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Whether it’s at internship or a full time position, many Black women undergo a metamorphosis. Our voice octaves grow progressively higher, we laugh more frequently, or our emails contain more exclamation points than usual. We often take on a larger workload to not be dubbed the unqualified token or don designer duds to not be overlooked.

CLUTCH turned to Charisse Jones, a correspondent for USA Today and co-author of Shifting: The Double Lives of Black Women in America, the critical 2004 read about a paradox continually plaguing Black women in America.

Clutch: What is “shifting?”
Jones: Shifting is all the ways Black women deal with the twin biases of racism and sexism. It’s the masks we sometimes wear and the emotional changes we go through battling bigotry.

Clutch: Is the ability to shift a burden or a blessing?
Jones: Both. As long as bias exists, we’re going to have to manage it. And shifting can be a great thing. Shifting allows you to build bridges to others and may cause you to discover a gift or talent you didn’t know you had- simply because you wanted to connect with someone and tried something new. But shifting can become unhealthy if you shift too far. If you start to believe that one form of communication is superior to another, or if you shift into a space of low self-esteem or self-hatred.

Clutch: Do most Black women feel like they can be their authentic selves in predominately white workplaces?
Jones: Many Black women do not feel they can be authentic in predominantly white workplaces. Work is the primary arena in which Black women feel pressured to shift the most, vigilantly watching what they say and how they say it.

Clutch: What sort of shifts do Black women make?
Jones: Shifting has myriad manifestations. A woman may enunciate every syllable while at work to show that she’s educated and can speak the “King’s English.” She may prefer to wear her hair in braids, but as she hunts for a job in the midst of this recession, she takes them out and straightens her hair so potential employers don’t make assumptions about her personality based on a hairstyle. Our behavioral shifts – and the fretting over them – are endless.

Clutch: Are most women aware that they’re doing these things?
Jones: No. Black women often shift on autopilot. We learn to do it almost instinctively from a very young age. We slip back and forth between speech patterns without giving it much thought. We may put others first, or take on more tasks than is really healthy, because we feel that’s expected and never examine why we are doing it or the toll that it’s taking on our health.

Clutch: How does having to “shift” impact Black women’s mental and emotional well-being?
Jones: Many Black women are perfectly at ease with whatever ways they adapt and deal with the world around them. But too often, shifting can be debilitating and a trigger for many of the maladies that disproportionately affect Black women, from hypertension to obesity to symptoms of depression.

Clutch: Are there ways Black women can be more authentic, not need perform shifting and still succeed?
Jones: Absolutely. There are workplaces that appreciate diversity of expression and style. And if you’re in an environment that doesn’t appreciate the unique gifts you have to offer, you can seek out another workspace that does. Or create your own. Many Black women have started their own businesses where they can set the rhythm and tone.

Clutch: Whose responsibility is it to reduce or eliminate the need to shift?
Jones: Our society is only getting more diverse. To progress and be productive, everyone needs to be vigilant about recognizing and stamping out bias. That means that sometimes, even though you may be tired of “interpreting” aspects of the Black experience, you need to be willing to discuss it to help others understand what you may be going through. Likewise, individuals and institutions have to be willing to listen and recognize that actions may still be necessary to overcome inequities, stereotypes and prejudices.

Clutch: What advice do you have for Black female professionals?
Jones: Name it and heal it. Do a self-assessment. Is your blood pressure high? Are you having trouble sleeping at night? Do you dread going into the office? If so, step back and try and figure out why these things are happening and what you can do to address them. Seek out mentors or peers who can help give you guidance at work. Map out where you want to go in the company, and recognize that if you’re moving toward that goal, your current frustrations are only for a season and will pass. But also remember that if an environment is truly toxic, you need to start charting a path out of there, toward a space where you can be healthy and whole.

Nurture yourself. Write in a journal. Garden. Paint. If your leadership skills aren’t satisfied on the job, become a leader on your block, in your sorority, in your place of worship. Form a sister circle for support and keep it close. Work can be deeply rewarding and it’s certainly necessary. But we have to keep in mind that there’s more to life than a career.

Do you find yourself “shifting?” Share your experiences with us!

If you haven’t read Shifting yet, order at Amazon now!

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  • ceecee

    This has been on my to-read list for a while now, thanks for the reminder!