Should We Really Be Seeking to Fit In?

Written by
Autumn A. Arnett

May 6, 2024

May 6, 2024 • by Autumn A. Arnett

My sweet niece, age three, recently developed a stutter.

Now, this is a child who has been speaking in complete sentences—sans stutter—for about a year. Her mother noticed it first and thought it was strange, but it wasn’t until another sister pointed it out that it really hit her that the child had begun to stutter. She raised her concern with her preschool teacher the next day. After thinking about it, the teacher said, “Oh! Jalahni has been hanging out with [another child] who does have a stutter. She must be mimicking him.” And sure enough, after making an intentional effort to have Jalahni interact with more children who do not stutter, and pointing out to her that she doesn’t actually have a stutter, she stopped stuttering just as quickly as she had begun.

Mimicking is for Grown-Ups

Recently, I conducted an exercise for a team that I conduct often, a brand perception exercise where I ask participants to think about how they view themselves (as a team or individuals), how they think others view them and how they want others to view them. Nothing particularly complicated, but it usually yields a lot of good insight that helps me to determine how to guide the team. I realized about three-fourths of the way that I was using a lot of “umm”s and hesitating a lot in leading this team through the exercise. This was really odd; not only have I led this activity dozens, maybe hundreds of times, but I am a very confident speaker and presenter. Why was I coming across as not sure of myself in this activity?

Upon reflecting, I realized I was mimicking the speech patterns of the team. This all-woman team does amazing work, but they do not always present as super confident in the work they are doing, and they seem to be stalled by a need to make every decision by committee. Like my three-year-old niece, I had adopted their communication style, and in my own opinion, made myself look unsure, and certainly not like an expert in the conversation I was trying to lead.

I started thinking about other instances where this may have been true. Around certain audiences, my voice gets higher pitched, more cheery. The subconscious goal is to make these groups feel more comfortable with my presence at the front of the room; often I am one of the few people who looks like me in those rooms and I associate a higher-pitched, cheerier voice with one that might be less threatening.

My best friend calls it “white woman enthusiasm,” and I was once targeted on a team whose leader asked if I even wanted to be a part of the team because I didn’t display it. I was confused, because it was a team I very much enjoyed working on and contributed heavily to. But my very low, even tone did not demonstrate this to them, and I was eventually relieved of my duties after I pushed for more clarity. If I had to pinpoint a moment when I started mimicking the tones and speech patterns of others to fit in, I would say it was that one.

De-Valuing Code Switching

Often, there is a lot of value placed on the idea of code-switching—this idea that people of color and others who are not a part of the dominant culture can effectively put on and remove their own cultural and linguistic norms to assimilate into the dominant culture’s norms. I have been thinking a lot about this, and specifically about the harm it causes the person who must take off and put on their own norms and values, as if they are nothing more than a piece of clothing hanging in the closet.

I spent years in image development and etiquette school in preparation for an eventual career in politics, and I even pride myself on my ability to leverage the language of the audience I’m trying to reach to achieve my overall goal. But there is a difference between being able to craft a targeted communication piece or campaign platform based on what you know will move audiences and dimming one’s own light to fit in—right?

I suspect this is a question I will grapple with for some time. Like many other discussions in my life, my daughter has been the one pushing me the hardest to stop trying to fit in and just be my full, authentic, Black, female self in every environment. To take up space, even where none is created for me. To rest in my own expertise—expertise in which I am confident, but not always intentional about displaying.

I often fall into “I don’t have to prove anything, so you are free to think what you want”—and I really do feel that way. But there is a difference between “think what you want” and “I am going to intentionally adopt your deficiencies to make you feel more comfortable or less aware of your own areas for growth opportunity.” And I think that is where I have more work to do—and where I would suggest many women, particularly those of us in leadership positions have work to do. I do not suffer from imposter syndrome. I have worked hard to earn a seat at every table I’ve been able to sit at. But I do still seemingly suffer from a need to not allow others to feel uncomfortable with my presence there. And that, I am learning, is not my burden to bear.