LaTonya Summers, PhD, NCC, MAC, LCAS, LPCS, understands the struggle to be authentic in the workplace.
She’s spent 20-plus years as an African-American woman in counseling, a profession her own culture often doesn’t understand or trust. She’s adhered to societal standards when it comes to how she presents herself, including wearing a wig rather than her natural hair in her position as assistant professor at Jacksonville University in Florida. She’s shared her thoughts on authenticity issues with O, The Oprah Magazine, in its June 2019 edition.
Summers has also initiated a new research study looking at 12 early-career African-American women seeking to advance in their jobs and whether company grooming policies affect them in the workplace. The project’s goal is to better understand the women’s perceptions about upward mobility, career compromise, and natural hair bias in the workplace.
“I know what it’s like to want to be your authentic self, but to have to adhere to predominant standards of beauty,” says Summers, a 2016 NBCC Foundation Minority Fellow. “This is nothing new at all. It’s always been that way for black women.”
For Summers, the research is simply her latest effort to grow cross-cultural and cross-racial knowledge during a life journey that hasn’t been easy.
She grew up in a lower-income family in Charlotte, North Carolina, and was the first of her family to go to college. She also worked from age 15 to take pressure off her parents, becoming manager of a McDonald’s by 17. A high school counselor told her she was smart enough to go to college and Summers attended Appalachian State University (ASU) in Boone, North Carolina. She chose ASU, she said, to gain better understanding of the white world and the ability to move within it.
She said some of her professors helped her in this regard, teaching her how to speak; “in a way, they groomed me.” She studied child psychology, but learned about the profession of counseling and believed it was her calling. She obtained her master’s in counseling from ASU and also had the first of her two children, who are now 23 and 21. She also later adopted a third child, who is now 18.
Summers began her professional career as an addictions counselor, working nine years with severely ill patients at a psychiatric hospital before leaving to open a private practice that grew to be one of the largest outpatient mental health practices in Charlotte.
“I had 22 employees and was seeing 100 to 120 clients a week; in 10 years, we impacted more than 6,000 lives,” Summers says, the pride evident in her voice. “We ran it like family.”
After more than 20 years of clinical work, Summers took on a new challenge in 2015 by pursuing a long-held dream—earning her doctorate. She enrolled at the University of North Carolina at Charlotte, and the following year she was chosen as an NBCC Foundation doctoral fellow to support her work.
Her goal throughout her journey is to improve outcomes in black communities. She hopes to eventually become a university dean, provost, and then president. She knows attitudes need to be changed not just in larger society, but within minority groups.
“If I had said to my family I was going into counseling, it would not have gone over well. We were told culturally that what happens in a house, stays in a house,” Summers says. “Here we are 20 years later and we still have that thought in communities, though the counseling profession is becoming more diverse . . . and people are feeling more comfortable knowing that it is a place where minority clients are welcome.”
Today, Summers serves as a mentor to minority counseling students.
“I work to show them that your status is an asset rather than a liability,” she says.
Still, society in many respects imposes the values of the majority on others, and Summers is aware of that influence in her own life even today. In the O magazine article, she recounted an incident during her doctoral studies of experiencing direct racial bias from a white professor and discusses how that sent her into a depressive spiral, withdrawing and becoming aloof.
The symptoms lasted about a year, she says, but subsided when she took medications. Taking medications, however, brought dissonance; she had to accept that as an African-American woman and a therapist herself, she needed to take them. Ultimately, it was a powerful experience, she says, because she recognizes now how she did not understand the anguish of clients she counseled years ago with depression.
“I could go back and apologize to all the clients I’ve seen because I now know this is how they felt,” she says. “I had no clue what I was doing when I was working with them. I knew they were in pain, so I could empathize with them, but I had no idea what they were trusting me with.”
Another personal experience now coming into play in Summers’ work is her research following African-American women new to the workforce; the study is primarily aimed at studying how company grooming policies affect the women.
Businesses are not always accepting of African-American women’s natural hairstyles, and much importance is tied to fitting in to existing culture, Summers says.
Her study is funded by a grant from the National Career Development Association. Summers expects the study to show whether company grooming policies are linked to promotions. If so, she would like to create presentations to companies about the discriminatory nature of these policies and become involved in legislative action to prevent such discrimination.
Summers notes that two states—New York and California—already have passed legislation banning discrimination against natural hair.
Although she hopes her research leads to cultural change, Summers herself made a conscious decision when she joined Jacksonville University not to wear her hair in its natural state. She says she and her colleagues and friends have looked at photos of African-American women who are deans of universities, mayors, and in other positions of prominence. Some 90% of those women have straight hair.
“Ten percent is not a chance I can take,” Summers says. “I did not come this far to take a risk by wearing my hair natural. At this point, isn’t that sad?”
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