While Black Series

The Loneliness of the Sole Black Employee (Working While Black)

True stories of the Black experience in office life

You know the day is coming. You sent in your application, made it through the interview process and got hired. Now it’s time for your first day, and there’s one big hurdle you’ll have to face, today and every day. You’ll be the only Black employee in the company.

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When you live in countries where you’re in the minority, this is a common experience. You don’t see anyone who looks like you on the interview panel, and you sure as heck don’t see any in the office or the lunchroom. It’s just you — the only Black or brown face in a sea of whiteness - and it’s a lonely place to be.

Apart from the loneliness, there’s a heavy weight of responsibility, too. One reason for this is that you know you’re the person everyone in that office will use to judge all Black people, present and future.

Many of them have never interacted day to day with anyone who looks like you. Some will be open-minded and friendly; others will be closed-minded and not so friendly. And there’ll probably be a couple of outright racists in there, too.

While inside your home, you’re just you, but the minute you leave, your blackness becomes the first thing that the white majority notices about you. As you commute to work, you may see people shrink away as if you’re going to rob them. And you may wait twice as long for a cab as the blond person next to you.

When you get to the office, superficially everything’s ok. But the microaggressions can start as early as your first day. You may have to convince a security guard that you actually work there. Or you’ll find that rather than being allowed to make your own way upstairs, someone has to accompany you. (Once you’re on the team, it may not happen again, but it’s a clear sign of the implicit biases that will affect your working life.)

As you fill in your paperwork, and people make “small talk”, the microaggressions continue. Surely you can’t be from here? Oh, you are? But where are your parents from? If it’s not this country, then your questioners can safely put you in the “lesser” box and get on with their day.

Early on in your relationship with the company, you may get questions about your hair. Some may be rude enough to put their hands in it. And there are other microaggressions too, about how you speak, about how you write, about your education, about … whatever you do or are that’s perceived to be outside the norm for a Black person.

But it’s even worse when it comes to doing your actual work. For example, in a meeting, people will often talk over you and ignore you or, even worse, listen and dismiss you. You might be brilliant and have great ideas, but they’ll never know because their minds are firmly closed to the possibility that a Black employee might have value to offer.

And that goes double if you’re a Black woman. You may find that it takes longer to get projects approved, that there is more micromanagement and oversight, and that if something works well, you might not even get the credit (though you’d better believe you’ll get the blame if anything goes wrong).
You can’t even be sure that your manager will support you. Often, that manager is threatened by your intelligence and will block you from opportunities for advancement.

But it doesn’t get much better when people listen. Because they only tend to listen when it’s a question of issues that have to do with Black people.

Suddenly, you’re THE expert on diversity, equity and inclusion, even if that has nothing to do with your day job. You’re THE expert on the Black experience, even though by now people should know that Black people aren’t a monolith.

The Black community is as diverse as any other. The cultures of Black people from the US, the UK, the Caribbean, and the plethora of African countries can and do vary widely, even if we all share a skin shade.

And you can’t win: bring up diversity issues outside the allotted discussion slots and you’re met with eye-rolls and sighs because the Black person is talking about diversity AGAIN. In some cases, talking too much about inequity can get you fired.

Somehow you struggle through the day, counting the minutes till you get back to your sanctuary, your home. Sadly, you’ll have to do it all again tomorrow, and for much of your working life.

It’s no wonder you’re tired. It’s no wonder you’ve decided to keep your head down, get on with the job, and avoid making race an issue.

I’ve been that person, reserving conversations about racism for late-night confabs with my girlfriends. But lately something’s changed. I’ve been more vocal publicly about racism and related issues in the past few weeks than I have my whole life.

I’ve talked to friends and acquaintances, and also complete strangers who’ve responded to my articles and LinkedIn posts.

One of my friends said I was “giving a voice to the voiceless”. What they meant by that was that they couldn’t speak out in their workplace for fear of repercussions. (You’d better believe that when you interrogate the white patriarchy about diversity, equity and inclusion there are repercussions, ranging from side-eye and snarky remarks all the way up to you losing your job.)

But I’m a freelancer, so I can speak, because nobody can fire me. Sure, there may be some jobs I don’t get. I’m sure there are people who are uncomfortable with what I’ve been posting recently. Hearteningly, there have also been those who are listening and learning and committing to doing better.

I plan to continue to highlight these issues where I can, and to amplify the voices of those who are leading the way on anti-racist action.

My view is that everybody needs to be talking about this. Let me make it clear to my white friends and colleagues: I don’t hate you, I just hate racists.

But hating racists isn’t enough. The question is what are we doing to challenge racist behavior? If you’re white, how are you using your white privilege to support your Black friends and colleagues? Are you having hard conversations about racism with the people who look like you?

Because that’s what needs to happen next. It will be difficult, challenging, and uncomfortable, but unless we all do it, nothing will change.

Read more in the Working While Black series:

© Sharon Hurley Hall, 2020

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Written by

Pro writer (B2B/B2C). Antiracism writer. Co-host: Introvert Sisters podcast. Global citizen. She/her. Sharon’s Anti-Racism NL: https://antiracism.substack.com/

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