Race Relations

Working 9-5 In White Spaces

*(Before I get into this blog, please do not comment on this blog about people needing to be grateful that they have a job. I believe that anyone working is thankful for their job and happy they can pay their bills, put food on the table and have a little extra to save and go out some nights to do something entertaining. Please do not reduce this blog to that because that is not what it is about and it will be taking the easy way out of this blog.)

As a Black woman, I had the unique experience of my first “real” job being at an entirely African-American institution, Bates Memorial Baptist Church. Everyone on staff or in a position of leadership was Black. Not only was everyone Black, for the most part, most of us had some form of post-secondary education from doctorates to bachelor degrees, and we were all united by our love for God, our love for Black people and justice.  I remember feeling like my soul was being ripped from my body when the George Zimmerman verdict came in, and the first person I texted was my Pastor, and we expressed our hurt and anger. I didn’t have to return to work the next day and pretend the verdict didn’t hurt, all of us were angry and we discussed it amongst ourselves as did our daily tasks. Then the death of Mike Brown and many others happened, and across the nation, churches were expressing their solidarity for an end to police brutality.  I remember I was going to get a black hoodie made with Black Lives Matter on the front and as I headed out of the doors of the church, I asked Pastor Williams if he would like one and he said, “Of course.” His hoodie was adorned with the words, ‘I Can’t Breathe,’ the last words uttered by Eric Garner who was held in a chokehold by NYPD and killed. There was unity amongst us as we all stood for one goal, justice for Black people. I didn’t have to go to work and debate my position. I didn’t have to listen to someone tell me, “If they would have just complied.”  I didn’t have to hear any stories about White people feeling justified in “standing their ground.” I didn’t have to hide my pain. I was able to work through the painful experiences with others that understood me as we worked our 9-5 jobs.

Bates Memorial Baptist Church, Dr. F. Bruce Williams, Pastor

Even beyond our solidarity when a tragedy happened in the Black community, there was just understanding for who we are as Black people. I could come to work in my African attire, and no one asked me any silly questions. If there was a day that I wasn’t able to finish my braids and had to wear a headwrap to the office, it didn’t spark curiosity. There were no negative comments when I shaved all my hair off and wore my afro. No one begged to touch my hair or pet me.  If I woke up one morning and wanted to wear my “Descendant of a Field Negro” shirt to work, there were no side-eyes; no one was running to the Human Resources department talking about how they were offended by my t-shirt.

Don’t Touch My Hair/Giphy.com

And the food. My goodness, the food! In the church there was an industrial kitchen and boy did we use it! We would bring in collard greens and mac and cheese. We made fried potatoes, cabbage and fried gizzards dripping in hot sauce. And no one asked, “What’s that?” No one said, “That smells funny.” We would sit in the back room on our lunch break and laugh and slap high fives. We didn’t need to codeswitch. We would drop all the g’s from the ending of our words, toss in a couple of be’s and throw around our slang as we discussed our lives, our hopes, and our dreams.

There were images of Black people on the walls celebrating our history. Every February we made sure to highlight our achievements, but it went beyond just February, 365 days out of the year we were Black, and we embraced that. It was nice to work in a space where I didn’t have to think about my skin color.  In that space, I was allowed just to be Black even while I was doing my job. I didn’t have to leave a part of me at home. I could bring all of my Blackness into the workplace with me with no shame or apologies needed.

Then I left that job and entered into the world of White Spaces. I suddenly found myself in meetings where I was the only Black person. I noticed that many times after an initial introduction comments ceased coming in my direction. I sat in meetings quietly observing. It is funny the things people will say when they have overlooked that you are even in the room. I became hyper-aware of my clothing and folded my Afrocentric t-shirts up and put them in a drawer resolving to wear them on the weekend. I was aware of my language and reserved my slang for my friends and family.  Codeswitching just became the norm. I remember once I spoke about taking out my braids and wearing my natural hair, someone commented, “Oh no, Hannah. You have to have your long  hair.” (Why? Why couldn’t I just have my afro?) I was overly aware of the food I brought into the office not wanting food that was part of my heritage and identity to be perceived as having a foul odor.

