My Voice Immediately Changed as Soon as I Took That Business Call
BY: NIKOLE THOMAS
Reading time: 5 minutes
EXCERPT FROM LISTEN BITCH
It was so long ago that I can't remember whether I was speaking to my supervisor or one of my coworkers, but it was business-related and the person was a white man. As I began talking, I didn't notice anything abnormal. But as the conversation continued, I heard my sister snicker, so while I was talking, I glanced in her direction. I remember her watching me and looking at me as if she was trying to figure something out but couldn’t quite understand where to begin so she just hung her head down and nodded back and forth with a disapproving smirk on her face. Every time I spoke she would do this and suddenly, it hit me. She was noticing how my voice immediately changed as soon as I took that business call. And this was not the first time something like that happened. When we went car shopping a couple years before that, I was talking to a white salesman and my sister overheard me, but that time she confronted me and said, “Do you always sound like that when you talk to these white people?"
In Napa, even when I tried to change my voice back after seeing the expression on Quelly’s face, I couldn’t because I didn't think that it had changed all that much. However, all I had to do was look at her every time I opened my mouth and I knew she noticed that something was different. Before I took the call, my sister and I were chatting, laughing and having a good ‘ol time. We were singing to some of our favorite tunes on the radio. Those were the moments where I was my true self, so my sister picked up on how quickly I switched and became someone else when dealing with work-related matters.
At one point, my sister got out of the car and walked around. She was probably hoping that I would be done talking by the time she returned, but when she got back, she was unfortunately forced to listen to white- working-girl Nikole a little bit longer. After 45 minutes, I finally hung up and automatically switched back to black Nikole. I remember blowing out this big sigh of relief like a weight had been lifted and I could finally leave the other me behind to return to my normal self. Without hesitation, I turned the music back up and got reenergized so we could continue our journey. I remember apologizing to Quelly for throwing a wrench in our plans and promising to make it up to her. I also remember never saying anything to her or questioning why she was looking at me the way she did. I didn't have to. I already knew, and quite frankly, I didn't want to discuss it any further. I didn't want to force her to tell me what I already knew, in fear that such a discussion could have turned into an argument that would have ruined the whole trip. So I just let it go and drove off.
Was I a little hurt? Yes. Was it difficult to see my sister look at me that way? Yes. But like so many other black women, I did what people always expect us to do. I pretended like it didn’t bother me and I pushed through. It seemed to be a good decision at the time because we continued on with our day as if that call never took place. We had one of the best getaways ever, which was exactly what I needed. I wanted to escape to a place where I could just be me— staying out all day and all night in Napa with my sister. And that was that.
This kind of “switching” behavior doesn’t just sneak up on you; it accumulates over time. This was just one of those rare instances that someone brought it to my attention and I had to admit to myself that it was real. The only people that know the difference between white Nikole and black Nikole are my closest friends and family because they grew up with me.
They know who I really am in sickness and in health and through good and bad times. Everyone else just sees the side of me that I will allow them to see. Sometimes I forget that I’ve been working non-stop since I left college. That means that I’ve spent almost half my life in corporate America. That’s half my life switching and concealing my true self to fit this image of success. And it was painful to see. It was painful to look at my face and to see what I had become through my sister’s eyes.
So why do I bring this up? I guarantee, most people that reach the C-suite level didn't get there by being diverse. Diversity is a myth. Executives and CEOs alike preach about it all the time, but they don’t really want to surround themselves with people who are different from them. It’s the ones who conform that are most likely to succeed in reaching those heights. Senior leaders love to discuss the topic of how they were able to stay true to themselves and how they brought diversity to the table or how they influenced the acceptance of inclusion within their organizations. They often focus on the good stuff and the admirable qualities and this theme is often heard throughout their commencement speeches, interviews, memoirs, and corporate meetings. As one executive-turned-author stated, she sought to teach black women about “fitting in without selling out.” However, my experience has shown me that “fitting in without selling out” too often becomes selling out just to fit in! And that’s what these executives do not say. They won’t talk about how they had to conform and how far they had to go for success. They’ll tell you the stuff that’s fit for print, but the real juicy details of how they were able to accomplish what most never will remains unspoken. Maybe because it’s too sensitive; maybe because they would have to implicate others to explain the situation; perhaps because it’s too shameful or difficult or unsavory to admit. But I’ve always wondered what it would really take to become a CEO or any high-ranking official.
In Berkeley, I studied CEOs and their roles in the boardroom for one of my electives. We referenced several readings and case studies, and let me tell you, the ascent to the top can be shady! If you want more context, check out chapters one through four of the book Barbarians at the Gate: The Fall of RJR Nabisco by Bryan Burrough and John Helyar. That’s a good one! It’s a #1 New York Times bestseller and about the classic account of the fall of RJR Nabisco. The investigative journalism by Burrough and Helyar brings this story of greed and double-dealings up to date decades after the 1980's biggest deal— the $25 billion sale of RJR Nabisco in 1988. It still stands as a valuable cautionary tale about the treachery that goes on in corporate America.
So back to this myth and how it relates to my previous story. I knew I had conformed to this “incorporated” person that I didn’t want to become. By force of habit, I had morphed into her. This is one of those defining moments that several women and blacks experience where you have to ask yourself if you want to continue pursuing a corporate career if it comes at the price of you not being you. Senior leaders say they embrace diversity, but I’ve witnessed executives who clearly cannot stand individuals who are different from them, and as a result, they default to what’s most comfortable: someone like them. This make it challenging for lower-level employees to buy into the diversity-inclusion initiative that so many firms are trying to push. That’s what it was like for me. When you look at yourself and your life and what it has become as a result of work-life balance becoming work-work and no balance, you start to question diversity and inclusion. Can you be a working mom without having someone else raise your kids? Can you be the CEO without talking like the rest of the white men in the boardroom?
Would they accept a black man with a New York accent or a black woman with a heavy southern accent? Can I wear my hair this way? Can I date this kind of person? Can I find the time to have a relationship with this person? What if I don’t like golfing? What if I’m not married? What if I don’t have kids or want to start having them mid-career? What if I don’t have a Harvard or Princeton degree? What if I don’t come from a two-parent, middle-class family, or I’m not currently running that kind of household? These are real questions that employees struggle with every day — always wondering whether our true selves will be acceptable or good enough.
I have a PhD in being a black woman. Harvard can’t teach this shit! I was born with it. Life was my university and society served as my professors. Ever since fifth grade, when my mother transferred me to a predominantly white school, I have experienced what it means to be “the only one.”
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