first person

It Doesn’t Matter If We Behave

Photo-Illustration: by The Cut; Photo Getty Images

When I first started working in the beauty industry, I was afraid to wear my nails long. I was terrified that my acrylics, the ones that made my hands look beautiful, would signal something about me I didn’t want to communicate: that I was “ghetto,” “loud,” or didn’t fit in. I was afraid of that characterization and the ways it might pigeonhole me while being acutely aware of how this consideration was an attempt to separate myself from a kind of Blackness I assumed couldn’t succeed. I was fresh out of college and coming off Frantz Fanon, Hortense Spillers, June Jordan, and bell hooks. I knew better.

But I kept my nails a moderate length and opted for neutral shades anyway — pinks, lavenders. In the summer, taxicab yellow. The reception was lackluster. Nobody gawked or said anything notable, and I was glad for it. I pitched stories about the very thing I avoided, wanting to celebrate the aesthetic that surrounded and inspired me but unwilling to go for it myself. As the years passed, long nails, the kind I’d seen growing up, became a mainstream trend. Suddenly, white women everywhere were sporting fresh sets, complaining about how difficult it is to type and discussing how to pull their cards out of ATMs. It was something familiar gone strange — like someone trying on “sis” for size. And not only did they wear them long, they wore them loud. Billie Eilish’s claws dripped acid green. Kylie Jenner’s talons took on every shape and size. It wasn’t long before the women around me followed. There seemed to be two camps: the girls waxing poetic about Essie’s Clambake and the ones asking after the best places to go for a fill. I didn’t have any recommendations. My nail shop is in Queens.

Two jobs later, I was seated next to a white woman with the kind of bold colors and designs I’d only seen on the internet. I was still playing it safe, experimenting with French tips in different hues. Some days, she donned sparkles and cherries. Other days, gems and cartoonish designs. They looked great. I was jealous, frustrated by a rule of law that only existed in my head, a self-imposed standard that had not yielded any noticeable results. I didn’t progress faster or shine brighter. Being palatable and smart did not stop me from being laid off — but that’s a story for another time.

I was groomed in the ways of professionalism from a young age. My first lesson was that my mother, whose locs fell straight down her back, was failing at it. My grandmother told me so. She would say that my mother needed to cut it off and press her hair instead — the implication being that this was somehow holding her back. That straight hair would somehow fix all of her problems. That her hair was a problem in the first place.

As I grew older, I learned that professionalism went beyond aesthetics. I vividly recall a public debate I had in seventh grade. We were given a topic, then told to go at it. Our teachers served as the judges, though our classmates could chime in with their whoops and cheers. I don’t remember what we were going back and forth about, but I remember it came down to me and another student. She stated her case, her voice prim and measured, then it was my turn. I started out contained, but as I felt the energy of the crowd, their eyes on me, I started to riff, speaking to them like I would in the cafeteria. I threw in anecdotes and tried to relate. I knew I was performing, overdoing it maybe, but I was playing to my audience. At the end, they yelled so loud I was sure victory was mine. But the other girl won.

Immediately, my eyes filled with tears. I was shocked, hurt, and confused. My mother, who worked as a teacher at the school, pulled me aside to explain. “You need to keep it professional,” she said. What I heard and, from that day forward, understood was that there was a system to this “winning” thing and I needed to remain inside it if I had any hope of succeeding. But it didn’t stop there. Two years later, I’d end up at a mostly white private high school tucked away in the Palisades neighborhood of Washington, D.C. It wasn’t my first time in an all-white learning environment, but it was the first time I was coming into myself, and I quickly learned that they wouldn’t make it easy. As often as I was labeled bright, intelligent, and sharp, I was called aggressive and dramatic. I was shamed for wearing shorts the same length as my thinner peers and ignored when I cried foul.

By the time I entered the working world, I was well versed in navigating the choppy waters of respectability. I knew how I would be perceived for showing up too similarly to a caricature of a Black woman they’d seen on TV or encountered in real life. I threw my best and biggest ideas out early, made culturally relevant jokes followed by my best attempts to explain them, became an always available sounding board for diversity, and didn’t make a fuss. I called missteps out gently, typing exclamation points and “I think” to soften my approach in emails. I carefully managed myself as well as their perceptions of me. My biggest fear was being misunderstood. I wanted them to see me the way I saw myself: passionate, smart, sharp, stunningly aware, ambitious. But I could never be sure if they saw that — or they were noticing some other thing I didn’t know how to adjust.

Black women are taught to be twice as good, but we learn that we have to be thrice as cunning and four times as strategic if we want to get anywhere. We very rarely stumble on success. It is a series of careful decisions plus a dash of luck. By luck, I mean a space where there aren’t too many other Black girls sitting in a similar spot. And once there, there is entirely new set of negotiations and considerations, especially if you’re the first to arrive. There’s an instinct to set a certain tone. In many cases, not just for yourself but for the people you hope will come after you. For the college-age girl who DM’d you on Instagram and asked how you got where you are today. You hope, if you can do a good job (and don’t intend to shut the door behind you), that there will be more.

But there are sacrifices associated with navigating well enough to get to the top. You lose some of yourself in all of that. Even if they hired you to come in swinging, eventually they’ll expect you to curve your back to the shape of the institution. It is the way these systems are designed. And if you want to stay, you do. It’s easy to get caught up in living out that dream. The air is thinner up there. There are fewer people, but it isn’t more spacious. It is almost always a tight fit, because there will always be a double standard.

It is not lost on me that this pursuit to make a splash in a pool that would prefer to be filled with concrete rather than to really, dramatically change was mostly futile. It wasn’t enough for Black women to say they valued my perspective or repost my work on their Instagram stories. That was valuable, sure, but I wanted to move up in the ranks, to reach higher than the tips of my fingers could stretch. If you were to ask me why I was stretching myself, I would say that it was to make the women around me feel seen, to change something for the collective, but that wasn’t the whole truth. I wanted to exist in rooms that felt closed off to me, to wield the power needed to change the hearts and opinions of the people who picked up a magazine. I wanted to see if they had better food up there, if the water tasted good. I wanted to be plucked from the group and made special, able to tell myself that I’d made the right kind of edits while maintaining a core sense of self. My ambition was cloaked as representation, as doing something for the collective good.

But I was no better than Gayatri Chakravorty Spivak’s “native informant,” acting as a go-between for the white intellectual class in hopes of getting a pat on the head and a few extra dollars in my paycheck. I wanted Black women to see my work and agree that I had spoken accurately and carefully about the things we were concerned with but always with an eye toward legibility. I turned my shoulders away from true critique, especially in my workplace. I took on the values associated with professionalism and respectability to the point that no one had to tell me what to do or what to stay away from. At times, I forgot I was acting. I had entered into a tacit agreement with a system that made it stunningly clear that I could come in, but in doing so, had to leave some of myself at the door.

It didn’t ultimately matter that I meant well or tried hard. The promotions never came, and I realized I needed to chart a different path. On the other end of my disappointment, I began interrogating why I desperately wanted to be seen and what I stood to gain from participating in the commodification of my identity. Instead of going to therapy, I started writing a novel (which would eventually become Homebodies), a book that centers around a 20-something named Mickey trying to make a name for herself in media. After she’s unceremoniously fired from her job and swiftly replaced, she begins to spiral, grappling with who she is without the title of “writer” bestowed on her by a system that doesn’t see her clearly. In many ways, she becomes invisible — both to the institution and to herself. It’s casual, subtle, and maddening.

There is no explicit moment that explains why Mickey is jettisoned from the ivory publishing tower — just as there will rarely be a single white face telling you to hold yourself a certain way or not wear your nails too long. These are edits we make in an attempt to circumvent the swift and fierce backlash when it appears we’ve stepped out of line. Mickey falls apart in the face of this rejection, because I gave her the permission not to get back up the way most of us have to. The way that I did. I allowed her a soft place to land, problems to sort out that didn’t involve the police. I let her fall in love. I gave her that, because the reality is that we don’t often get the grace or blessing to take a step back and let all the feelings rush in. Instead, we do our best to behave.

It Doesn’t Matter How We Behave