Before graduating college, I would work call-center jobs through temp agencies, and sometimes I was hired on. There were plenty of black women and a fair amount of black men at these companies. I remember feeling that it was good to see black men doing honest work. Not only that, but they were in positions of authority like Quality Assurance Manager and Team Lead. It was the difference between knowing black men work hard and seeing them work hard.
I got to see black men on a professional level. Whether they were reporting my monthly numbers to me or asking me to cover a shift, they showed character and it was clear for all to see. They followed the rules but also gave us a break. In showing respect to older workers they showed the younger ones what it meant. These men were young themselves, usually under 35.
I also remember having fun with brothers at work. Occasionally, they flirted but there were so many women that I didn’t take it seriously. I don’t imagine they did either; flirting was like the set up for a joke and the female’s comeback was the punchline that made everyone laugh. What I remember most was watching the men interact with each other. They dreamed about stacking cheddar to buy cars. They debated about whose favorite rapper was the best of all time. They complained about baby mamas and congratulated single dads. In the midst of it all, some were quiet and stoic, others loud and animated. In various ways, what they talked about and how they talked about it connected with my sense of blackness. They joked around in ways that I understood and appreciated.
Nowadays, I realize that the joy of witnessing working black men can only be eclipsed by not seeing it.
Now that I have a job that requires a master’s degree, I miss working with black men. To be clear, there are fewer black men and black women overall. Unlike my call-center jobs where I was accustomed to being a part of the majority, I am now uniform with the national minority status of black people. This is a particularly unfavorable status because I had grown to admire and desire a work-based black community.
For me, the lack of black men at work stands out because I can stop and talk to a white man every other person I pass. On a daily basis, I see white men and white women conversing at my job. On TV, I see the same duos again and again. Without the spotty black television shows that cable carries, I get a steady stream of white people except for Cee-lo on The Voice. So, working in a space where the genders are about even is all the more reason to notice color. For me, it’s also all the more reason to miss the presence of black men.
When you know problems related to black life, it’s easy to see how they impact black work life. I understand that most working Americans of any ethnicity do not have a degree and that therefore, the ratio of black people with degrees is fated to be small. I got that. But what’s harder to fathom is what I am missing by not interacting with professional and intellectual black men.
Of my many colleagues, there is one black man. After a few years of cordial greetings, we finally had a sit-down two months ago. Two weeks ago we decided to get dinner after work. Our conversation was casually professional—we talked about personal life but didn’t pry for details or ask to be updated on them later. We talked about our work experiences, which were mostly positive. I witnessed highs and lows both in what he said and how he said it. Listening to him was like being back at the call centers, seven years earlier. When we left, I had more respect for him and I realized he was a good man, not just a smart one. Too, he looked as though he saw something in me and wished we had talked in this way sooner.
In my professional life, I continue to want to work with more black people. I want to feel a sense of connection beyond doing the same work. After all, on a week-to-week basis, there is no other place where I spend more time.