Authenticity is one of the biggest branding buzzwords of the past decade. And it’s not wrong – it’s just not equally valued for everybody.
I’m Liz Marie. I am a brand strategist, and I work with women and BIPOC entrepreneurs to overcome brand chaos, level up their brands, and build generational wealth. Activism, anti-racism, and equality are huge fundamental values of my brand, and that’s what we’re gonna talk about today.
Why Authenticity Matters in Business
If you’ve seen any of my videos on YouTube, you know that if there’s one thing I do, it’s encourage you to be your fucking self in your brand. I am all about being unapologetically being who you are and sharing your real, real personality in your business. And this is really powerful. I’m not the only one talking about authenticity. So here’s why it matters.
From a business standpoint, people have more options than ever before in the history of the world. You can get anything you want, and you have thousands, if not millions, of options, right at your fingertips at any given time. That’s a lot of power for a consumer. You have choice; you can be selective. You can say, “I want to go with this brand because of this,” or “I want to go to this brand because they stand out.”
When you have a very empowered consumer, your brand is held to a much higher standard. They have higher expectations of you. And today, more than ever, people expect brands to have a point of view, values, to stand for something, and to have a personality. It’s not enough to just have a slightly better product, have a slightly different product, or to have an influencer just shilling your shit. Like you have to stand out in some other way.
Personality is one of the biggest differentiators there is. You can have the same product, prices, everything, but if your personality resonates more deeply and is unique and different, you can stand out and build a strong business based on that alone. It’s what makes your brand so special. It’s a huge opportunity and I will never stop believing this; I will never stop telling you to be yourself in your business. And it’s always hard for anyone to put their whole self into their business. It can be scary and feels like a risk to show up authentically and be vulnerable, and all that stuff. It’s scary and takes a lot of courage.
But the consequences of taking that risk vary significantly based on your identity. This may be a new concept that you haven’t thought about or the opposite, it could be something you’ve lived your whole life and you’re like, “come on. This is obvious.” So on one hand, when you’re taking that risk of being yourself fully, you may be risking acceptance. There may be some backlash, people who don’t get it, who want to hate on you or make you feel smaller.
That’s a real risk, and I don’t want to diminish that. But for other people with different identities, they may be actually risking violence. They may get fired for being themselves in their workplace. They may be harassed or even killed for who they are. Like, these are real, real dangerous challenges that come with being yourself fully in the public eye. Because authenticity is a privilege and a privilege that is afforded inequitably across race, gender, sexual orientation, immigrant status, first language, all of these different parts of your identity.
How Authenticity Privilege Works
Generally speaking, women are held to a higher standard than men. BIPOCs are held to a higher standard than white people. Immigrants are held to a higher standard than native-born Americans. Trans people are held to a higher standard than cisgender people. That is the nature of our fucked up system.
So for example, as a white woman, my self-expression is probably going to be far more socially acceptable than the same self-expression by a black woman. I have that privilege that they don’t have. I get the benefit of the doubt. When someone doesn’t approve of what I do, it’s not used to discredit my entire race. The systems of sexism, racism, xenophobia, homophobia, and transphobia – all of this inherent hatred and violence – mean that authenticity is a privilege that is not afforded to everyone in the same way.
There are people who have to conform on some level to literally be safe. And this has a lot of aspects to it; it can show up in a lot of different ways. I will just be touching on a few of them. I’m sure there are many more that I’ll miss so feel free to chime in.
For example, I have tattoos and for me, having visible tattoos and showing up in my business with them may be seen as being “a rebel.” Whereas for someone else, that may be “ghetto.” Like that may be the hateful, stereotypical label that is put on it. And that’s a privilege I have to not have that experience.
The same goes with wearing your natural hair. So for a lot of the people of color with more coily hair textures, in some places, they’re literally not allowed to wear their hair naturally or in supportive styles in a professional setting, because it is deemed “unprofessional”. They can be discriminated against for their hair. It wasn’t until the Crown Act in California, that that became outlawed. But that is not the case everywhere in the country. There are millions of people who still can’t literally be themselves in terms of their physical appearance because it’s considered “unprofessional” and that’s BULLSHIT, but it’s also the reality of this society that we’re in right now.
The same can be applied to how you dress and these rules of what “professional” is. This applies a lot to people whose style defies the gender binary norms. If you’re non-binary and you want to wear what is stereotypically feminine, or if you identify as a man and you want to wear a skirt just because you want to, that’s not necessarily considered socially acceptable. There can be actual consequences to that in your workplace, in your business. There can be backlash and even violence. The consequences are not the same for everyone.
