I speed walk to the office to make it as fashionably late as possible to our 9 a.m. product meeting. Train delays are nothing new, and everyone gets stuck on a late train at some point… but I grip my coffee cup a little tighter when I imagine my teammates thinking it’s just me being on CP time.
“OMG Valerie, did you get new highlights?! They look so good!” Andrew shouts across our open floor layout office. I focus my gaze to see if I can detect any tonal difference.
But her hair still looks blonde to me.
The developers have cut my designs in half — again. This is a common design problem, and designers are expected to firmly defend our work on a daily basis (then nurse the stress of said daily defense at various evening happy hours where, if you forget to rotate your venues, bartenders will start to recognize you). But before I open my mouth, my words are taken hostage by memories from an old boss telling me, “Everyone needs to be an jerk… but you cannot be a jerk,” in reference to my blackness, womanhood or black womanhood. So I grit my teeth, smooth down my edges, and let out a resolved, “I’m looking forward to the upcoming improvements!”
I introduce myself to the new black woman working in accounts payable. Black people rarely work in product, so I’ve learned to reach out to black people in other departments. I hope to emit “I’m so glad you and your blackness are here!” through my handshake and the look of desperation in my eyes. I stop myself just short of “I’ll cornrow your hair for free if you sit on the product side of the office!”
We’re waiting for the Apple TV to display our presentation when one of the guys from sales starts talking about his weekend and how tan he got. Someone gently chastises him about foregoing sunscreen, and I second their notion, adding that it’s super important to wear sunscreen when you’re outside for an elongated amount of time. He laughs and raises his hand in a mock “guilty as charged” shakes his head in agreement, then says to me, “But really, I mean, come on, you don’t have to worry about sunscreen, right?!”
We make lunch plans. Experience has taught me not to reveal my “guy’s girl” personality on an all-male, all-non-black product team because teammates quickly abuse that privilege by inevitably saying something racist, sexist or both. Although most days I prefer to spend lunch unwinding alone, today I could really use some company.
Everything’s going well and no one has croaked while eating their Chipotle bow. But then we start talking about our parents. I mention that my dad’s a CPA and that my sister is a Fulbright Scholar. It’s as if I’ve told them I have an extra set of eyeballs on the soles of my feet.
Our product team is conducting training sessions for the new features and functionality we just rolled out. The product managers are usually uptight with me, but I notice they are jovial and maybe even a tad flirtatious now that they’re surrounded by the young white women from other departments. Most days, I chock it up to a double-standard that I’d rather not be a part of, but today it stings.
I meet with my manager to review my work. I’m excited to present it because I skipped a night of Netflix ‘n’ Chill to get it done. “These look great,” he begins, “I’m glad the team lead is helping you so much.”
The network is down so everyone is surfing the net to relish this rare occasion to take a break. Someone brings up Beyoncé’s Lemonade and how flawless an album it is. Silence.
Deafening silence from a group of people who have been known to talk about indie bands and Kanye for hours at a time.
“Did you do something different with your hair?” Yes, I did. It’s called I took my braids out. Well- versed in white ignorance about black hair, I cheerfully explain that I like to try new styles with my hair. Instead of that being followed with a, “Well it looks nice!” like this person did just a few hours ago to Valerie with her new cut, our conversation is punctuated with a toothless smile.