Most importantly, I became hyper-aware of my skin; it felt so heavy in some of these spaces. I disliked the frivolous small talk of discussing my weekend with people that I didn’t know and more than likely had no real interest in how I spent my weekend.  While they spoke of weekends filled with hiking and hanging out with friends eating tapas and sipping wine, how did I begin to explain to them I spent my weekend writing or speaking about injustice? That I had just witnessed yet another murder from a police body camera. That I watched the funeral of Stephon Clark and spent an hour crying asking God why? That I found myself a weeping mess on an airplane ride home from a conference after watching the Kalief Browder story asking God, “Why is it so hard to be Black in this world? Why can’t people just let us be?” I am certain those are not the answers they want to hear when I am asked about my weekend or what I have been up to lately so instead of saying that I simply say, “It was fine.”

Always pretending. Codeswitching was now my life.

Every day I came home exhausted. I would sit in my car outside of my house mindlessly thumbing through my Twitter feed or Facebook. I needed just a moment to breathe. After years of this finally, it dawned on me, Hannah you are exhausted when you come home because all day you have focused not just on your work but also working to be someone that you are not. You are like an animal that has been taken out of its natural habitat and placed in unfamiliar territory which is why you feel anxious all the time. I realized it was a never-ending cycle and it started before work, through work and didn’t end until I came home. The time I arrived home was time for me to recover only to wake up and do the same thing the next day and the next day and the next day. And it was exhausting.

As I thought about this, I remembered a scene from the X-Men movie series, First Class. Erik Lehnsherr who played a young Magneto, a character that is able to control metal, was speaking with Jennifer Lawrence’s character, Raven (Mystique). Raven is able to shapeshift, and her character is typically all blue with piercing yellow eyes. However, to fit into society, she projects herself to look like Jennifer Lawrence. One day she is in the room lifting weights, and Magneto says to her, “If you’re using half your concentration to look normal, then you’re only half paying attention to whatever else you are doing.”  While just a movie, those words always stayed with me. I thought about them even more once I returned from Dakar, Senegal. In Dakar, my friend and I were shopping for earrings.

Jennifer Lawrence as Raven (Mystique)

I remember both of us were holding the earrings in such a way that the shop owner would not think we were going to steal them. When we went to pay for the earrings, we realized the shop owner was outside of the store talking to someone. Finally, it dawned on us, in Dakar, our skin color alone was not criminal. There we were free just to show up as our authentic selves. We could shop and not think about someone thinking we were stealing simply because we were Black. There we were free just to be. I had never experienced that before. It was as if the entire world opened up to me and said. “Welcome, Hannah. We’ve been waiting for you.”  I could see, and taste and touch and dance and laugh and experience life 100% as a Black woman. I held that moment close to my chest because I knew it would be gone from me soon. I knew I would be back in America where I would have to offer an explanation for my mere existence. Where I was reminded of my Blackness not just daily but hourly.

These reminders came swiftly, and as I thought about writing this blog, two stories came across my social media feed that reminded me of how challenging it is as a Black person to work 9-5 in White spaces. CBS12 reporter AJ Walker had to fight to wear her hair in braids. When she finally was allowed to wear her braids, it was hailed as a victory. Walker stated, “Not many people realize that African-American and other women feel and often are forced to wear hairstyles that the company or news station deems acceptable. The freedom to wear my hair in a style that is part of my culture and a skill handed down to me from my mom gives me a stronger sense of self-esteem, self-worth, and confidence as a person and as a woman.” This issue also impacted 17-year-old Kerion Washington as he was denied a job at Six Flags over Texas because of his locs.  Can you imagine fighting just to wear your hair a certain way at work? Can you imagine being told the hair that grows out of your head is seen as too extreme for employment?

What if this world was a place where Black people like AJ Walker and Kerion Washington, could show up to work and just be who they are and that was okay? What if the workplace didn’t tell us our blackness was unacceptable? I wondered how my life would be if I could show up in the workplace and meetings as just Hannah? While the people I work with now accept me as who I am, I still find myself in many spaces where I am the only or one of few Black people. And while they may love me, there are still unwritten rules about how Black people must navigate White Spaces from 9-5 (and beyond). I often wonder how much more could I accomplish if I could show up 100% me? How much more could I achieve if like the X-Men character Raven I was not spending half my concentration trying to fit into a society that has told me how to speak, how to wear my hair, how to dress, etc.  Who could I really be and what could I create if I was allowed just to be me?

For the Black people and People of Color reading this blog, if you would like, please share your experiences working 9-5 in White Spaces. How has this impacted your daily life?  What are some of the challenges that you have faced in the workplace?  Do you feel the stress of working 9-5 in White spaces and how does that impact your life once you are home?

To the White people reading this blog, have you ever considered how it feels for a Black person or a Person of Color to work in an environment where they never fully show up to work as themselves? Can you imagine going to work and being someone else at a minimum of 8 hours a day your entire working career? Can you see times where you have contributed to a Black person or Person of Color feeling as if they did not belong in the workplace?

I was in Dakar for 2 weeks. That is 20160 minutes. I had 20160 minutes to be free. And for each of those moments I was alive. I long to live in a world where my freedom to be Black isn’t regulated to me in minutes. I do not want to show up to work leaving half of me at home. Allow me to show up fully as I am and be amazed at just how authentic and brilliant 100% Black can be.

28 replies »

  1. This blog post is amazing I’m a relatively new professional and there are many microaggressions that I face daily. This validation in a way that few people outside the black community can appreciate.

  2. Im totally against microaggression, whats sad is Ive experienced this mostly around women of color like myself. Its crazy because I dont feel safe in either environment..People of all colors are full of hatred and will take it out on anyone they choose to victimize. Self hatred is at its all time high.Black on Black crime is at its all time high..White supremacy is not our only enemy now..Its us too..Im devastated….

    • Crime is just crime. Do you ever use the term White on White crime or hear it in the media? Language matters. Statistically speaking people commit crimes with who they are most in proximity to.

      It is difficult when you do not feel safe anywhere. I hope that changes for you. It is important to have a sanctuary, whatever that may be so that you can find some peace. Mine is my home.

      • Thanks, As a matter of fact I dont hear that at all!..Thanks for the eye opener!! Media using targeting languange.Im so over Amerikkka…My home is mine too.

  3. I am so grateful for this blog post and the courage it took to write it. As a white person, it is impossible for me to understand what it must be like in that position, but I can listen and try to understand when it’s laid out so candidly. Thank you for putting your experiences out here so I can do better.

  4. I work in academia. I was sitting in a room with 4 white people. One (who is quite aware of equity and privilege) mentioned that she does not always feel safe speaking up in situations because she does not have tenure. I chimed in that I feel similarly because of a lack of tenure but also because I am Black and use my privilege to hold space for others. One person in the room was silent. One denied that my experience is real. Another was shocked. And, yet, we’re supposed to persist like experiences like this one don’t carve painful notches into our very souls.

  5. I’m so sorry you – and so many other people – experience this. It sounds so lonely and profoundly exhausting.

  6. Thanks for sharing your experience. I really appreciate the opportunity to learn from this post.

  7. Goodness. I knew about this dynamic, but your post helped me better appreciate how bone-deep the exhaustion must be. Found my way here through a link on a friend’s facebook page and I really look forward to reading more of your writing.

  8. I don’t want to force any POC to labor for me as a white woman, but I am curious of the ways that white people in these spaces could have actively made black people feel more welcome (beyond the obvious of actually having diverse workplaces) without awkwardly drawing attention to your race even more. Can anyone imagine specific actions or comments people might have made that would feel good? For example, I try to go out of my way to be friendly to POC especially women in my workplace, to appreciate their work verbally, because I think their work is amazing. Sometimes I get self-conscious that this might be “racist” in some way because I am so conscious of their status as black women and am treating them differently because of it. Maybe my attempt to “welcome” them is making them feel more singled out?

    I really appreciate this post and would love to talk about how to make workplaces more welcoming even if I am not the person hiring!

    • You only need accept what POC tell you of their experiences as reality and not doubt the racialism of it. If a POC points out that you have said something wrong/hurtful, apologise and don’t do it again. That alone would be monumental.

  9. This is beautifully written and very eye-opening, thank you. I am so sorry you and all POC in white-centric places have to go through so much every single day.

    Out of interest, what happens when you do go to work as yourself for a long period of time? Wearing what you like and eating what you like and discussing the things that you would within a black-led workplace? Would eventually your white colleagues start to appreciate you, or do the micro (and macro) aggressions remain and become too uncomfortable? Or worse, do you get similar situations to those you wrote about with the hair?

    Also, what are things that I (and other white people) can do to help stop this? I’m never going to be in a position where I can make sure that hiring is sufficiently diverse, but I would like to make sure that I never do anything that I’m sure I have been guilty of in the past.

    Thank you again.

