Monday, March 14, 2016

Overcoming Racism When Working While Black

When I read the article, “Working While Black: From Engineer, to Executive, David Price Fought Racism and Won,” it reminded me of a recent Boys2Men visit, when at the end of my visit—briefcase in hand feet pointed towards the door—a young man entered the Executive Director’s office (quite emotional) shouting that he had just quit his job.

The Director’s response: Oh my god! Why?! Do you have another job lined up? Because if you don’t, that’s crazy!

His answer: No. No job lined up. I’ll get another job, though. I’m not worried about that. . . . I just can’t continue to be treated the way I’m being treated—disrespected and devalued.

I didn’t even need to ask how he was being disrespected and devalued, because as a black male, I already knew. I knew from my grandfather and father’s experiences. I knew from my fraternity brothers, coworkers’ and friends’ experiences. I knew from the many forgotten stories told within our annals of history; like that of John Abraham Davis, one of many lives destroyed by the bias and racist rhetoric of the day. I knew from my own experiences working in corporate America.

Noticeably upset by his answer, the Director started shaking her head and raising her voice (out of love and concern) and before jumping in, I stood there and listened as he poured all of his frustrations out; throwing justification, after justification, against all of the Director's reasoning. 

“So, let me ask you something,” I told him. “How much were you making before you quit?” He told me. Then I asked, “Now how much are you making now; now that you’ve quit?”

“Nothing,” he answered.

“You shouldn’t have quit your job,” I told him. “They broke you down and won; now you have nothing to show for it . . . only your pride. And last I checked, pride won’t put food on the table or pay your bills.” And as quickly as I uttered the last word—bills—a heatwave shot all through my body; spreading from the top of my head to the bottom of my feet. How hypocritical of you, I told myself because, not too long before, I was having the same melt-down: Another black man tired of the bias and racist shenanigans within the workplace. I too was about to quit a job (with no backup) because I felt trapped, disrespected and devalued. And just like him, I was looking for answers, or at least some type of confirmation to walk away.

Before making a decision I could very well regret, I took an extended weekend to assess my situation and found myself recounting different, yet similar, situations throughout my career, like: The manager who asked the lone black intern architect, how do you design for black people (like we’re any different from anyone else); or the staff and vendors who don't won't to deal with you because of the color of your skin (just like in the article); or my favorite, the "he scares me" diatribe from the older white workers that have never met or talked to you—they just only know you by your race; or the senior executive director, during a meeting, questioning the lone black staff member why he should even be working among them and tells him that he doesn’t know why he was hired (they were doing just fine without him); or the many other incredible racist and biased comments (and actions) endured working as a person of color, many too egregious to share here. So yes, without even knowing his situation, I understood his discontent and plight. And unlike the article in which Price attributed his success to his company's "championing" his plight in a sales environment with shortcomings, many of us don't have that "champion" that will champion our cause in light of the hardships we face as "working while black": For us, we'll work through the hardships, without raising issue, and our journey will go with us to the grave; like that of John Abraham Davis.

And don't get me wrong, working in America for anyone (male or female, journeyman or U.S. president) can have its challenges. But, working in America as a person of color, especially a black male, carries additional weight. You have to be conviction free (those with legal convictions have a harder journey), twice as sharp, and exhibit exceptional qualities and character to excel in positions others (white males) would excel in with mediocre skills, and in some cases, legal blemishes. And sadly, I had to come to the realization that wherever you're "working while black," each workplace, although the culture and business dynamics may differ, will have the same type of people who hold similar ism's and biases because of your skin tone. One can only hope that where there is a lacking of sensitivity or diversity, compensation will come in the form of a strong system (and commitment) to combat active and passive racism and biases. 

Now, meltdown free, I have a greater understanding (and admiration) for what my elders had to go through. They stuck with the job (no matter how menial or degrading) and their work ethics, drive, and commitment, despite their circumstances, speaks volumes to who they were—strong black men weathering adversarial storms beyond their control. They, and the many men before them, paved the way for me to be who and where I am today. So, despite my challenges, I didn't quit. I had to continue in their footsteps; add my mile to the road we seemingly must travel. 

As for the young man, turns out that he hadn’t truly quit; he was testing the waters and looking for confirmation for quitting. He just needed a little guidance, well, more like a swift kick in the right direction. Unfortunately for him, he's just one of many that will travel down this road. I’m just glad he had somewhere to go (talk it through) as so many of us don’t have that “champion" to help, guide, and fight the shortcomings we face "working while black."

Author, R.L. Byrd

Part of the Project H.U.S.H initiative. To find out more, visit HUSH