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“Why do you look so mad?”

Admittedly, I’ve never been one to show a ton of emotion. I played basketball growing up, and in high school, my teammates would always make jokes about me being straight-faced no matter what happened in the game. They’d say it was hard to tell if I had hit the game winner or if I’d gotten dunked on because my facial expression never changed. It’s just part of my demeanor.

The same sort of thing happens at parties, especially when the people hosting are white. It usually goes something like this:

I walk into the party and make some rounds, saying hi to the people I know and introducing myself to some people that I haven’t met before. I then observe the party — I’ll listen to the music playing (it feels like it’s always either Fall Out Boy or Panic at the Disco); I’ll watch the people in the party to see how they’re acting; but mainly, I just grab a drink and chill.

It almost never fails that someone will walk over to me and say something like, “Why do you look so mad?” or (sarcastically) “You really seem to be enjoying yourself!” I usually give a half smile and say, “Haha, I’m just chilling.”

All of this to say, my face has been like this for a long time. As a result, I’ve been getting these types of questions for a long time. For people to see my lack of emotion and make assumptions about me in a basketball game or at a party isn’t a big deal. No, I’m not mad, but it’s not worth making a big deal about it because no real harm has been done.

Now, let’s go through another, more explicit situation I had at work. I was in the Midwest for a week-long training. There were about 300 people from across the country at this event and we’d each been split into classrooms, with each classroom split into five teams of about eight people each. Our classroom was led by two instructors who had recently been promoted to leadership positions. One instructor was a white woman and one was a Black man. (The female instructor is the subject of most of this article, so I’ll reference her by the pseudonym "Heather.")

The training primarily consisted of lectures and group activities, ultimately ending with a team presentation based on what we’d learned. I was very familiar with most of the training material, so I didn’t take many notes or ask a lot of questions throughout the week. I also had to step out of the trainings to take a few calls for adjacent work I was doing.

My training team was typical for a consulting firm, with two or three people immediately taking the lead and allocating work for the rest of the team. I was happy to take a backseat support role on the team, and I quickly realized that the best way to take advantage of the training was to participate in the out-of-the-classroom events, like the dinners and happy hours. This was a great opportunity to network with people from offices all over the U.S. and see what type of work they were doing. I had actually struck up conversations with both of my instructors at dinners throughout the week.

Up until the penultimate day of the training, things had been going well. I’d connected with co-workers from different offices, and our team’s presentation was coming together. So, I was surprised when, at a happy hour on the last night of the training, someone from another classroom told me that she’d heard about me not being engaged in the training. Apparently, Heather had been telling other instructors that I wasn’t participating in the training, that I didn’t want to be there, and word had spread.

What’s worth noting is that throughout the week, another member of our team  — an Asian man, let’s call him "Tom" — had acted very similarly to me. He had also stepped out of the training a few times to take calls. He was playing more of a support role on the team project. There was, however, one difference: Tom didn’t attend a single event outside of the classroom. He would always get his meals to go and didn’t show up to any of the happy hours. I didn’t think anything of it; his level of participation wasn’t any of my business, and he was pulling his weight for the team project.

I obviously can’t be certain, but I’d be willing to bet that Heather wasn’t going around telling people about how Tom wasn’t engaged. So why did she think that I wasn’t?

Why It’s A Problem

When around white people, Black people feel a pressure to be “up.” There's pressure to go out of our way and appear happy so white people around us don’t characterize us as angry, disinterested or both. In my example, Heather took my lack of outward emotion as a sign that I didn’t want to participate, and proceeded to spread that presumption with our colleagues. 

While I was disappointed that the instructor had gone around telling people that I wasn’t engaged in the training, I ended up shrugging it off. It didn’t seem worth it to confront her or try to speak to someone else about it. I was able to drop the event and keep it moving, but the situation was dangerous for a few reasons:

1. It could become a self-fulfilling prophecy.

If I heard about what the instructor was saying earlier in the week, it would have been very easy for me to say, “Well, if she’s already made up her mind that I don’t want to be here, why bother?” This is the self-fulfilling prophecy with situations like this. I could have completely disconnected from the event, and then I actually wouldn’t have been engaged.

For Black people and other minorities, too often people make prejudiced assumptions and leave little room for those assumptions to be disproven. As minorities, we are quick to recognize when these assumptions have been made, and we either work extremely hard to disprove them or we give up entirely. The latter of the two ends up reinforcing the wrongful assumption and making the person that made that judgment believe it to be true.

2. It goes against the idea that employees should bring their whole selves to work.

Recently, companies have begun pushing the idea of employees bringing their whole selves to work, which basically means they don’t want employees to code-switch. While this is nice in theory, without the proper awareness (especially from company leadership), it’s just another empty promise for diverse employees.

Let’s face it, everyone code switches. No one acts exactly the same way at work as they do around family or close friends. However, for various reasons, like a lack of representation or a feeling that they don’t belong, minorities often feel the pressure to be someone else two or three-fold. Experiences like the one I had at this training only bolster the pressure to put that mask on at work. I should have put on my biggest smile and projected excitement throughout the training — maybe then the instructor wouldn’t have made those assumptions.

3. You never know who someone knows.

One of my college professors used to preach, “It’s not what you know, it’s not who you know, it’s who knows you on a favorable basis.” Your network is critically important. What if, just a few months after the training, I tried to get on a work project being led by a manager that knows Heather very well. