The Year I Decolonized Professionalism

Wow. My heart rang in my heart, almost like an alarm. I sat in the parking lot of my new job an hour and a half before I was expected to arrive. It was my first day, and I was determined to be “extremely” professional. I was taught: if you show up early, you are on time. If you show up on time, you are already late. But, if I am being honest with myself, deep down, I did not want to be tardy because I did not want to be seen as the black man who never shows up on time. So, I sat in my car ridiculously early, stomach full of ravenous butterflies, not knowing how I would navigate this white space as a Black body.

For all my life I have never been able to stand the white gaze of disapproval. It is like a searing flame, threatening to burn me to ash. So, like any good social servant, I dressed the way that was expected of me. To fit in, I developed a “professional” voice (white voice). Typically, I would make sure my hair was cut short, and not puffed out into the curly afro I love. Being a person of color, pursuing a career in leadership, I could not afford to fail. I could not be seen as second class, inferior.

Or, that was the mindset I had at the outset. As part of the Newman’s Own Foundation Fellowship I have received an unprecedented amount of support from a cohort filled with people of color. They are a comforting web that I can fall back on, and they stick to me, and by me, like glue. Often I will go to them one on one, or in a group chat, to receive advice. I also feel greatly fortunate to have received leadership training from remarkable Black facilitators as well. For example, getting the opportunity to get anti-racism training from Didier Sylvain, an experienced facilitator in this space, during one of our leadership retreats. This education in leadership caused me to take a strong look at myself. Looking in the mirror has never been a fun activity for me. But as I looked at my brown skin, my natural-textured hair, and Jackson 5 nostrils, I saw beauty. They were the physical characteristics of so many people of color I adored and loved in my life. If I loved it on them, why should I not love it on me? I went deeper. I looked at my mind, and my heart. I was just as intelligent, capable, caring, and driven as anyone around me. The question came loud and clear; you are black, and that is amazing, so why should that not show up in the workspace?

At the Westport Country Playhouse I am the Managing Director Fellow. I work directly under the Managing Director, Michael Barker, and assist him in areas of finance, audience development, fundraising, and administration. It is a dream role for a man from a small town with huge dreams of working in theater. I have been able to work on many meaningful projects, such as working with a team to develop a young professional’s membership program, to collaborating with social media influencers to promote Playhouse events. This position is one that I have cherished from the moment I began, and has empowered me to grow as a professional.

Professionalism in America has been greatly defined and shaped by a white supremacist culture. The rules we follow in the workplace are centered on whiteness, and any non-western idea of dress code, speech, timeliness, or working style is discriminated against. As I reflected on my anxieties going into this new job, and the ways I felt myself trying to reshape into someone else, I realized the way I looked at professionalism had been colonized. In so many ways my identity has been stolen and replaced by whiteness.

I had a choice to make. I could walk into my role ready to assimilate, or I could show up authentically as myself. Choice is something black and brown people are very often denied. Here, I had a choice. I had a support network at Newman’s Own Foundation, and the staff of the Playhouse. Leadership at the theater let me know from the beginning that they were committed to becoming more inclusive. I took that opportunity, and I chose disruption. Not a disruption of the workspace, but a disruption in me. Moving away from whiteness, and the traditional ideas of what it means to be professional.

Whew. It was not easy. Before my Fellowship year, I had been growing out my hair dying to be able to get it braided. Protective hairstyles are a common thing in my culture. It was finally at a length to get it done. Yet, what would people think of it? Natural hairstyles have constantly been discriminated against. In fact, only 3 states in the country ban discrimination on the basis of hair. You see it in the news all the time. Black kings being forced to cut off their dreadlocks to compete in a wrestling match, or being banned from walking in their graduation ceremony, all because of their hair.

I thought to myself, should I ask my boss first before I get it done? I actually thought I should seek permission to do something that was natural and common to my hair. I was completely colonized. Will my hair distract people? Will it give them a free license to touch and prod my scalp? Would they have ownership over me? Would I become a caged spectacle they could view and comment on? It has happened before. All my life white people have felt they had ownership over my body, and had the right to touch, rub, and pull my hair. I had to decide if I really wanted to bring that into my workspace that I adored being in.

This is not something non-black people have to think about. If they do not have to think about it, neither should I right? The curls atop my head are like a crown, and I have every right to wear that crown whichever way I want. So I got my hair braided. I came into work, and had all types of responses. It ranged from a simple “Nice hairdo!” to perplexed and confused glances. However, I survived. Their glances didn’t burn me to ash. I was lucky. There are many great and open-minded people working at the Playhouse. They are a group that is caring and open to new things. I have to acknowledge this blessing, and luck, because so many people of color do not survive their choice to live a full and authentic life.

From there, a whole myriad of opportunities opened up for me to express myself. I have tested the waters in other areas in terms of dress code, manner of speaking, or what I talk about. I do not think anyone here can get me to be quiet about how I am Black, Latino, and proud. It is an extremely far cry from previous professional spaces I have been in, where I felt I could only be seen and not heard. In fact, I think living authentically has improved my work. It has given me a greater sense of thoughtfulness and productivity. I work better when I feel comfortable in the space I am in.

Theater is the only place I have ever felt truly seen. Even though I will only have a sojourn here at the Playhouse, I wanted to make sure it was a place I would continue to be seen in. It took some risk, courage, and resources from Newman’s Own Foundation. But, I made it happen. No one has ever accomplished anything great without being a little bit brave. Even then, I still have a long way to go! There are still wires and ways of thinking I have to detangle myself from. The difference is that now I know that I can.

For any person of color reading this, just know, you are worthy. Your melanin, the rich texture of your hair, the nature of your voice, your very presence is an asset to any company. Let us love ourselves a little deeper, and encourage each other to go further. We have always been innovators. The workplace needs us, America needs us. The only reason this country is considered great is because we carried it on our backs, working by the sweat of our brow. The very least they can do is allow us to wear our hair as we want, dress as we please, and speak in the only way we know how: in greatness.

By Jacob Santos, 2019-2020 NOF Fellow at the Westport Country Playhouse, Westport, CT