I work at a non-profit that I've recently decided is generally too damn woke and for the most part I want many of my colleagues to go back to sleep. The awareness of microaggressions, preferred pronouns, and a recently formed "Racial Equality Committee" has most of us walking on eggshells, afraid to ask someone how their weekend was out of fear that it will eventually lead to mediation in HR. To quote one of my colleagues, there are times when working while a person of color is exhausting solely due to dealing with "white guilt, feelings and the endless Trader Joe snacks."
While it's great that safe spaces like these are being created, many times it feels like they only exist to fulfill a grant requirement or to make people feel like they're using their privilege for the power of good.
But to be honest in its first few weeks, the "Change Team" served as nothing more than an opportunity for people to hear themselves talk and process their own personal grievances and less as a place for reflection, new perspectives and ways to improve work culture.
For the past three years at this job, I've felt like Issa Rae's character on Insecure. Most days I spend at my desk or completely out of the building avoiding most of my co-workers, particularly the melanin-deficient ones who never miss an opportunity to point out the "Ally" crown they're rocking with "Black Lives Matter" bamboo earrings to match. By the close of business, they're sprinting to the train to make it to the safety of their suburban homes because outside of bars and clubs in Center City, Philly is too dangerous to actually spend too much time in. Actually, it's just like Issa's former employer except more so, "We Got Y'all…Until We Hear Gunshots".
A few weeks ago, some staff members initiated an aggressive recruitment campaign for the newly formed committee. With every announcement at a staff meeting and every flyer posted in the kitchen with the perfect Nelson Mandela quote, it became clear that they wanted and needed black people on the committee. Most of us expressed hesitation for the same reason: Was our presence being requested to actually make a difference or were we being tokenized to make the monthly newsletter look good?
At some point, the current melanin-challenged members of the committee got the message that the black folks in the office weren't feeling their whole campaign. One afternoon, one of the members, a fair-skinned Latina from South America, asked if she could speak to me privately and apologized on behalf of the committee if I was made to feel singled out and pressured to join solely because of what my skin color alone had to offer. Honestly, for me, the campaign was doing the most and accomplishing the least. Between being a part-time writer and a full-time parent, the last thing I wanted to do at work was serve on any committee, let alone one where it seemed like I'd be using a portion of my work day to educate folks on how to be a respectful, decent human being, regardless of someone's skin color. One of the things the current committee failed to realize is that black people have to deal with racism directly and indirectly on a daily basis. The last thing we want to do is come to work and create Powerpoint presentations on "How Not To Be Racist".
After our conversation, I couldn't help but wonder if my colleague had approached other black co-workers on this apology campaign. While discussing the theatrics with another co-worker (also a person of color), we joked about the possibility that our colleague was possibly only approaching the "approachable black girls" in the office. I didn't exactly know how to feel about it. There are several folks at my job who damn near have anxiety attacks when approaching the desks of the few black women who work here. Ironically, none of us have ever cussed someone out or threatened anyone, but we do communicate directly and stand by our firm (and sometimes unpopular) opinions. We joke and laugh loudly, and admittedly can be extra as hell at times which for some (for whatever reason) can seem intimidating. However, unlike the others, for the most part, I choose to focus on my job, my paycheck and going home and I assume my introverted nature can appear less threatening to some, as opposed to some of my counterparts. It's probably because I've become jaded and figure if folks fail to understand the rules of basic respect, we got a long way to go before we tackle racism. Also, I don't get paid to teach my co-workers how to act normal around black people.
Rather than spend my time fighting the power, I'd rather invest my efforts into people who really want to be awake, instead of folks who only want to be caffeinated for a popular cause.
Being a black girl in the workplace is constantly trying to find a balance between being the "I will slap the shit out of you" stereotype and not code-switching so much that white folks think it's cool to let their racism casually slip around you. Everyday seems like a constant struggle to suppress the urge to ask, "Who raised you?" to white colleagues who treat every interaction with a black person like the Woke Olympics. So trust and believe when I say, when I sit at my desk and smile and nod when approached with the repeated need for my white colleagues to distance themselves from their privilege, it's not because I am meek or want to avoid conflict. It's because I am exhausted and I just want to finish listening to this episode of "State of the Culture" and send this damn email, not because I'm a black person that fails to see through the nonsense.
Before I even punch the clock, I've survived a morning of news headlines updating me on the lastest xenophobic comments made by the leader of the free world, white guys in suits and ties who act like they own the downtown sidewalks and refuse to step out of anyone's way, and a barista who repeatedly screws up my coffee order because she's too focused on making an iced latte for the blonde housewife who is a "regular" even though she's at the back of the line. There's a multitude of microaggressions and sometimes blatant racism before I have even had breakfast on a weekly basis.
Wokeness is not something you can schedule on an Outlook calendar, especially if you fail to keep that same energy outside the office doors.
The last thing I want to do when I walk into work is bust out in a rendition of Queen Latifah's "U.N.I.T.Y." for folks who didn't realize racism existed until the last presidential election. Some might call me approachable, but honestly I'm just tired.
When I come to work, that's exactly what I'm there to do. I'm not going to slap you if you say "Black" and not "African-American" nor is it my job to give you a black history lesson along with my quarterly report. But if you think all black girls in the office with box braids look alike, it might be because you need to approach us all a little more often, whether we're cussing or laughing a little too loudly. Loud isn't always offensive and quiet isn't always polite. Being approachable doesn't mean I'm meek or that I'm fresh out damns to give about race relations in the workplace, but it does mean that I'm willing to listen to where someone is coming from and start a conversation, which I think is one of the most basic forms of respect.
However, we all have to be honest about the fact that conversations about race and power, particularly in the workplace will be awkward and will force us out of comfort zones. We have to recognize that some conversations will reveal truths about ourselves that we are not ready to face. And white people especially must realize that they won't always feel safe or comfortable. So if the only reason you're approaching my desk is because you think your comfort will be accomodated, you and your Mochi Rice Nuggets can miss me with BS.
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