With the widespread resurgence of Black Lives Matter, one group of people have found themselves in an unbelievably exhausting position: the Black professional. So many Black professionals are embedded within WCA — white corporate America — and in this moment, companies and brands alike have flooded social media with notes of solidarity for Black communities. Internally, there’s been an anecdotal rise in what can be described as white guilt. This is when a white colleague suddenly expresses their concerns and frustrations about racism to their Black counterparts. On my personal social media accounts, I’ve seen more “I’ll never know what it’s like to be Black, but I stand with you” statements than I care to.
And it’s infuriating.
I don’t know what it’s like to be white. Or to be straight. Or to be the starting point guard for an NBA team. Yet I’m still expected to be a good person and treat people with respect. That has always been the expectation. Regardless, I, along with other Black professionals, are rightfully exhausted by having the topic of racism dominate even more of our lives now because it seems white people have finally woken up to the anti-Black racism that’s plagued our country since its inception.
In this moment, I’ve begun to think about the phrase “Black don’t crack,” but in a different way. The saying is generally used to reference the youthful appearance Black people have. When confined to the standards of beauty, it is seen as a complimentary statement. When thinking about the Black professional’s experience, it can take on a much more troubling meaning.
To “crack” can be defined as “to break without the complete separation of parts.” I see this as another way to describe the act of code switching. For those who don’t know, “code switching” is a dance many Black people have to perform in their workplace. Hiding certain parts of themselves — namely their Blackness — in order to assimilate and succeed.
Many corporations probably thought they were addressing this issue by promoting their diversity and inclusion efforts. What they’ve failed to realize is that they have only checked off the boxes on paper. The topic of inclusion, which includes creating space for a range of perspectives and personalities to thrive, continues to be held at arm’s length. Because of this, I’ve recognized my own attempts to be the “good on paper” Black employee so that I could obtain and keep a job. I did my best to seem happy for simply having the opportunity to be in the room. This is something my parents taught me growing up.
“Be grateful to have that job … and you better not leave it unless you already have another one lined up, either.”
I internalized that sentiment and kept my mouth shut. I did so to show my gratitude. I also sat in meetings while racially insensitive remarks were tossed around so casually, one would have thought it was just the weather being debated. No one in a position of power seemed to care about it and I certainly didn’t want to risk my job at saying anything. Especially not when I finally got a salaried position with medical benefits.
For years, I effectively hid away the parts of myself that would normally make me stand up in the face of adversity.
Feeling invisible has been a huge part of my professional experience. Learning that 20% of Black professionals say they are likely to leave a job within the year due to a sense of anonymity made me analyze my career in a new way. I was chastised for “job hopping” and how it would create a bad reputation. More times than not, these sentiments were from white friends and colleagues. It’s never been lost on me that whenever I was able to come in contact with someone who looked like me at work, they understood where I was coming from and why I had chosen to leave.
I wasn’t job hopping because I was a millennial. It was because I often felt fundamentally disrespected and undervalued. It took years before I understood that I was going into the same type of environments simply with different cast members.
A second way of describing the verb crack is “to lose control or effectiveness under pressure.” Diminished productivity, or a loss of effectiveness, in the workplace is easily connected to something Black employees regularly face: toxic work environments.
On Twitter, former Vogue employee Shelby Ivey Christie described her time at media behemoth Conde Nast as the “most challenging + miserable time” of her career. Another former Conde Nast employee, Tunisia Wilson, tweeted about the “toxic work culture.” According to Tunisia, she received no assistance from the Human Resources department when calling things out.
During my time with Conde Nast, the editor-in-chief of the since-folded publication I worked for routinely questioned my taste level. He shared looks of discomfort whenever I spoke and went so far as to ask if I “wanted to be fat” in a department meeting. Despite being one of three Black people in the room when this incident occurred, I was still too afraid to speak up. The head of public relations and the head of digital media were in the room at the time. They were both white and also opted to stay silent.
I eventually sought out HR’s help for other reasons. Like Tunisia, I was met with inaction. Just six months in, I made the choice to resign.
Even though I’ve been able to close the wounds of some painful professional experiences, I’m constantly reminded that I don’t have the luxury to truly heal. I’m shown that simply being Black is “enough” to be murdered. I’m told that my Blackness is always up for conversation, even if I don’t want it to be. Even if I ask it not to be.
It is uncertain as to how legitimate this moment will be in bringing forth actual change in how Black professionals are treated within white corporate America. One thing I appreciate about social media is how it’s continued to proliferate our interconnected societies. It has allowed for Black voices like mine to be heard. While I still grapple with an internal conflict of determining how much of my whole self I bring to the office, I’ve never felt more confident to use my voice.