Any black person who works in a predominantly white job environment likely knows exactly what I mean when I say: it’s like working two jobs while only being paid for one form of labor. Of course, you won’t find “microaggression suffrage pay” itemized on your check stub, but you can’t help but feel owed that bit of extra compensation. After all, no one else here seems to have to endure the endless forced fist bumps every time they reach in for the standard, professional hand shake, or being the only one greeted with a loud and over-pronounced, “What up, dawg?!” while all other coworkers greet each other, “Hey, how’s it going?” Worse yet are all the racist jokes you have to either pretend you didn’t overhear, or call out and risk being labeled “angry black man/woman” for the rest of your time in that job. And let’s not forget the, “You speak so well” or “Yeah, you’re black, but you’re not, like, black black” comments. Sorry, but white people are exhausting.
This has been my situation for the better part of a decade. In today’s job market, which seems to fluctuate between various levels of stability to a point where job security is never really a given, I’m fortunate to have a job that I’m good at, pays fairly well and one where my superiors are all satisfied with my work performance, so I don’t have to worry much about getting the ax (I mention this in hopes of avoiding the typical, obtuse “Why don’t you just quit?” response). But this sense of security is largely contingent on my ability to pick my battles and know when to speak up about racial offenses and when to let things slide in order to avoid a “hostile work environment” situation.
For example, during the time Obama was in office, I constantly had to listen to my staunch conservative bosses and coworkers (Oh, did I forget to mention they’re mostly hard right wingers?) lament his presidency and, occasionally lift their spirits by telling off-color jokes at his expense. One joke I recall overhearing went something to the effect of, “A muslim, a socialist and a black guy walk into a bar… the bartender says, ‘Why, hello Mr. President!’” Of course everyone within earshot gets quite the kick out of it and laughs, and many of them can’t help but to look my way in anticipation of my reaction. In my mind I’m thinking about how generally stale the “humor” was, all the levels of racism in that, seemingly harmless jab (the fact that Obama isn’t muslim and that it wouldn’t be such a constant accusation were he white, the fact that there’s nothing inherently wrong with being muslim and the fact that him being black is even mentioned) and the fact that if I had more coworkers of color to back me up, I’d probably be more comfortable being honest about my feelings. But, in the end, I simply gave it an awkward smirk and walked away.
Truthfully, that was a relatively mundane example, but one that perfectly illustrates why I have to avoid political conversations at work while all my coworkers engage in them freely. I find myself dodging, “Hey, can I ask you a question without you getting offended” inquiries like Matrix bullets and abruptly, yet casually leaving rooms whenever things like welfare, terrorism or immigration becomes the topic of discussion because I know it’s only a short manner of time before the conversation devolves into an impromptu Trump rally.
Again, in a more diverse workplace, I’d likely feel better about engaging and speaking my truth because I’d have more support, but how does one speak freely, let alone address race-based concerns, when one is so culturally isolated?
There are plenty of articles floating around the Internet that expound on all the offenses I mention here and even some explaining to white people what not to say to their black coworkers. They all look great in print, but are hardly applicable in the real world and would likely only be countered with white people “whitesplaining” that they experience similar treatment at the hands of their black coworkers.
Earlier this year, public relations professional and diversity and inclusion expert, Risha Grant took to Facebook to ask white people to comment the things that black people say or do that annoy them at work and then listed the most common responses.
Mostly of the complaints involved black people “playing the victim”, speaking on white privilege (and, of course, they demonstrate a typical misunderstanding of what the term actually means) and racist generalizations characterizing black people as being lazy, hyper combative and using “poor grammar” or “speaking as if they’re uneducated.”
But there were also complaints about how black employees flock and form cliques together, often ignoring their white coworkers and refusing to include them. In other words white people are actually taking issue with black people finding more comfort in each other’s company than we do in theirs. I find this laughable considering many of their other complaints about us would seem to perfectly illustrate why we’d rather keep to our own.
Back when I did have black coworkers, we absolutely gravitated towards each other – as described in the first couple complaints listed – because in our circles, we didn’t have to worry about all the microaggressive questions and comments regarding our blackness that we were subject to when conversing with our white counterparts. We didn’t need to be concerned about being judged for our “poor grammar” or “speaking as if we are uneducated” because we understood that AAVE (African American Vernacular English) is a cultural thing and a commonality amongst us that didn’t denote ignorance or a lacking of education. We were comfortable around each other the same way we would be around our own families and friends outside of work. Furthermore, we knew we could discuss race related grievances that we had without immediately being dismissed as “race-baiting” (a term I abhor) or being overly sensitive.
Grant wrote about her social experiment on Facebook that the point was “to help you understand that regardless of how you identify, we are all a part of the human race.”
But, see… nah.
The problem with taking the “all lives matter” approach to diversity training in the workplace, is that it ignores the fact that the complaints of people of color are based in what we endure (veiled racism, microaggression, blatant discrimination, endless cultural questioning etc.), whereas the complaints of our white coworkers are based in what they observe and fail to understand regarding their coworkers of color. Or to put things more simply: we’re uncomfortable because of their racism while they’re uncomfortable because we’re so sensitive to their racism – but it’s treated like an even-handed issue where both sides need to be understanding and adjust.
As a black employee at a predominantly white job, all I want is to be able to exist in my black identity and still be treated with the same standard of professional decorum that my white coworkers are afforded. I want to be able to interact with my peers without constantly being put in a position where I have to make a decision on whether to speak out when I’m offended and risk my job or, at the very least, alienation, or to suck it up, stay silent and keep things on an even keel. As much flack as we get for “playing the race card” (another term I abhor) and being hypersensitive, you’d be surprised how much we don’t say and how much energy we spend protecting white fragility at our own expense.
It’s a lot of extra labor. And none of it is itemized on my check stub.