Saturday, June 9, 2018

Working While Black in America

Have you ever given any thought to what it may be like to be Black in America? Chances are no one does unless they are truly a Black or African American person trying to survive.  It would be great if everyone could walk in the shoes of a Black person for just one week. 

I often wonder if anyone could survive a week when they get upset if a group of people is starting to grill food in Lake Merritt Park or if you are sitting and waiting for a friend at Starbucks.

Fifty years ago, John Howard Griffin published a slim volume about his travels as a "black man" through America. He expected it to be an obscure work of interest primarily to sociologists, but Black Like Me, which told white Americans what they had long refused to believe, sold 10 million copies and became a modern classic.

I keep asking myself and my colleagues what happened? Today, I can't tell the difference between the 60's and 2018. As much as we appear to move forward, we seem to be swiftly reversing in our accomplishments as a race of people. All over the country, racism, discrimination, police brutality and racial profiling have reached the top of the list.

For decades, black parents have told their children that in order to succeed despite racial discrimination, they need to be twice as good, twice as smart, twice as dependable, and twice as talented. This advice can be found in everything from literature to television shows, to day-to-day conversations. 
African American employees tend to receive more scrutiny from their bosses than their white colleagues, meaning that small mistakes are more likely to be caught, which over time leads to worse performance reviews, lower wages or job termination.

For the past 15 years, I worked as a freelancer or marketing consultant in order to have better control of the negative people in the world. As a contractor of color today, contracts became almost obsolete as government organizations and other enterprises stopped giving contracts to those of color because they wanted to hire those that looked like them or to give contracts to friends or family members. What angers me is most white people in charge are never reprimanded or questioned about their choices, even when their contractors are incompetent and unproductive for big buckets of money. Try that as a person of color and you will end up in jail or fired from your position.

In the past year, I took a 40 hour per week job with an organization, hoping to be able to make a difference for communities to be served. I convinced myself that my skills and experience would be welcomed and positive lessons would be shared and learned to make communities healthier. 

Deep down inside I knew that I was simply fooling myself. From the moment I walked in the door, I was greeted with racism, discrimination and passive aggressive behaviors from white privileged co-workers with less experience and who continue to be unable to reach their goals and simply make a difference. I often ask how many t-shirts need to be purchased to reduce disparities in communities of color? That's when I become the enemy questioning their authority and position. Well, they did get that part correct.

As a black man, I can't remember a day when I didn't face discrimination or racist views from others. Depending on my mood, there are days that I wish I didn't have to leave home for meetings or appointments.  Often it happens before I even leave my apartment building where I have lived for 13 years, but still get looked at as if I am an intruder or burglar. As a black man, you learn to ignore or suppress most of the negativity that attempts to hit you in the face every day.

As a black man in America, many things happen on a daily basis to push your buttons. The key is learning to stay calm and avoid those threatening triggers. Although the events vary, here are some of the issues that I deal with every day as a black man:
  • Every time I enter a department store, drug store or office building I am followed, questioned and watched very carefully by security guards, even if they are black. They are trained to be suspicious of other blacks because their training sessions teach that black and brown people are thieves, murderers and drug addicts looking to steal or cause bodily harm.
  • Riding public transportation can be a curse or a blessing. If you are black, usually no one will sit next to you unless they are another black person or someone homeless that smells like pure crap. During those times you remove yourself to another part of the car or bus.
  • Entering an elevator has always been amusing to me. White women, especially would rather take the stairs or wait for the next elevator to come down to the lobby. If they reluctantly enter an elevator with a black man, chances are they will be holding tight to their purses because being black means you are going to snatch their purse and run. Just a note, most black people don't even think about white people at all.
  • Entering restaurants: Don't be surprised if they are booked. They are very surprised if you have a reservation and in shock that your name was not black enough to alert them.
  • Office or Team meetings can be quite interesting. Bleeding heart liberals are usually 10 times worse than an outright racist. How can you identify one of them? Well, they are usually passive aggressive and feel that they can say anything to a person of color without ramifications. They can also cry at the drop of a hat if an intelligent response is given. They often will launch into a dialogue that starts with that's not really what I meant and I am sorry that you misunderstood me. When it comes to this bullshit, I don't hesitate to go for their jugular and eliminate the problem without raising my voice or an eyebrow. 
  • A black female employee is told by a co-worker multiple times that she is “so well spoken,” or “not like other black women” that the coworker knows. These comments place a negative assumption on Black Americans, as well as shows contempt or a lack of respect for African American Vernacular English.
  • A latina staff member is sitting in a team meeting when one of the directors makes a face and starts to put down another Latina worker who is no longer with the organization but who has been pulled in as a consultant because of her great skills. Being the only Latino staff member in the meeting, she feels crushed by the white co-worker's attitude, facial expressions,  and nasty comments about the other latina person.
  • Driving while Black can be rather frightening. You may be doing everything correctly but if you are black the profiling begins. Being black means that you must be high on drugs, drunk, have a criminal record, have a warrant out for your arrest or may be thinking about committing a crime. To save us all, 10 police cars are called in and you are beaten nearly to death or murdered for resisting arrest. Trust me, it happens every day.

  • The most difficult one is when you are a Black person who goes in for an interview and the only Black person on the panel, like the security person at Walgreens or CVS, focuses on destroying your chances of being hired.
  • Another common form of racial bias can happen even before the interview. Black or Latino sounding names have a disproportionately lower call-back rate than white names when it comes to landing an interview. 

Racism is often boiled down to its most basic definition: discrimination and negative stereotyping based on race or skin color. However, the truest definition of racism — that of systemic or institutional racism — is much broader, and understanding that definition can help illustrate the lived experiences of people of color in America.

So how do you survive being Black in America?

If you have stories to share, please sent them to me. Those lessons can help so many others to succeed.                            

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