Considering: Deauthenticity in the Workplace

[This content has been republished at Renewals, a site focused on discussions about low morale in academic libraries] 

“Authenticity is defined as the sharing of self by relating in a natural, sincere, spontaneous, open, and genuine manner. Being authentic, or genuine, involves relating personally so that expressions are spontaneous rather than contrived.” (Hepworth 2010, p. 107).

In my study on socially/politically conservative librarians, self-censorship came up as a major part of this groups’ work-life experience (Theme 7: In The Closet).  Participants shared a need to suppress their opinions or recalled being told that they should not let colleagues know that they are conservative, lest they subject themselves to subtle or blatant discrimination or abuse (Kendrick & Damasco 2015).

During my current work on the low-morale experiences of racial/ethnic minority academic librarians, I’ve been thinking about self-censorship with more specificity: all the things employees from underrepresented racial or ethnic groups feel they must (not) do to avoid mistreatment at any level. Keeping in mind that in general, it’s hard to hide one’s skin color (or linguistic accent), the sort of self-censorship I’m considering is more than hiding opinions or viewpoints – I’m talking about something deeper.  I’ve termed it deauthentication.

My working definition: deauthentication is a cognitive process that People of Color (PoC) traverse to prepare for or navigate predominantly White workplace environments, resulting in decisions that hide or reduce aspects of

  1. the influence of their ethnic, racial, or cultural identity,  and 
  2. the presentation of their natural personality, language, physical and mental self-images/representations, interests, relationships, values, traditions, and more,

to avoid macro- or microaggressions, shaming, incivility, punishment or retaliation, and which results in barriers to sharing their whole selves with their colleagues and/or clients. 

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This idea is contrasted by what I observe as non-PoC employees’ enjoyment of what I call the Privilege of Authenticity, wherein they seem to be able to 1) display a full range of emotions, 2) share interests, opinions, personal life and health details and histories, family details, hobbies, etc. and 2) present themselves physically (hair, clothing, skin, makeup, accessories, etc.)  in almost any way – and in (almost) any workplace setting – with considerably less concern about shaming, push-back, punishment/mistreatment, unsolicited interference, or undue interrogation.

Since authenticity requires vulnerability (Brown) — which many PoC feel they don’t have the luxury of enjoying (for myriad reasons) — I believe deauthentication has emotional and cognitive impacts with possible effects on physical and mental health – especially since working against authenticity often results in shame (Brown, 2005).

Exploring connections between authenticity and privilege is not new and has already been applied to the general workforce – with superficial mentions of the impact on racially marginalized groups (Painter 2013; Malfucci 2018).  Additionally, the term “privilege of authenticity” shows up in other works on literature and cultural identity (Habib 1996; Louie 2015;). 

I recognize this process is not unique to librarianship (in fact, even moreso in corporate worlds where, for instance, formal policies codify the supremacy of Euro-centric dress and hair norms). While I was crafting this blogpost, Buzzfeed posted an article about an art project chronicling corporate deauthentication of young African American women entering the workforce. I also recognize that deauthentication occurs within several frameworks or processes, including but not limited to colonialism, assimilation, and dehumanization. That being said, I am considering deauthentication as an inverse state and phenomenon, and I’m applying it to what I know: the (academic) library workplace/profession.

My recent interviews give the idea of deauthentication buoyancy. A female Latina participant stated that she leaves about 80% of her Self behind when she walks through the door of her job (an African-American female participant said 85 – 90%). A male Latino librarian stated that he “is very short” with answers about his personal life because his white female supervisor may later use his responses against him. 

Consider all the possible ways PoC leave themSelves behind when they arrive at work (or represent themselves on-line in work capacities): internal capitulations over language, clothing and hairstyle choices, even food choices; not to mention negotiating decisions about what (not) to disclose in run-of-the-mill workplace conversations and confessions about health, family and romantic relationships, or cultural and social events and associated life meanings. Imagine the emotional labor behind these choices and actions. Moreover, consider the physical, and community impacts on the results of these choices and actions. One can easily conceive of a gamut of states and results, from self-doubt and shame all the way to enabling of workplace abuse and neglect. 

Considering librarianship is a profession that, in part, tries to help people find answers for/about themSelves, it means something when those who can help guide this process — while often shouldering the burden of being the only one or very few representing various facets of their communities of identity — believe they must remove themSelves from the possibility of genuine interaction with colleagues or library users.

As a PoC librarian, can you think of instances you brought less than your whole Self to the workplace in an attempt to 1) hide/protect/reduce some aspect of your identity, culture, history, or life-ways 2) avoid defending/explaining yourSelf, 2) reduce or avoid subtle or blatant shaming or potential microaggressions, 3) counteract or avoid double-standard outcomes of which you would be on the short end, 4) avoid being used as ‘the example,’ or the like? Furthermore, have you done any of this in the service of American librarianship’s implicit or explicit values or ethics? How do you think deauthentication has affected your work relationships or library practice?

If you like, you can share your general thoughts and experiences anonymously.

UPDATE: You can read the initial results of the survey here. (The survey will remain open).

Works Cited

Brown, B. (2005). Authenticity. Retrieved from http://www.women-at-heart.com/authenticity.html

Brown, B. (2009). Authenticity is a daily practice. Retrieved from http://brenebrown.com/wp-content/uploads/2013/09/Authenticity_download-1.pdf

Habib, I. (1996). Interrogating cultures: Hybrid subjectivity as Third Space  in R.K Narayan’s  “The Guide”, V.S. Naipal’s “A House for Mr. Biswas”, and Salman Rushdie’s “Midnight’s Children.” Studies in the Humanities, 23(1): 28-52.

Hepworth, D.H., Rooney, R.H., Rooney, G.D., Strom-Gottfried, K., & Larsen, J. (2010). Direct social work practice: Theory and skills. Belmont, CA: Brooks/Cole CENGAGE Learning.

Kendrick, K.D. & Damasco, I.T. (2015). A phenomenological study of conservative academic librarians. Behavioral & Social Sciences Librarian, 34(3): 12*-457. Retrieved from http://www.tandfonline.com/doi/abs/10.1080/01639269.2015.1063952?

Louie, A. (2015). How Chinese are you? Adopted Chinese youth negotiate identity and culture. New York: New York University Press.

Malfucci, S. (2018). Authenticity at work is a privilege. Thoughtworks. Retrieved from https://www.thoughtworks.com/insights/blog/authenticity-work-privilege

Painter, R. (2013). Understanding privilege in authenticity – an #sachat final thought. The Student Affairs Collective. Retrieved from https://studentaffairscollective.org/understanding-privilege-in-authenticity-an-sachat-final-thought/

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