A lot of this is because the premise of what is professional is based on centuries of best practices and standards built on a white, wealthy, cis male system. Not everyone was allowed to participate in that system or have their contributions and their identity valued by it. So, it is a very strict bubble of what is acceptable.
This can absolutely also translate to how you speak. There’s a really common concept called “code-switching”. A lot of people – especially people of color – feel comfortable speaking in a certain way around their community and have to “code switch” or put on a different style of communication in order to navigate the broader world because their way of speaking naturally are among people they’re comfortable with is not considered socially acceptable. It may be criticized or looked down upon for whatever racist or other bullshit ass reason.
The same thing goes with being able to curse or speak your mind freely. I say “fuck” all the time and definitely rubbed some people the wrong way but the consequences of that that are not the same as if I had some other level to my identity that was marginalized: if I was a woman of color, or if I was gay or some other layer that could be used against me, on top of being a woman.
#3 “Acceptable” Jobs/Careers
Another example of how being yourself has consequences is that certain careers or jobs themselves are not socially acceptable within different cultures. I remember working on strategy for one of my friends who was an Indian woman and her describing her journey towards finding this path as an entrepreneur and how she had to constantly rebel against things like her family, her culture, people who wouldn’t let their sons date her, like all of these different experiences, because she wasn’t in this very narrow career path. I’ve heard that from a lot of different people from different cultures. And that is a real consequence: ostracism and not being accepted to being yourself.
What do we do about it?
So now we have established this premise that authenticity is a privilege. It is not equally tolerated, accepted, or celebrated for everyone. So what do we do about it? I wish I had a miracle solution. I’m gonna be honest with you… I don’t. I want to talk about this because I think if this isn’t your lived experience, if you haven’t had to think about all of these things when you’re putting yourself out there, I want you to be aware that that is a privilege and that there are a lot of other really heavy consequences that people have to consider when they’re doing the same.
I want to talk about this because authenticity as a topic is everywhere. And yet not a lot of people that I have seen in a marketing or branding or business space are acknowledging that it’s a privilege and not everyone gets the same benefit from it and that many people experience backlash.
If you have authenticity privilege…
If you are afforded this privilege in any context, first, let’s talk about it. Let’s raise awareness. I want you to be aware when you’re putting yourself out there of the things you don’t have to worry about and just start to realize and gain empathy for what other people do. Talk about it with people that you know, spread awareness amongst your community and other people who don’t have those same challenges, and advocate for others and call it out.
If you see someone being critiqued for their hair, their appearance, their accent, or some other thing that’s just part of them, and they’re being criticized for it – call it out! My boyfriend, who is black and has dreads, has gotten comments at work on his hair. He’s also been called out for dressing the same as his white peers because he’s supposed to be “more professional” as a black man. If one of his white colleagues had stood up and critiqued it at that moment, it would have been a real game-changer in the situation and helped advocate for him where he was in a position of being shit on by someone else. So, when you have that privilege,
you can use your position of power to advocate and speak up for the people that are being criticized.
And just continue to fight back against the systems of oppression and all that we do. I know it’s a broad term, but there’s a lot to it. And it starts with being aware, learning, and supporting the other people around us.
If you don’t have all of these privileges of authenticity…
If you have these multi-layered identities of marginalization, fuck man, I want to just acknowledge it. I know that I will never understand your experience. When I say be yourself, I still mean it, but I also see how much harder it is for you. And I see that there may be times when you have to qualify the spaces in which or the people with whom you can be yourself fully. And that’s okay. If you have to do that in a different way, if you have to do authenticity differently to be safe and to not be in harm’s way or be at risk, then do you. There may be parts of you that you’re not going to share with everyone. And that’s okay too. It’s okay if only certain people get that full you, but I want you to live that full you fully, at least with those people.
I’m was still going to tell you to be yourself. Always, always, always be unapologetically yourself. But I want to acknowledge how much motherfucking courage it takes to do it anyway when you’re dealing with all of these things. So even if you can’t show the full you to the world all the time, I want you to have the confidence and conviction of knowing that who you are fucking badass.
I will continue to try to use my small but growing platform to talk about things like this, raise awareness, and advocate for change. And as always, let me know if there’s something I missed the mark on. If there’s something you want me to do differently, or if you just want to share your opinion or your experience dealing with issues like these because cause I know it’s not easy and I’d love to hear from you.
Until next time, stay badass.