Yesterday I was struck by a profound thought. I realized that I have taken classes related to race, ethnicity, White privilege and institutional racism but haven’t given much thought as to how strongly White privilege features in office culture. In the ten plus years that I’ve worked in office environments I’ve certainly seen my share of overt and subtle racism; it’s been reflected in pay grades, promotions, firings, in a supervisor’s decision as to whether a person is a “good fit” for the organization etc. I asked myself, what about the day-to-day interaction in the office? How does White privilege operate and in what ways? As a person of color, how am I am at a disadvantage? What survival techniques must I employ/adopt in order to stay afloat in today’s office environment?
Though I haven’t given too much thought to White privilege and they way in which it functions in office culture, I have certainly been aware of the fact that I have to wear a mask while at work. It starts with me having to “put on my White voice.” Eventually my demeanor and to some degree- persona- is transformed once I step into the office. I tone down my Jamerican culture (as much as I can any way) and become someone else for 8 hours or more. You may say, all of us transform when we’re at work. All of us “play the game to some degree.” While that is certainly true, people of color who have not fully adopted mainstream White culture must go the extra mile. We must work hard to ensure that we are not perceived (by White co-workers or managers) as threatening, angry, loud, uncooperative, and (God forbid) uneducated or unqualified in any way. In a nutshell, we must work our asses off and at the same time make the White people around us feel comfortable.
Office culture is shaped by White America’s etiquettes, sense of humor, dress, language style and expression and overall perception of the world. Just as Whiteness has been normalized in the larger society, Whiteness has also been normalized in office environments. I’d go as far as saying that office culture is intrinsically White and as a result privileges White people. Some examples:
- The struggle by some African-American women to wear natural hairstyles such braids, locs, afros, or twists in corporate America. See story here.
The unwritten rule that Black men- especially- should not have facial hair. (I am unaware that White men are also expected to have a clean-shaven face in office environments as well). I have heard that Black men with facial hair are perceived as more threatening than those without it. It doesn’t seem to matter that shaving causes some Black men to suffer from a condition called pseudofolliculitis barbae which causes ingrown hairs and rashes to develop on their face. See story here.
As a Black woman, when I express any disagreement with a White colleague or supervisor, I am far more likely to be perceived as having an attitude or being negative than a White woman. In fact, I can be perceived that way even when I am not disagreeing with a colleague or supervisor but when I’m merely expressing myself. True story: At my previous job, I was told during a performance evaluation that my response to requests is often negative. When I asked for an example my supervisor mentioned a time when she asked me to attend a function that was on the other side of town. My husband at the time and I only had one car which he generally used because his job was further away than mine. (My supervisor knew this). Anyhow, when she asked me to attend the function I told her that I would not be able to because I did not have transportation. Apparently, I was supposed to lie and tell her that I would see if I could arrange a ride. Since I didn’t do that my response was considered to be negative. (After some time I noticed that my White co-workers, no matter what they were asked, no matter how difficult, or unrealistic the task was, would smile and say yes or would say they’d try- even if they knew they couldn’t.)
As person who has been in charge of hiring, I know, all too well the pressure that a person of color can come under when they try to hire another person of color- especially if that person is a friend, relative or acquaintance. (Even though White people do it all the frickin’ time!) Suddenly the person of color’s ability to be fair and impartial comes into question. Sometimes White supervisors interfere with the hiring process by making suggestions about who to hire. True story: There was a Black woman I interviewed who was very qualified for the position. Not only did she give a great interview but she was very confident and strong. I thought she’d be an asset to the program. When I took her around to meet the staff she made the “mistake” (*I’m rolling eyes right now*) of saying to my supervisor and co-workers, “Oh, you’re all girls! That’s wonderful.” When she left my supervisor told me point blank not to hire her. When I recovered from my shock I asked why and I was told (with my co-workers in agreement) that the woman offended them by calling them “girls.” They said it was obvious she didn’t understand the feminist leaning of the organization. I tried to explain that Black women call each other girl all the time and in our culture it is not seen as belittling or derogatory. It’s quite the opposite; it’s a term of endearment. Nonetheless my supervisor said not to hire her and flat out told me she favored having a Latina in the position anyway.
You may ask, why can’t people of color just blend in if that is what they have to do in order to survive? My answer is this: many people of color do exactly that. In fact, some people of color have taken it so far that they can no longer recognize themselves. They have adopted and embraced mainstream White culture to the point where it has become their lifestyle. As a result, they have become disconnected from the culture and community. However, for the rest of us who are either unwilling or unable to do so, it can be emotionally taxing and mentally draining. As mentioned above, not only must people of color work hard not to be perceived as threatening, angry, uncooperative, or unqualified, we must also learn the nuances of White mainstream culture. (Keep in mind when I say ‘learn’ it’s not as if there is a White person teaching us. We must learn White culture through observation, trial and error, and discernment. If the person of color is lucky, they may have a White ally or learn White culture while in college).
In the end, it makes me wonder what companies really mean when they talk about diversity initiatives. Is it a Black or Brown face who has adopted mainstream White culture? A person of color who can “fill the quota” and the same time make White people feel comfortable by never pushing the envelope and discussing issues of race, ethnicity, and cultural difference? It certainly isn’t a person of color who discusses White privilege and discrimination as it relates to the company or organization’s practices. I’ve learned, sometimes in the most painful ways, that so-called White liberals do not want to be reminded of their privilege. It’s enough that I, the person of color, have become employed by the company. They’ve done their job! Now let’s all pretend that we all operate, think and live in the same ways!
If I sound bitter or jaded it’s because I’m tired…