“I can’t do this anymore,” I thought to myself on my Monday morning work commute. The anxiety began like clockwork every Sunday evening as I anticipated the endless microaggressions and Machiavellian-level psychological Olympics that had become the norm of my career experience. I felt crazy, like in an Emperor’s New Clothes type of situation. “Doesn’t anyone else see this?” I thought. Even if they did, they wouldn’t dare speak up. Dissenters were penalized and berated, their careers strategically undermined with the kind of slick manipulation that just narrowly escapes policy violation and makes it impossible to call out or nail down without personal penalty. It was a toxic work environment, but not any more or less toxic than any other organization. “That’s just the way it is,” echoed my composite of countless well-meaning mentors and advisors when I consulted them about the struggle.

I was a black woman in corporate America. By conventional standards, I had made it. I was being primed for promotion in a role that garnered respect and came with authority. It was my job to advocate for employees, or so I thought, but I quickly learned that my role was most often to defend the corporation, sometimes at the expense of the individual. I had a seat behind the curtain, so I knew how the illusion worked. The problem was, I couldn’t bring myself to participate in the sham. I was good at my job. I loved the work but absolutely despised the politics — the scripted rephrasing and the calculated bending of rules to skirt policy on a case-by-case basis. Racism ran rampant but in a subtle/legal kind of way. All of this ultimately placed me as the token to uphold the very inequities that I felt obligated to oppose. I was their insurance — the face of diversity and inclusion hired to uphold a system that resented it. Resistance came at too high a personal cost and submission, for me, was not an option. Ultimately, I resigned and took my career in a completely different direction.

I sometimes wonder what would have happened if I hadn’t left.

What if my gamble hadn’t worked? If I had a family to support, had the stakes been just a little higher, I have no doubt that I would have compromised. I would have found a way to exist within the confines of a grossly unjust structure. At some point, I would have learned to participate. Eventually, the occasional racial epithet would have stung less. The live streaming racist rhetoric of The Rush Limbaugh Show from the adjoining office would no longer have been quite as offensive. I would have adjusted to the mask inherited as my birthright; or, for the sake of cognitive dissonance, I would become an advocate for the very system that robbed me of my dignity.
It’s a shrewd and subtle indoctrination, an unspoken agreement that one often makes in exchange for the privilege of being treated with a little less disdain than usual. None of us are immune to it. In its lesser extreme, it’s a simple code-switch that learns to withhold itself — to be less expressive, less kinky, less authentic to soften the threat of our blackness. On the high end of the spectrum are people like Stacey Dash and Clarence Thomas, who have sold themselves so fully into the illusion that they no longer recognize it as such.

The fact is, there is a system in place and navigating within it requires a level of compromise, especially if you’re black. The cost of being ‘woke’ within this structure is steep and the personal returns are dire. As James Baldwin put it, “To be a Negro in this country and to be relatively conscious is to be in a rage almost all the time.”

navigate racial politics at work
Photo: Giphy
So, does one choose the path of least resistance or pay the price of consciousness? I don’t pretend to have the solution, but what I do know is that at some point, we must all answer this question for ourselves.

This is the second installment of ‘Am I doing this right?’

The transition into adulthood isn’t an easy one. Navigating relationships, managing workplace politics, hitting those milestones on schedule— don’t be fooled, no one knows what they’re doing. There will be all kinds of fumbles, blunders and awkward missteps along the way. If you’re constantly wondering to yourself, “Am I doing this right?” Welcome. This is just the place for you.

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