Recently, I was working a shift at my first — and longest — job. I was in the front running orders, while my coworker Adriana* was bagging and my friend Brandon* was in the kitchen making the food. He was asking for backup after a friendly argument between him and one of my white coworkers who also works in the kitchen. I told them to both be nice, and he responded, “You know we all have to stick together,” motioning to himself, me and Adriana. We all laughed, knowing what he meant. But while we were all joking, there was truth to that: “we” — as in black coworkers — have a tight-knit community in predominantly white spaces in the workplace.
I’ve been working there since May of 2015. Having over a year of experience under my belt, along with working an internship this past summer and being an intern with Bank of America this summer, the experiences of being a black woman in the workforce have been numerous and various.
There have been experiences like the one above, where I have had a positive connection with my black peers. Being at a workplace with a lack of diversity can leave you feeling isolated and like you have to defend yourself from a sea of subtle discrimination and microaggressions. This is why black people often search for other black people in the workplace with whom they can connect.
At my internship with the bank, I was discussing my excitement for college with one of the black tellers. I was telling her I just discovered who my roommates were. She lowered her voice and asked, “Are they all white?” to which I nodded my head in mock disappointment. We both laughed, sharing a moment that is commonly shared in the black community. We often want to be in spaces with people who are also black because they understand our daily routines of being black. There is absolutely nothing wrong with my roommates, or having white roommates in general, but the teller understands what it’s like to be asked why my hair products are so different or how artificial it feels to not be able to speak AAVE with people who understand what you’re saying. Black people (including me) often feel more comfortable adjusting to college and a new living experience with other black people. This is forcing me to step of out what I thought I would be comfortable with, which is a good experience for me.
Last year, I was an intern for the Charlotte Neighborhood and Business Services for the Community Engagement division. As part of my internship, my advisor – who is also black – gave me the opportunity to prepare and give a speech at an event about the relationship between youth and the law enforcement. I spoke at a National Night Out event in south Charlotte, in front of a crowd of several hundred people. When writing and drafting my speech, I confessed to my advisor, “I’m afraid of being completely honest about how I feel in front of police officers and members of the community.” I'm openly critical of law enforcement, but did not want to step outside of my boundaries of being just an intern. She replied with the most helpful comment that I will always carry with me: “Honey, you can never be too honest.”
I also met one of my now best friends, Lindsay, while working at my first job; we bonded over our blackness. She commented on a girl’s natural hairstyle that had come through the fast food restaurant, saying, “What kinda black girl magic?” I made eye contact with her and said, “Yes girl!” We started discussing curl patterns and different protective styles we’ve tried. We didn’t even know each other’s names, but we bonded because of the love that flows in the black woman community.
There have been other experiences, however, that have shown me that there is still work to be done.
After the murders of unarmed black men Alton Sterling and Philando Castle, I was vocally infuriated and upset. Since I suffer from generalized anxiety disorder, these tragedies had also taken a hit on my mental health, so I took a break from Twitter for a day or two to recoup. The Saturday night after those events I went to work. Makayla*, one of my white coworkers, checked up on me to make sure I was okay, visibly expressed concern for not only my mental state but the state of the black community. She voiced how awful the events were and how she fully put her faith and prayers behind the support of change.
One of my other white co-workers, Michael*, heard us talking and chimed in. He said he was recently on Facebook and had an argument over his post on white privilege. He told me to read it, and Makayla promptly told me not to. Apparently, he hates discussing white privilege and the meaning behind it. He expressed his irritation with the term, to which she replied, “But it needs to be talked about.”
There was a similar situation that happened to my friend Lindsay, mentioned earlier. I was there when it happened, in the drive-thru window being a cashier. She was running food for dine-in and carryout orders, while one of my white coworkers, Johnathan*, bagged. She doesn’t remember how the conversation started, but they started discussing microaggressions. He said something along the lines of, “I hate the word ‘microagressions,” to which she replied, ‘Why? Because you don’t experience them?” My reaction is captured in this tweet I sent after I got off of work:
These are the types of discussions that need to happen everywhere, but especially in the workplace. My coworkers that hate discussing white privilege or microaggressions don’t see the problem that entails. Michael did not understand at that time that being able to ignore that white privilege is an issue, is white privilege in itself. He was able to have a constructive conversation with someone I consider to be an amazing example of a white ally, and myself. I asked Lindsay how the conversation between her and Johnathan went, and she said she doesn’t remember much more than I do, except that he brought up an article that she considered to be slightly problematic.
The exploitation of black bodies in the workplace has also been an issue, at least for me. I have on several occasions been asked to twerk or do other dance moves solely because I am black and am not only expected to know how to do them, but immediately do them if requested to do so. I am used as a party trick when there is no party. Inappropriate comments have been made about my butt, hips and hair; not exactly sexual in nature but microaggressions such as, “Wow, I wish I had a black girl butt like yours,” or “How do you get your hair so kinky?”
Non-black coworkers that are also people of color also face large issues. My coworker of the non-black latinx community said “nigga” to me. When I turned around and looked at her like she bumped her head, she nervously said, “What? I can say that.” Before I could reply, I was called by my manager to do another task.
Since we are all coworkers, I am supposed to be more or less equal to them. I do the same work as them and get paid the same amount hourly as them. I am as capable of doing anything they can do. However, because of a society and institutions that teach that different means unequal and unknown means dangerous, white people in the workforce have a difficult time understanding the issues that people of color face being their coworkers. They will never understand that getting the job in the first place is a big deal, seeing that employers have difficulty hiring people of color. Even though we work together, they will never know what it feels like to walk into an interview nervously because your hair is in an afro, dreadlocks or box braids; they will never understand what it feels like to have your features fetishized by white men who would never hire you anyway. These are challenges that black women in the workforce face on a daily basis. We, as both black employees and our white allies, can work together to tear down these boundaries.
Asterisk (*) = name changed
Lead Image Credit: Mia-Simone Green