordered my book? It’s up for pre-order now, everywhere books are sold! (Including Bookshop and Indiebound, so you can support local bookstores!) Ask your favorite book store to carry it, and while you’re at it, see if they’d like me to stop in to sign a few copies? I’d be happy to if I can get to where you are.
Now then, let’s get into it. I am infinitely bored of the slap discourse, because it’s tinged with…a lot of things that I could get into here, but honestly, I’m sure you’re done hearing about it too. But I do want to talk about one specific reaction that resonated with me, largely because it’s one I’m used to hearing, and one that I grew up assuming was The Way Things Were: that somehow in order to succeed you had to present yourself in a certain manner that was palatable to authority figures.
Of course, what I didn’t realize until later in life was that A: those authority figures are usually the most privileged among us (e.g., white men, in most spaces, so the whole idea is an artifact of white supremacy) and B: that kind of self-moderating (dare I call it self-censoring?) has a name: respectability.
Respectability has two sides. The first, and easiest to understand, is that when minority families teach and pass down respectability to one another the aim is to keep their children safe in a world where proximity to whiteness means a better chance at success—or at least survival. It doesn’t ensure it, not by any means, but for a very long time, the goal for minority families raising young children was to try and convince them to be as much of one of “the good ones” as possible to make sure they could blend in when they enter majority-white spaces.
For Black families, that often meant code-switching, or, like me, learning to speak English without any hint of AAVE, even if it meant ridicule by my peers when I was a kid, and distrust from other Black people as an adult. For Latinx families, that meant accepting microaggressions about where they’re from (or where they’re not from,) and speaking without a hint of an accent whenever possible. For Asian families, that can mean rejecting your familial culture entirely in the name of assimilation, and encouraging your children to seek often very white, high-paying professions with proximity to whiteness and power.
The problem with all of this is the other dark side of respectability, and the one I want to dive into: It forces you to develop a version of yourself to project in front of others that’s a facade of your true self. This version of yourself is a front—it’s certainly you, of course—but it’s not truly you. It’s a you that you put on when you go to work and take off when you come home. It’s a version of you that you shed in between meetings and in the bathroom, or when you leave the building to go to lunch. It’s the version of you that you show your privileged colleagues so they think the most of you, the version of you that you have to put on to be seen as even remotely as talented or skilled as your most mediocre privileged colleague who doesn’t get the same scrutiny.
I’m not exaggerating, either. People of color find it near-impossible to be “themselves” when it comes to work, because what we socially and collectively understand as “professional” and “professional behavior” is deeply rooted in whiteness. From what springs to mind when you hear “business casual” to the fact that the CROWN Act even needs to exist, people of color of all backgrounds have to mold a “respectable” version of themselves, aka a “more white” version of themselves, to be socially accepted and to counter the unconscious biases that people have about their ethnicities at work, whatever those biases may be. And no amount of unconscious bias training can fix that: even services that profess neutrality are tinged with bias.
So back to the slap.
Part of what you’re seeing in the reaction and the commentary around it is what happens when that facade comes down: when you’re no longer “one of the good ones,” but a human being with complicated emotions, thoughts, and unpredictable behavior. This has nothing to do with right or wrong, to be clear: but it’s easy to see that a lot of the reaction to Will Smith here is in the vein of “he’s not the person I thought he was.”
But that’s the key: he never was.
And that’s not a defense of him by any means, I need that to be clear. For celebrities, this is compounded because there’s always a public version of themselves and a private version of themselves, but for people of color, this comes with the added baggage of having to shelve certain parts of yourself that others wouldn’t find “professional” or “acceptable” in spaces of power or authority. When I was a child, this came with warnings not to dress like the “hoodlums” I saw on television, where I was encouraged “not to wear the uniform” and to think for myself and express myself—which was good, in a way—but only within the lines that were otherwise acceptable by the majority white communities I lived in, and in a way that made my white peers feel safe, comfortable, and consider me relatable. It was being taught exactly what to do if I were ever pulled over by the police: to keep my hands firmly at ten and two on the steering wheel, to always be deferential and respectful regardless of my rights, and to always ask or inform the officer of my movements well in advance of making them, down to “my registration is in the glove compartment, sir—may I reach over and get it, please?” Will all of that potentially save my life? I’m frankly sure it did. Should I have to do that? Absolutely not.
