I watched my white counterparts for years in staff meetings. No matter the topic, it was guaranteed entertainment. Never backing away from an opportunity to share disdain with newly imposed rules or what have you, my coworkers could disrupt an entire meeting, storm off and take a smoke break, refuse to return to the meeting, only to be invited to continue blowing steam off behind closed doors until compromise was reached.
Let one of us do it.
Another thing I’ve watched for years. Us, whispering and growling amongst ourselves, disgusted with the latest off-color, subtle remarks while quieting quickly at the sound of footsteps. I’ve seen grown, gray-haired men and women back away from checking a disrespectful white millennial, but speak to their younger black colleagues like they caught their hands in their wallets.
I see brown and black faces turn on that 1000-watt, million-dollar smile for someone who treats them like the bottom of a fucking boot. The damaging remnants of a slave mentality. Tolerating blatant disrespect. Who taught us to do that? Why don’t we feel as empowered as our white colleagues to speak the fuck up?
It’s as if we still feel the crack of the whip on our backs. Maybe we aren’t crazy and are feeling a perpetual whip of a different sort. The inability to fumble or error. The fear of failing and being seen as incompetent, or a poor fit. We come in with the odds already stacked against us. Each mistake and folly yet another tally mark that somebody somewhere is tracking. That’s what it feels like to be black in the workplace. Working extra hard and every step of it being picked apart and judged. You are not equal.
Being black, female and in charge is one part double edged sword, and another part shotgun loaded with double standards, and a work family that eventually turns into foes with a line drawn in the sand. You can’t win for losing.
Work ethic has always been high on my list of values. I love team-building and creating leaders, but in my experience it’s the people who look like me that are the most difficult to manage. They’re ok with you enforcing rules until it comes to them. People who were my lunch buddies start to distance themselves, whispering that I’m doing too much because I say chill on the two-hour lunches or how their frequent call outs are creating concerns. I eventually become the office loner and I’m so used to it now that I now welcome it when it comes. It’s relieving because then I don’t have to juggle the obligations of coworker and friend. Dare you apply a standard to a muthaphucka you work with. You might as well get Sellout tattooed on your forehead.
Among faces that look like mine, dare I have an opinion. The level of micromanaging that comes with a black face. I’ve witnessed white male coworkers spend hours around the water cooler, in break rooms and each other’s offices enthralled in conversation. Literally hours of standing around with pocketed hands, shooting the shit. If two of my black male coworkers are witnessed standing idle for longer than five minutes, all hell breaks loose. I’ll receive emails, texts and a verbal convo “suggesting” that I have a talk and remind these grown ass men that there ain’t no kee-keeing and gathering allowed in the workplace.
Some days, I want to run around in full Kizzy mode, screaming slack-jawed naive yessuhs to the boss with each new command to keep the colored folks inline, just to see their satisfaction show itself for a split second. Instead of hiding it in plain sight for once.
I had this one manager who would always come to me to step in whenever it involved a person of color on her team. Not any of my direct reports — hers. Her reason, and my supervisor’s reason for supporting it, was that I had such good rapport with them and I was much more relatable than she was. Bitch, are you being serious? I was the most anti-social person in the office; a cubicle recluse, but I was expected to go behind and soften the blow.
We can’t laugh too loud or too long. If we’re gathered, we’re plotting. We can’t linger in supply rooms or storage closets without someone passing through to “help us find what we’re looking for” and we absolutely cannot be vocal about any perceived injustices.
We speak up and it’s as if we’re planning a riot. “Calm down.” To me, it’s their way of saying shut the fuck up. It’s distracting. You instantly end up checking yourself like, is my voice raised? Did I enunciate a little too much or maybe I got caught up in a neck roll. We didn’t do anything but speak up. What needs to start following the suggestion to calm down is, “And if I don’t?”
Bob and Karen can slam hands on tables, send doors slamming off their hinges, pack their things for the day and leave when pissed off, but let me raise the pitch of my voice one octave too high when talking about the unfair treatment of my black male staff, and I just need to calm down. Issue unresolved and nigga still silent.
So now I’m the unofficial poster child for the angry black woman in the workplace. And that’s just how it has to be. I’m not tolerating any suggestions to calm down or to be the bigger person when I make a white coworker uncomfortable. No one’s pulling them aside, asking that they bestow that same courtesy to me.
I will not allow the older white males in my office to refer to their black counterparts as boys. Each and every time they say it, I’m going to say loud, strong, clear and uncomfortably, BOY??!! WHERE DO YOU SEE A BOY?? You won’t feel ok declaring that about another man of color around me. I won’t break conversation with black coworkers when a white coworker walks up and silently stands there waiting for us to be quiet, instead of just saying excuse me. I finish what I have to say then walk away, especially when I know you’re waiting to speak to me. Since we’re playing games.
It’s exhausting and I have no interest whatsoever in having a seat at that post slavery, passive aggressive, calm the blacks down table.
Table legs and chairs removed, it’s our podium now.