Authenticity is one of those buzzwords that used to make me cringe. Various ‘experts’ often used the term, and it felt more like a gimmick than an actual concept I could practice. Authenticity was also most talked about in relation to work, which felt inauthentic. Most people I know from varied backgrounds don’t feel comfortable bringing their whole selves to work, and for a good reason. In some cases, it could be dangerous. ‘Authenticity at work’ seemed like an oxymoron.
But in the last couple of years, it became clear that the next part of my life must be lived more authentically, especially in work environments. I understand my privilege of not being in dangerous environments, and I needed to honor myself and others by showing up as all of me. Becoming a fully integrated person and embracing all of myself, makes me a better wife, friend, family member, and leader. I started the journey of becoming authentic by looking into my personal journey.
I was raised in the rural South of the United States, where racial integration was slightly taboo. Most of my friends were white, and even though middle and high school were prime times for starting a dating life, my friends and I wouldn’t dare date across racial lines. They were all Christians or Christian adjacent, as was my family, but none of us attended each other’s places of worship. We all liked Southern food, but rarely did we invite each other over to share a meal. We were intelligent and in advanced courses throughout high school, but we didn’t like the same books, activities, or music. I was a part of a friendship group, but our friendships couldn’t deepen against the social backdrop of our city.
There was also the issue of not ‘fitting in’ with the few black kids in my community. They were wary of me, the young black girl who lived in a big house in a white neighborhood, read in the halls, spent time with mostly white kids, and was liked by all (primarily white) teachers. They didn’t consider me ‘black enough,’ and beyond a small stint in middle school, when I was accepted by a couple of black girls who found out I liked ‘trap’ music, other black students had no interest in me.
And then, I went to college and found an even more frustrating truth. I was too different from most students of any racial, ethnic, or social background, and although I loved learning and was liked by professors, my college experience was not as exciting and freeing as I had hoped.
Luckily my parents were pretty strict about dignity. The foundation of my confidence and my ability to thrive in any environment was the idea that I was to treat everyone with respect, value everyone, and do what was right. In turn, they made it clear that I had the right to expect (and sometimes demand) dignity in return. That standard of dignity helped me accept myself even if I wasn’t entirely accepted by the people I encountered. While accumulating life experiences, I found my ‘tribe’ and, as an adult, was embraced for who I am. Unfortunately, not all of my work experiences followed suit, which is why I am doubling down on being authentic at work. It’s time that I started expecting my work environment to embrace me.
Over my lifetime, I have watched my parents make mistakes, course correct, triumph, and grow, all while loving and supporting their children who are doing the same. They are never apologetic about their interests, their blackness and its many forms, their religion, or their expressions of creativity. These two people taught me the power of curiosity and knowledge, the importance of thinking for myself, the magic of music, and the joy of dancing. My parents belong anywhere they are, simply because they are human and have the right to expand into the people they want to be. So do I. So do you.
It’s time we all start to look inward so we can live and do work that reflects who we are. How do we do that? I don’t have all the answers, but I know it starts with learning more about ourselves and practicing what is most authentic to us every day.
How can you reveal more about yourself, harness your gifts and talents, and share more of the real you with your family, friends, and colleagues? Here are some of the ways I started this process.