Ethnicity Comes Out on Zoom: What It’s Like to Zoom as a Black Man
I’m at home, dressed comfortably (not too casual, but not business attire), and I have my dreadlocks rolled up, like I normally would while at home. I remember I have a Zoom call in a few minutes so I head to my office, find the meeting details, and hop on the call.
My meeting is with a business client and they are dressed in a t-shirt and are unshaven. If this were an in-person meeting, our attire would definitely be different — but the stigma and difference of Black dress/appearance/home decor seems to stand out a bit more on calls like these, where folks really have a window into my home and who I am in that space.
This isn’t just my experience. Black folks and other POC have written about their alienating experiences with White coworkers on Zoom…. And here’s why:
Many Whites have the privilege to dress more casually and be taken more seriously than many people of color would, particularly African Americans. This is VERY true at the university I teach at (when in person) — it seems the higher the title (up to Ph.D.) the greater license many White professors have to dress down and still be respected professionally. For us, however, the higher the title, the more compelled we feel to dress up to uphold our titles and to serve as ambassadors representing other people of color/African Americans.
Teaching on a college campus — in over 15 years of teaching in a higher education setting — I’ve never worn anything but business attire (business casual at the least; a suit at the most). And I never would — particularly as an African American man with dreadlocks. It’s not uncommon, though, for my White colleagues (particularly men) to dress in t-shirts, jeans (torn and stained at times), and gym shoes. My colleagues of color and I regularly talk about how we would never do that. This still plays itself out — to a degree — virtually/by Zoom.
Here are some things that stand out to me about “Zooming while Black”:
- What we see in the lives and homes of one another when on Zoom. Everything “ethnic” tends to stand out more (i.e. artwork, house decor) against the traditional “mainstream” i.e. White home decor
- Social class difference is often more visible (i.e. types of homes, sizes of homes and rooms, types of furniture, sounds and sights that go in in the background)
Typically, the lower one’s social class very often equates with a less controlled environment
- Attire, dress, and grooming:
Black women may wear headwraps (me too) or braided hair at home, but not at work
Clothing with African prints and colorful patterns (“outside of work” clothes)
Hijabs at times may not be worn in the office
Thus, POC are marked and perceived differently…which feeds into potential implicit bias.
POC feel the need to accommodate or respond to the “norms,” hide elements of themselves or their homes, apologize for or downplay the differences between them and other Zoom call participants. Alternatively, POC feel compelled to maintain the same professional look as when in the office while White colleagues on Zoom may be very casual, resulting in the POC standing out.
At the same time, there are lots of uplifting stories, like this one, about people of color finding refuge in Zoom calls with other people of color. We know how important that kind of time is.
How has this played out in your virtual work life recently? Let us know; we’d love to hear your thoughts!