For the past ten years, I have consistently worked in all-black, yet culturally diverse office environments. In particular, I have worked with Afro-Caribbean immigrants and African Americans and I can confidently conclude that black folk are in need of as much cultural diversity and competence training among ourselves as we think white people need when relating to us.
Over the years, I have heard both groups make openly disparaging remarks about the other. The comments have been rooted in cultural stereotypes as a way to judge coworkers’ and supervisors’ level of professionalism, intelligence, productivity, and work ethic. Stereotypes like, “Black Americans are largely unemployed because they are lazy and don’t take advantage of the opportunities in this country” to “Jamaicans have no command of written or spoken Standard American English” are readily used to shame, divide, and promote a vicious, toxic intra-racial rivalry that creates a hostile work environment. It kills productivity, team building, and morale.
The tension between Afro-Caribbean immigrants and African Americans in the workplace is a reflection of some real-world, real-time resentment governed by what I think is a post-colonial and post-emancipation past. It’s a mentality largely rooted in seeking the approval of the white power structure. And in the case of the workplace, seeking the approval of the white employing labor structure in order to secure a lion’s share of the few resources afforded to the black community.
The irony about this need to separate and distinguish themselves from one another is that no one outside of the black community really sees or honors these distinctions. More importantly, the social, economic, and political destiny of African Americans and Afro-Caribbean immigrants living in the United States is, for the most part, inextricably intertwined. We live in the same neighborhoods. Our boys are stopped and frisked just as indiscriminately. We experience the same levels of predatory lending from banks. Most of us voted for Obama. When the N-bomb drops, it is meant to hit any moving target that is black.
Even though cultural stereotypes have no business in the workplace, this setting, may in fact be the ideal place to begin a discourse toward bridging differences between these two groups. In a structured environment with a skilled facilitator, African Americans and Afro-Caribbean co-workers would benefit from being able to unpack and examine the origins and motivations for their use stereotypes and assess the function that stereotypical thinking plays in workplace interactions. A series of sessions that foster cultural competence could help African Americans and Caribbean colleagues understand their common history, recognize their cultural similarities, and leverage their differences to not only improve how they function from 9-to-5, but how they view themselves once they are off the clock.