This is the fourth and final installment of the four-part series “Thriving While Black.”
My team had just finished our weekly editorial planning, and post meeting chatter was in full swing. Our feature writer was being heavily complimented for effectively organizing our team calendar and assigning tasks.
“We should call you the task master,” exclaimed one of my colleagues as she cracked an imaginary whip.
Laughter erupted in the conference room. I didn’t think it was funny. I scanned the room for others that were unamused. That’s when I saw the nervous smile spreading uneasily across our writer’s face. She confessed that the crack of the imaginary whip had conjured up imagery of a kinky bedroom.
“Really?” I said, genuinely surprised. “It made me think about slavery.”
A few seconds of awkward silence ensued. I released a small chuckle to signify it was okay to laugh.
“Hey, different backgrounds,” said our writer after a thoughtful shrug.
This interaction with my co-workers taught me a powerful lesson: people’s backgrounds can drastically influence how they view and experience the world. Cracking an imaginary whip conjured up completely different imagery for me and my colleagues. When I heard “master,” I immediately thought about slavery. The cracking whip added an extra visual sting. For my white co-workers, slavery was the last thing on their minds.
I make a lot of unique associations between black peoples’ oppressive history and my current work life interactions. For instance, one time our office assistant asked me to leave the conference room because a meeting was about to start. She apologized profusely. I told her it really wasn’t a big deal.
“As a black woman in America, I’m used to being displaced,” I joked as I packed my things.
Why were centuries of forced black diaspora my first thought when asked to leave a conference room? I blame the historical repercussions of slavery (namely racism) that have transcended my ancestral past and shaped my present. Racism is constantly constructing in the background, reminding me of my “otherness.”
Laughter is the perfect escape from such a realization. I laugh a lot in my office. People credit it to my fun personality, but sometimes it is an office combat move used to defend against various forms of microgagressions. One time I introduced myself to a colleague who reassured me no introduction was needed. She recognized me because of “well…you know,” she said as she gestured to my face and hair. I laughed.
As the only Black person in my entire department, yes, I stand out. So do my experiences and conversations in the office. From compliments on my “erotic” clothing to genuine awe every time I change my hair, I am consistently complimented on my ethnic differences.
I have plenty of working while black office stories to share, but y’all get the point. Working while black is like living in a world where you see the unspoken and you don’t have the option to turn a color-blind eye. Sometimes you’ll question your sanity. Did they really just say that to me? Am I being hyper-sensitive? Sometimes you won’t get the cultural references your co-workers make. Sometimes their compliments will feel more like a magnifying glass on your melanin. Sometimes an imaginary whip cracked at end of a meeting will remind you of slavery.
Click here to read this series’ third installment: “Friending While Black“