Working While Black: How My Conservative, Southern White Coworkers Became My Family
Editor’s Note: James Baldwin said to be conscious and Black in America is to be enraged most of the time. And sadly, those words are still true for many of us. In addition to the deeply depressing and unjust news headlines, there are the hostile situations we deal with everyday. For many of us, these incidents happen at work. In a culture where we spend more time working than with our families, these environments, with ignorant and entitled White people, can be everything from tiring to infuriating. In our new series, “Working While Black,” we compile some of those stories and share them with you, as a way to let you know you’re not alone, to offer advice on how to navigate these situations and hopefully to keep you from losing your mind, your temper or your job.
As told to Veronica Wells
After I graduated college, I had no concrete plans. The only thing I knew was that I did not want to return to my hometown. I went to school in North Carolina, and after some convincing from my best friend, I decided to stay there and start working. Having been kicked out of the dorms, I was homeless. I was so determined to stay in the state, I ended up couch hopping. First, with my sociopathic ex boyfriend, an estranged friend when that went sour and lastly with virtual strangers when she up and moved out of the blue.
I found work pretty quickly through a temp agency but, as is often the case with these type of jobs, the pay wasn’t nearly enough. I was making $10 dollars an hour, taking home $200 a week, with a $400 car note.
Not wanting to continue riding this struggle bus, I was applying for about 40 jobs a day, looking for a change. Needless to say, I couldn’t keep track of them all. So when an IT company called, I told them I was available for an interview, not really remembering the position or knowing what to expect.
Luckily, the interview didn’t take much preparation. I walked in a room with two older, Italian men who asked me how I handled stress. They wanted to know if I cracked under pressure and minded people yelling at me. I told them growing up with my mother, I was more than used to it. They got a kick out of that. The interview lasted ten minutes and three hours later, they called to say I had been offered the position.
I remember thinking to myself, ‘Okay, they recognize a real one.’
I would soon find out that no everyone had that same ability.
My particular position required three months of training. Too bad the man who volunteered to do so, Jason, wasn’t trying to help me do sh*t. In fact, he refused to speak to me. I would learn later, much later, that he was paid $500 for basically ignoring me.
I don’t know if his intention was to set me up for failure but his coldness was all the motivation I needed to prove that I could succeed in this position, out of pure spite. And that’s exactly what I did.
The woman who did train me, since Jason couldn’t be bothered, ended up being a lifesaver. I clung to the information she shared with me; and in 3 months time, just as my training was coming to an end and she was being moved to another department, I took over her territory, working on the same team with Jason.
Interestingly enough, the same people who refused to acknowledge me became my closest friends. I didn’t have any family in North Carolina and spending so much time at work, my coworkers inevitably became my social circle, my friends first and then, more than that.
It may seem like an unlikely, even miraculous feat. But it was actually just the way most friendships are formed.
A lot of people ended up quitting because of stress of the job and our team eventually dwindled to four-five people. Shortly after that, the company switched to a new internal computer system and I just so happened to be the person who learned how to operate it first. My team members had to come to me for the answers. And when they did, we all found that we had quite a bit in common, especially our sense of humor. During those late nights, in the midst of the stress, it was comedy that brought us together.
It wasn’t long before we were bonding outside of work too. We went out for drinks. Jason, on a healthy eating kick, started buying me lunch and then calling me, after hours to discuss our childhood, dreams and relationships. I ended up hosting a game night at my home and one coworker even invited me to have Thanksgiving with her family since I couldn’t go home to be with mine.
Still, that didn’t mean that I always felt comfortable there. One of my newfound friends’, Tristen’s, grandfather was a member of the Klu Klux Klan. He came from a small town and as cliché as it sounds, I was his first Black friend. Needless to say, he, out of ignorance more than anything else, made his fair share of offensive comments and even actions.
I don’t know what it is, but White people often feel like they have access to Black bodies. And it wasn’t long before I discovered the truth behind that statement. One day, Tristen, a stereotypical White frat boy, complete with the shenanigans, called me over to his desk to ask for my help. After I answered his question, he took a meter stick and hit me on my butt with it. Not only was he married, not only was his desk close to the executive offices, he was disrespecting me in front of everyone. Thankfully, no one saw it; but if they had, I know he wouldn’t have been held responsible for that. It would have been me, the Black girl having an inappropriate relationship with a married coworker. I didn’t know how to handle the situation at all. Instead of addressing it head on, I ignored Tristen for two months.
In retrospect, I wish I had expressed my feelings. But it just made me too uncomfortable.
Our friendship and working relationship wasn’t perfect but my White coworkers and then friends opened my eyes to some things too. Like Tristen, I hadn’t had White friends, since kindergarten. My White coworker family showed me that there are some things, a lot of things, that cross cultural, like lewd humor, without the inappropriate touching, and me and Tristen’s reference for Ja Rule.
I can’t say that my White friends saw the light after knowing me and hearing me preach against their prejudices. They still occupy a position of privilege in predominately White areas but I do think knowing me and befriending me opened their eyes to a few things. I wasn’t the token Black girl. I wasn’t going to assimilate to make them comfortable. And in their acceptance of the real Black me, we all learned, grew and supported each other.