I learned in college about the art of the “elevator pitch.”
My peers and I were taught how to nail a succinct introduction of ourselves, what we do, who we are, all to essentially get the position we want. The elevator pitch is successful in theory, if we lived in a perfect world where the playing field was level.
And so, my elevator pitch is always on.
It’s not about securing a position if I just so happen to come face to face with the CEO of my dream company. It’s a code that black and brown people like myself must use to exist in the mainly white spaces we work in.
This includes how we talk, dress and handle our emotions. It refers to our work ethic, our beauty standards, and how we choose to relate to our peers to get through the day.
Black parents tell their children from birth that they must be “twice as good to get half as much” as their white counterparts. My dad said it to me. My grandparents said it to him. Rowan Pope ironically said it to Olivia Pope on “Scandal.”
All my feelings of being awkward and scrutinized come together in the elevator. When I first started a corporate position, I greeted everyone I came into contact with. I smiled cheerfully to the guards at the security desk and always held the door for people coming into the lobby behind me. I said good morning to people on the elevator. But as time went on, I noticed people weren’t very nice back to me.
I couldn’t ignore the fact that the people who were the coldest were white.
I’ve experienced the anxiety of stepping onto an elevator with mainly white passengers and counting the seconds until I can step off and be me again. I frantically try to fix my eye on something, or play with my phone because it feels like I’m being watched. And most of the time, I am being watched.
I can see a white woman looking me over from top to bottom, or a man in a pressed suit raising his brows at my shoes.
It happens everywhere: doctor’s offices, hotels and parking garages. But the place where I feel I’m under the most scrutiny is work. I visit doctors’ offices frequently, but no matter how many times I go, I never see the same people or remember them.
At work, the faces are recurring, day in and day out. These are my colleagues and team members for projects. They’re the faces in the cafeteria, parking lot, company events, as well as passersby when I’m relaxing outside on my lunch break.
And they are the people I have to watch out for at happy hour when there’s an open bar.
I’ll be 25 this year, and the women in the office who are under 30 dress closer to how I dressed in college. Their version of business casual reads more like a day at the mall, or Sunday brunch. It’s not work inappropriate, but it’s also not the true definition of business casual. It’s just casual. Almost all of these dress code offenders are white.
I know that’s not acceptable for me. As a black woman, I make sure my skirts are never too short and that my casual wear is appropriate. But I’ve come to realize that those efforts don’t matter. I’m always stared at, never spoken to, and get the feeling of not being good enough.
I’m not the only black woman in my department who feels this way.
On a particular company sponsored activity day, all the elevators were busy. My coworker and I returned from eating food when I asked her, “Do you want to take the elevator?”
“Nah, I’m just really not in the mood for that experience today,” she replied with a knowing look.
We took the stairs.
It starts before even entering the office and sitting down at your desk. It’s making sure your hair isn’t too “ethnic” or “distracting.” It’s turning the radio down in the car as you enter you office’s parking lot.
It’s keeping a straight face when someone cuts you off while walking, or sees you trying to make it to the elevator but doesn’t hold it. It’s feeling like a nonperson when you speak to fellow employees on the elevator, but no one seems to hear you. It’s choosing to stay out of hot topic debates that involve politics, class, race and sexuality.
For black and brown people like me, the constant internal struggle of wondering if someone is treating me wrong at work because they’re a minority, or if that person is just rude, is an ongoing battle.