It was threat reduction, through and through.
So I wouldn’t be a good service journalist if I didn’t offer you a takeaway from all of this. On the one hand, I want those of you who are privileged in your workplaces to consider, keenly, the ways your colleagues of color hold themselves back from you because they don’t want or need your unconscious judgment. Ask yourself what you can do to create spaces in your workplace, whether it’s on teams, at a lunch table, in meetings, or on projects, where you give your colleagues the full freedom to bring their entire selves to work, with all of their interests, passions, cultures, backgrounds, and more.
For my colleagues of color here, I urge you to find places where you can be your true, authentic self, especially in professional spaces. I often lean on employee resource groups, but not every company has them. If not, seek out industry groups focused on people of color or people from your specific background. I’ll forever sing the praises of the Journalists of Color Slack, but even when I was a project manager, I considered joining the International Society of Black Project Managers. And if your job or field doesn’t have a similar place, consider creating one! Sometimes you need to build the kind of community you want to see in the world, and it may require energy or effort, but it can be intensely rewarding (not that I should really be asking us to put in even more work to make our workplaces equitable.)
And finally, I’d tell all of you that it is possible to work in spaces that truly respect and appreciate you, and where you can bring your whole self to work with you. You don’t have to stay in spaces where your identity is considered a liability instead of an asset, and there’s nothing inherently wrong with you, your background, and bringing the strength that your background affords you to the workplace with you. It makes you stronger, it gives you more perspective, and it lets you see things that other people simply can’t. I’ve found that the best places I’ve worked gave me the flexibility to learn from the people around me who have different lived experiences, and those people encouraged me to share my own as well. I hope you find a place like that too, and soon.
Professionalism as a Racial Construct, by Leah Goodridge: This piece in the UCLA Law Review is long, much longer than this newsletter, but it dives into this same topic with the kind of depth that I wish I had the time and space to investigate. Maybe for a future book … but anyway, Goodridge examines how the very concept of professionalism as we understand it was designed to center witness, and specifically the social attributes of white men that society (and in this case, specifically American society) reinforces.
Latinos have many skin tones. Colorism means they’re treated differently, by Rachel Hatzipanagos: One thing I’m not a big fan of in general is colorism, and while I see it in Black communities, it’s very prominent in Latinx communities. From which Latinx folks we see in media and in empowered spaces to the ones we see as an underclass, that kind of colorism-as-stand-in-for-proximity-to-whiteness is prominent in cultures with a history of colonial oppression and then subsequent “welp, I guess you’re on your own” when the colonial influences begin to subside. This is a great read on the challenges of being a darker-skinned Latinx, and the even subtle privilege of bring a lighter-skinned one.
The Library Ends Late Fees, and the Treasures Roll In, by Gina Cherelus: Here’s a little heartwarming counterprogramming for you: when The New York Public Library system decided to end late fees, they got a TON of returns, many with heartfelt letters and apologies for why they couldn’t return the book (almost always because they couldn’t afford the compounded fees) when it was due. The header image of the story is from someone who checked out a book in 1972 and just now returned it, for example. That’s amazing.
This week’s recommendation is a children’s book by a friend and former colleague, Kaitlyn Wells, who writes for Wirecutter, among other places. It’s called A Family Looks Like Love, and it’s also available for pre-order right now, anywhere books are sold! From the description:
Sutton Button has always looked different from her family. While her siblings had short, stout legs, Sutton’s legs were long like noodles. And while her siblings had scruffy, yellow fur, Sutton was a tricolor puppy with soft fur.
But when others don’t believe that Sutton and her siblings are actually related, Sutton starts to wonder if she really belongs in her family at all–until she realizes that her and her family are the same in all the most important ways and that love, rather than what you look like, is what makes a family.
With heartwarming text and adorable illustrations, A Family Looks Like Love is a story about the enduring power of love and teaches readers that family comes in all shapes and sizes.
It’s a children’s picture book, but honestly, if you’re like me, you’ll love it whether you have kids or not (Shut up, I like pictures!) and it’s a story that’s close to Kaitlyn’s heart, I know that much. So please, consider picking it up for yourself, or for a gift for a young reader in your life, okay?
I’ll see you back here in two.