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.
I have many fond memories of the six years I spent with my former employer. I also have those memories that still make me mad enough to want to take a drive to their offices and tear shit up years after the fact.
Over the years, I witnessed many interesting characters come and go. However, the company began to attract some interesting personality types during my last few years with them. You know, the type who typically come from privileged backgrounds and foolishly believe that we’re living in a post-racial America? They’re passive aggressive folks who wouldn’t dare call you n-gg-r to your face, but will never miss an opportunity to subtly (or not so subtly) undermine and belittle you. Initially, I happily welcomed them. For so long, I was one of the few young adults who worked for the company, and I thought that adding other 20somethings to the mix was a wonderful idea. I was still the only Black person in the department, but at least there would be some folks in my age group. Unfortunately, things went left rather quickly. The summer that the CEO’s niece, who for the sake of this article we’ll call “Emma,” came to work for us is around the time things got pretty bad.
One day, in particular, the entire department went to a local Greek restaurant for lunch to shoot the breeze and brainstorm for upcoming projects. All was going well until Emma began starring at me during what appeared to be an “Aha” moment. I thought it to be weird, but I didn’t say anything. The group discussion continued, but as soon as things died down, Emma decided that it was story time.
Seemingly out the blue, she proceeded to describe her childhood nanny, Tammy. According to Emma, Tammy was an older Black woman from the south with wide hips and huge boobs that Emma apparently loved to nestle in. From what I could gather from her story, Tammy was sassy and didn’t take mess off of anybody.
“Don’t ‘chu mess with mah baby,” Emma said pointing her finger and rolling her neck, apparently mimicking Tammy.
I looked back at Emma wondering what the moral of her story was, hoping that she wasn’t about to ask me something stupid like, “Do you have any relatives named Tammy?” Sensing that I was waiting for her to make her point, she said, “You remind me of her.”
I’m sorry, what? The table went silent as my coworkers awkwardly looked back and forth between Emma and I. I sat there silently. I was stunned. We were all kind of shocked in that moment. I don’t know that they knew exactly why I was offended, but I’m pretty sure that my colleagues could sense that I was puzzled and uncomfortable. My eyes narrowed, but I said nothing.
“Tammy was the best,” Emma added, apparently trying to let me know that she meant no harm by her comments. However, the damage was already done.
For clarity, Emma and I were the same age. I was born and raised in New York. And I’m almost certain that I look nothing like Tammy. Honestly, the only thing that Tammy and I probably have in common is the fact that we’re both women born with brown skin, and probably one of the few Black people Emma ever encountered in her life.
It took everything in me not to act the complete fool in the restaurant that day. At that moment, I knew that I wouldn’t be able to express myself in a constructive way, so I chose to say nothing. I just let her sit there with that idiotic look on her face. She picked up on the fact that I was upset, but I’m not sure that she ever understood why. Sometimes, I wonder if it would have been better for me to correct Emma and let her know why her comment was so offensive so that she would know better than to pull that shit the next time she encountered a Black person. Other times, I think I did the right thing for myself at the time.