I’m often a ball of nerves when I see my coworkers gathering around the coffee machine most mornings at work. So much so, I often skip coffee chats and have tea at my desk. Current events, music, TV, even the weather can bring up some cultural reference that lands like a brick amongst my coworkers’ chatter.
See, I am one of a handful of black women in my department. I am the only single person and the only single mother. Aside from my master’s degree from an amazing journalism school, I fit a stereotype of black women—unwed with a kid and a sketchy baby daddy. My coworkers talk and laugh about their doofy husbands, their whitewashed cul-de-sacs and their wacky kids. And I am truly in the midst of some heavy shit as a new mom doing things on my own. But I don’t want to come off as a sorrowful black woman. So, I keep to myself.
After working in Corporate America for 15 years, I am code switching to the point where I have switched off my relationships with my white coworkers. I still get nervous when I arrive at work with braids when my ‘fro was short last week. Cornrows are an absolute no-no. It’s an unwritten rule that someone will ask me how my hair grew so quick or can they touch it. Well, at least my workplace anxiety causes me to believe so.
Once, I was walking up to the coffee machine, and I heard a coworker laughing, saying, “no, not that n-word, the other one.” I moonwalked out of that conversation before they could see me. Exactly what n-word were they referring to? I did find out a few coworkers of mine have Trump bumper stickers and hate Colin Kaepernick on Twitter. I have to admit, the rise of aggressive white supremacy and outspoken Facebook advocates in this Trump era has contributed to my shrinking office dialogue.
See, I’m not on a sitcom and I don’t feel comfortable confronting their potential racist and biased attitudes. I don’t want to educate them or fight for social justice on top of getting my reports done on time.
As black women in the corporate world, we often feel pressure to smile, be nice, sometimes overcorrecting to the point where we ask for less to appear less aggressive. It’s a cultural tightrope that has so many black women in career limbo.
In 2017, McKinsey & Company and LeanIn.org released a study that found that black women are more likely to feel that management isn’t supporting them, advocating for them or pushing them with assignments that could help boost their careers. Another 2017 study by Fairygodboss found that black women report the lowest job satisfaction of all women by race. And the studies on how black women are discriminated against because of hair or their names are numerous. It’s no wonder that there is a lack of black women in C-suite positions. We just don’t feel comfortable climbing the corporate ladder.
Sometimes it’s big events in the news, like when Trump was elected in 2016. After the shocking election results, some of my coworkers were beaming in pride and excitement. Or when Philando Castile was killed by a police officer, sitting peacefully in a car with his girlfriend and young daughter, I closed my office door and cried over the social media coverage. I needed a mental health week after that one. I felt anxious walking in the lunchroom with CNN blaring in the background. My white coworkers are casually eating their ham sandwiches while I am fearful, wondering if my black life matters.
Sometimes it’s little things, like a white coworker asking me what kind of music I am listening to. Sure, I am a fan of John Mayer, love Coldplay. But really, I am listening to The Migos, Cardi B and Gucci Mane in my office while running social media analytics. But if I bring up my favorite ratchet rappers, will I have to explain this culture to my white coworkers. I think fast and say, NERD. “It’s a band with Pharrell—you know Happy.”
It seems like all of my homegirls climbing the corporate ladder deal with the same micro aggressions. Thank God for instant messenger and group texts! Because every morning we are chatting trying to decipher or dismiss something culturally insensitive going on in our offices. We are each other’s support system. We talk for weeks in advance about changing our hair color or trying out a new lipstick and wearing it to work. We help each other maneuver antiquated policies that dock us for being a few minutes late to work because of a sick kid or broke down car.
Oh, and we swap so many side eye memes about bosses and coworkers that we’re laughing out loud in our offices daily. We sometimes schedule mental health days together to look at each other’s resumes, mock through negotiating a raise, or talk about Insecure. Because while everyone in our offices are watching Game of Thrones, my friends are worrying whether Issa and Daniel will get back together.
I am glad I am able to connect to a workplace culture outside of my workplace. Though these small solutions don’t make my workplace more comfortable, knowing I have a network of friends who give me the space to woosah throughout the day makes me feel less alienated.
And I know I can do a better job of not assuming that my blackness, my single motherhood and my fluctuating hairstyles are elephants in the meeting room. I hate that I can’t make it to happy hours because I am a single mom and don’t have babysitters on deck. Finding areas of connections that don’t center around are differences could be an olive branch for reconnection with my white coworkers. It’s the kind of cultural gymnastics that black people have to learn how to do to maneuver the corporate world.