Dear past, present, and future coworkers,
Despite only being twenty-two, I would need to use both hands to count the number of times where I started a job and immediately found myself being celebrated by the one or two employees of a minority identity who were already on the staff, as they felt the burden of being an on-call Jesse Williams lightened off of their shoulders and delicately shifted on top of mine. These were coworkers who were singled out and isolated because of their race/sexuality/gender. They were expected to be up-to-date, knowledgeable, and ready to engage in a conversation about extremely personal topics for coworkers.
I am writing this article to call attention to what bothers me about that, and about the toxic invitation to do unpaid labor. Inequality often shows its ugly face in the workplace. I most often see it in the workplace when coworkers with privileged identities bring up political topics without being careful, intentional, or self-aware of how they are bringing it up. Using my own experiences, I will establish a helpful list of questions for readers to ask before you decide to have those conversations.
First and foremost, what are the conditions of this conversation?
Long car rides, meetings with superiors, and interviews have been the top three most uncomfortable places where I was expected to pull out a mental copy of ‘Black Feminist Thought’ and serve as the voice of oppressed black women and femmes, and each time, it’s horrifying. Having strangers probe into my mind about topics that could make enemies, alienate me from my coworkers, or potentially threaten my employment is already uncomfortable, especially when those topics have a stake in my identity: depending on my answer, my ability to be safe might evaporate in a split second.
Moreover, it’s tiring being someone’s social inequality 101 textbook. Sometimes when I wake up and look in the mirror, instead of seeing beautiful locks, thick lips and poppin’ melanin, I see the stares I get wherever I go, I see myself being followed in stores, and I see myself being treated like I don’t belong. Sometimes I feel like shit because expressing my gender could get me killed. Sometimes, when I’m struggling with internalized anti-blackness and trying to do my best to show up on time, refusing to ask questions out of fear of looking unintelligent, and being the hardest working employee because of fear of stereotypes of a poorly motivated, lazy African American that wants a handout, talking about my reality with someone who understands it as a hypothetical only consumes all of the energy I have left. If you feel compelled to bring up these topics, asking if the other person feels comfortable or safe having that conversation can go a long way.
Secondly, is your workplace one that values peace over truth?
Divisive is a word often used to describe blacks that speak up against racism because we are choosing to advocate for ourselves and our own needs. A conversation about our pain and an expression of our needs in order for us to work can often be derailed by how upsetting it is for a white person to hear about our pain – in order for us to keep the peace, we are often tasked with prioritizing the pain our privileged coworkers might experience in direct response to our pain rather than advocating for ourselves. As stated by Patricia Williams in “The Alchemy of Race and Rights’ regarding minorities being held responsible for expressing their pain and the reaction to their pain:
Though there is certainly an obligation to be careful in addressing others, the obligation to protect the feelings of the other gets put above the need to protect one’s own; the self becomes subservient to the other with no reciprocity; and the other becomes a whimsical master.
If I’m unable to participate in discourse about my needs without having to put someone else’s needs over mine, why would I bother in the first place?
Third, ask yourself; why bother?
If I state that I’m uninterested in working harder to educate you than you are to educate yourself and that offends you, then examine the privilege and power structures within your ability to ask me about race, and the social expectation of me to talk about it. Why must I take time out of day answering a question you could’ve googled? How is there any sort of fair trade? Suppose I give you a level of intimacy that you haven’t earned by telling you my experiences and knowledge; now I have taught you. Maybe, you became less problematic. However, requiring me to tell my story in order to end oppression is committing an act of violence and abusive. I expect people of privileged identities to humble themselves and attempt to check their privilege when they walk into a room with me. Will you force us into an extremely vulnerable space to turn my experiences into your knowledge, then remain silent when speaking up against the oppression I face makes you uncomfortable?
Finally, if we educate you, what’s in it for us?
I’m not demanding reparations (in this essay), but often, those with identities of power (specifically whites) are celebrated for sharing information that people of color, specifically black women, have had for decades. Yet, in the hiring process, people of color are viewed as coming attached to coupons reading ‘hire one, get one conversation about racism free!’
Clearly, our experiences and knowledge immense value – prove that you find it valuable. Don’t ask us to give trainings that help improve the ability of your company to work effectively with a diverse array of people, give your organization the ability to better serve a wider range of clients, and contribute to helping your organization survive in a world that’s becoming more diverse by the day without being willing to compensate us fairly.
The minority tax is a phrase used to describe when people of color are expected to do their fair share of work in addition to serving on any and all teams involving diversity. In addition, we are also often lead to feel as if we have to work harder in order to achieve the same amount of success as our white peers. Give us a platform to discuss inequality, compensate us for these trainings, and be willing to dedicate time and money to eradicating inequality in your workplace. If you aren’t willing to do these things, please reconsider your decision to have this conversation.
Words by K Bullock
K Bullock is an AMAB, poly, in the kink community, queer non-binary person from the US South. Contributing to Beyond the Binary, they hope to write about their experiences being poly and non binary, being black, and write for the other black trans people.