Don’t Be Too Black!

A look into the pretense of inclusivity and tolerance

The summer of 2019 arrived and with it, the hopes and dreams once lost to depression. These event wasn’t fortuitous: I have gotten a job. It wasn’t my dream job but I would only be working five hours a day, four to five times a week at the customer support center of a mall.

Woman with Africa shaped earrings and a headscarf in front of an african print.
Art by the author, Sofia Paz-D’África

Getting a job is — now more than ever — , complicated especially if you’re a black woman. I had been looking for ages and recruiters never called back, even though I matched the job criteria. My first obstacle is the mandatory picture on the CV which means that my chances of being selected to an interview are automatically lower. On top of that, it was a front desk job, something nearly impossible for someone black in the country I live in.

After the in-person interview, the medical check-up, the contract signing, the one-day training, and the uniform fitting, I reported for duty, a few minutes before the beginning of my shift, as requested. I was wearing my oversized uniform, — although there was a day for fittings, they still weren’t able to give me clothes my size — small pearl earrings and my signature headscarf.

I love headscarves as they make me feel closer to my cultural heritage.My collection is sizable yet I ‘m always looking for a chance to expand it!

I arrived at the HR department once I was instructed to go there before going to my work station so that a recruiter could present me to coworkers and the head of the customer service department. However, when I entered the room I felt as if someone was talking about me but suddenly stopped. This feeling isn’t particularly rare for someone who’s used to be a minority in pretty much every room .I proceeded to the front desk where the receptionist asked me to wait a moment, went to the back of the office and came back five minutes later to tell me that her colleague would take a while but I could sit in the waiting room.

3 faces:2 profiles and 1 front, covered with several colorful rectangles.
Art by the author, Sofia Paz-D’África

As I sat on the black, cold chair in the waiting room, I had the confirmation that something wasn’t right. Shortly after , I saw the recruiter who was supposed to meet me, in a circle with two or three women, then, after we briefly made eye contact, they went inside, to the back of the office away from my sight. Finally, she showed up with a folder in hands. We greeted each other and she asked me if we could talk; I accepted as we walked into an empty conference room.

I knew something bad was about to happen and I could only think that they were going to fire me on my first day. We sat across from each other, she opened the folder on the table and, as I read my name on the top corner of the first page , my legs started shaking uncontrollably .« Sofia, what instructions were you given at training regarding dress code?», her words came out with a certain level of sarcasm.
«Well, I was told to wear discreet jewelry, some makeup,

which constitutes another issue, once no one tells men to put anything on their faces against their will in order to “look more presentable”

the uniform you gave me and comfortable dark shoes.», I responded anxiously. «Okay, then I believe the information you received was a little misleading. We gave you a uniform because we want to standardize our employees.», she stated; «That thing on top of your head, goes against that policy.», she continued with an ironic tone . «I mean, we need to know if you are always going to wear it, if it’s due to religion or if it’s for cosmetic reasons?», despite the shock , I had to say something after she called it “that thing”. «My headscarves are a cultural representation. I wear them because I’m Angolan!», I replied trying to maintain calm despite the situation. «Look ,our company is quit inclusive and tolerant as we employ people from all backgrounds. Nonetheless, the thing on your head draws a lot of attention so not only due to the pattern we’re trying to establish but also for your protection, I must ask you to stop bringing it to work, starting tomorrow. Do you understand?!», my soul sank as she pronounced those words. All the hope and excitement previously conquered, were destroyed right there. «Yes, I do.», my voice was barely audible. I followed with something that, until this day, profoundly upsets me: «Would you like me to remove it now?». I keep thinking about how I should’ve worn my sea green scarf to make a statement against the ones that have always fought hard to erase my identity, my expression. The recruiter’s eyes lit up and she immediately confirmed her wish. I walked to the bathroom ready to give up , to run to my bed, hide under the covers. I stood in front of the mirror, took it off, folded it, put it in my purse, and went downstairs to work.

I couldn’t focus all day.Time seemed to past slower than usual still, it passed: eight o’clock, my shift ended. I could already leave. It was my first and last day there, a decision made on the way home as tears fell down my face.

A face covered with several strikes of white, grey and red paint in a dark background.
Art by the author, Sofia Paz-D’África

My tears were rage, sadness, despair. It was the realization that their widely advertised tolerance was a facade . Their tolerance applies to the way I speak — once I speak their language, with their accent; it applies to the denim I wear; to the foods I eat — as long as they’re not too “exotic”.

Being born and raised in a European country, I grew up aware of the prejudice so I knew a headscarf wouldn’t be well received at any job interview but at training, I also wore one, and nothing was said to me in regards to it. This is what the woman meant with “I believe the information you received was a little misleading”.About the standard that the uniform was supposed to create: several people had their pants and/or blazers altered, others had tattoos; the chief of the customer care department had piercings on her face; some were bald, some had long hair and each pair of shoes looked different. So, the common thread was the people who wore them: the vast majority, white.

Their pretense of inclusivity and tolerance will last as long as they’re comfortable. It was all right until I “became too black” . When I wore that headscarf I was no longer trying to be the way they intended me to, therefore, I turned into an uncomfortable matter.

These kind of situation happens — unfortunately — , way too often. Each time, I come out of it feeling closer to my authentic self, confident and proud of being AFRICAN, of being true to myself instead of a reflection of those who intent to shape me to their figure.

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