  10. This explains so much why I could never create friendships with the black women at work. I would try and I would feel shut out because they were being fake with me and I am super sensitive to fakeness. I just gave up and remained superficial, which probably made their lives worse. I wish everyone could just be themselves. In the future, I will try not to take the fakeness personally.

    • I am a big person on the use of words. I think fake may not be the correct word but they were codeswitching in order to make it through the day. It is not an act of being fake it truly is an act of surviving. If you think about how that must feel to do that practically every day of your life I can imagine that is difficult to even wrap your mind around and believe me it is difficult to do and draining. I, too, wish everyone could just be themselves. I think the world would be better for it.

    • Codeswitching is about survival. I think you may have missed the whole message of the piece. POC can’t just be themselves because they have to mold themselves to what white people find palatable.

    • I think I understand what you mean. There are some black people in the workplace who are fake and some who are code switching. I think a lot of us are leery about workplace friendships because the nuance between fake and code switching can sometimes be hard to decipher.

  11. This is a great article Hannah. Thank you for putting feelings into words. I knew I felt strange being in White Spaces but I never could explain it. I have to be myself at all times and when I can not be my true authentic self, I am not able to give fully. It is very exhausting having to always watch what you say or do because people see you as being too aggressive or assertive when you stand your ground. When you say no or you are not interested, you are seen as noncompliant or uncooperative. I don’t need pitty but I require and demand respect with understanding. You have just given me an idea about something. From the bottom of my heart….thank you!

  12. Thank you. I’m in my office now reading this.

    Last week, I had my annual review meeting. Exceeds expectations in all areas, but afterwards, the conversation switched to my white supervisors ‘challenging’ me to be ‘a people person’. Doing my job well wasn’t enough. Creating and maintaining work relationships throughout our agency wasn’t either. I had to work to make other people feel comfortable. I was the one asked to change. I’m working on letting it go, but it offended me. I don’t have an issue helping anyone at work, explaining a new process or policy or correcting something I did wrong, but I do have a problem when the ‘people’ people try to pawn their work off on me. Yet since I have spoken up for myself and work, my annual goal is to be nicer.

    • I completely understand this. I wrote a blog post just this week about code-switching that spoke about how no matter the environment or situation, it is more often times than not our responsibility to make White people feel comfortable with us. We have to always present as non-threatening. That usually means going beyond playing along and being overly nice even when we just can’t anymore. We can’t have bad days or even bad moments. That’s when the “angry black woman” label comes out.

  13. Thank you for sharing this insight. As a POC, the line from X-men resonates with me, too. Naturally outspoken but of the “model minority,” at work I’m constantly reining it in inside because of the shock I get when white people see an Asian speaking (notice I didn’t say hearing, because they don’t usually get that far).

    My days at work are a non stop cavalcade of fielding microaggressions, while trying to get actual stuff done.

  14. I am a white female LPN and work with many black nurses and CNAs.i adore all my CNAs, usually the nurses too but find they are not as friendly to me as my aids are. This blog really gives me a better understanding of maybe why that is. I accept people for who they are. I love when I’m asked to try goat and all sorts of weird things (to me) they just laugh at my horror! But I learned how good greens are! ( unless it’s full of vinegar.) I’ve learned so many things, I try to always be respectful. I feel a bit of anxiety at times to not say something wrong or offensive. I’ve asked stupid questions but just get teased for a few days.wigs were new to me lol and sometimes I didnt recognize a person I knew well! So embarrassing I swear. But It would be horrible to have to change yourself like that especially at work. Maybe because in healthcare, blacks dominate, at least in LTC, all my bosses are black, it helps. I have heard of discrimination even in my building which is unacceptable and I will never sit by while a patient uses derogatory words for my coworkers, that happens and my ladies and gents take it and still give superb care. How hard would that be???? I can only aspire to be that coworker that any race, religion, color, ethnicity feels they can always be 100% true to themselves with. I think I’ve done pretty well but will try harder always to be the best boss to my CNAs and a team player to all. Thank you for your well written, informative blogs. It makes me think and I hope it does others so one day this can end. I’m a bit all over the place in this but my love for my staff, mostly my CNAs is so true and I never want them to act different or be scared to be themselves, and never ever with me.

  15. Thanks for sharing your experiences and your exhaustion. I am now retired and happily not in the workplace anymore. I found it exhausting as a white person. Your experience as a woman of color out in the workplace and world as exhausting really puts it into perspective for me.

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