It’s something I’ve heard since I was a child: Go to school, get an education, get a good job. It’s a mantra recited by Black parents to Black children ever since we were allowed to be educated and gainfully employed.
So much of Black history is about celebrating Black firsts: the first Black to reach an executive position at a corporation, the first Black head doctor at a hospital, the first Black ambassador. Reference books are full of sepia-toned photos of dignified-looking men and women of color who overcame prejudice to graduate from Ivy League schools or obtain government appointments. Education and hard work was the only approved way for respectable African-Americans to get a piece of the American dream. The background of iconic Black entertainment is all about coming up. From The Jeffersonsto The Fresh Prince of Bel-Airto Black-Ish, the message is that upward mobility is the way out of poverty and discrimination.
The flip side of that aspiration is less spoken of. It’s the unwritten but universally understood employment contract drawn up between White employers and Black employees in America: To be allowed access to the world of upward mobility, there are certain adjustments to be made. You will have to dress a certain way. You will have to speak a certain way. There are certain behaviors of your employers that you will have adapt to or overlook. That contract has undergone amendments and modifications over time, but the primary stipulation remains the same: if you’re Black and want to get—and keep—a job, you will have to compromise.
In my early twenties, I was working the third shift at Johnny Rockets in Jacksonvillle, Florida. One night I was running the dishwasher with a coworker, a Mexican guy who had been there some months longer than me and was unofficially in charge of the night crew. The restaurant manager, a white guy, poked his head into the door, and he and my coworker went over some closing procedures. The subject of a lack of supplies came up, and the manager placed the blame on the stinginess of the district manager, whom I had to assume was Jewish from the joke the restaurant manager made about him.
I wanted to say something, but I didn’t. I remember thinking that it didn’t affect me, as I wasn’t Jewish, but I knew it was an unprofessional and offensive remark to make in the workplace. I looked at my colleague and he rolled his eyes, a gesture I interpreted to mean that I was to ignore the manager’s comment, which I did.
The next year, I worked a summer job at a warehouse, and one of the foreman handed me a note to give to a shipping and receiving clerk. It said to be sure the “dago truck driver gave her an invoice.” Obviously, the foreman thought nothing of giving the note to me and had no fear of me reading it and saying anything—and he was right, as it turned out.
Both Johnny Rockets and the warehouse job paid minimum wage, and I had no intention of making a career out of either, but the idea of quitting or confronting a manager and getting fired because I felt offended was unthinkable to me at the time. Jacksonville was, and is, a very conservative southern city, and jobs were hard to get if you were Black. I wasn’t rich. I needed to work. So I decided to adopt the strategy of focusing on my job, not making waves, and working until I could do better.
Things improved when I moved to Atlanta. In Atlanta, the Black success mantra manifests itself like no other city in America. You could say Atlanta was built on it. Here was a city where Blackness wasn’t defined by survival, but by prosperity and its display. There were Black people in positions of power, from the mayor’s office to corporate boardrooms. Black culture was Atlanta culture.
The economy was booming, and I landed an office job not long after I arrived. The casual displays of racism I saw in Jacksonville were nonexistent here. But in the “Black Mecca,” genteel condescension can be as bad as blatant hostility. In meetings, I would be interrupted while trying to speak. If I made a suggestion, it was patronizingly listened to and quickly ignored—but if a white colleague made the same suggestion worded differently almost immediately afterward, they would receive praise for it. White coworkers would make coded comments about other coworkers’ mistakes being due to their ethnicities in my presence.
I hid my displeasure behind nervous smiles and shaking my head. I moved from one corporate job to the next, and very rarely did I speak up. I was making a very nice income for a single man with no kids in a major city. I didn’t want to do anything to jeopardize that.
I grew up proud and aware of my heritage. My immediate family shared stories with me about our ancestors from the time I was old enough to understand them. As a teen I devoured the words of Malcolm X and the music of Public Enemy. In Atlanta I was surrounded by examples of Black empowerment. Me and my friends were heavily into Afrocentrism and got into discussions about racism that would last for hours. I knew what Black people suffered and how they fought to gain access to gainful employment, and I believed in Malcolm’s strategy of confronting racism head on wherever it exposed itself.
But when I walked through office doors on Monday morning, I still made the compromises I felt I had to make to keep food on the table and a roof over my head.
What’s a paycheck worth? If someone makes a racist remark in a social setting, it’s easy to call them out on it. In a business environment, how do you handle that? Do you go off on the person or ignore it? Whatever you do, you’re risking a lot—your career if you address the remark, your self-respect if you don’t. It’s a choice no one should have to make, but Black employees face it every day. The results can be soul killing.
A couple weeks ago, political commentator Melissa Harris-Perry publicly parted ways with MSNBC. On the day she left, she released a statement saying that the tone of her show was being compromised and that she refused to be a “token, mammy, or little brown bobble head.” Her experience is not unique. In workplaces across the country, there’s still an expectation that people of color who rise in their chosen professions should be eternally grateful for being given the opportunity to work—as if they didn’t get there on their own merits—and that they are obligated to maintain a safe, nonthreatening image.
Recently, I was talking to someone being groomed for a management position in a company I work with. He was a younger White guy, and he often came to me for mentorship. We weren’t close, but we got along pretty well. I enjoyed having someone to talk to about my work and exchange ideas with. One day, in the middle of one of these conversations, a client approached us. She was a Black woman, in her early forties if I had to guess. Her speech and dress gave the impression of being poor or working-class. She asked a few questions about a product, then left. Once she was out of earshot my colleague said, “Leave, and take your nappy weave with you.”
I was stunned. I’d never felt anything from him that would have made me expect a comment like that. I can only guess that he felt comfortable saying that around me because I was seen as “safe.” I felt anger rising up inside me, and right away the professional and social indoctrination about not making waves rose up to check it. This time, however, outrage won out. I pulled him aside and confronted him, and he gave me a weak half-excuse, half-apology.
Our relationship hasn’t recovered. I cut off any conversation not pertaining to work, and I stopped mentoring him. I may have betrayed my own “safe” image, but I don’t care. I’m at a point in my life where the one-sided compromise of the Black success mantra no longer serves me.
Words matter. When disrespect goes unchallenged, it only gets worse. I want to be successful, I want security. But I don’t want either at the cost of my integrity.
I have a pretty good professional life. I have mentors of different backgrounds in various fields, and I’ve made connections that I hope to be able to cultivate for years. But I’ve also had enough contact with clueless and casually racist people in business settings that I have my guard up, anxious for the day when someone I thought knew better makes a hateful remark couched as a joke and I’m expected to laugh about and shrug off.
I shouldn’t have to accept that, and I don’t intend to.
Follow Torraine on Twitter @TorraineWalker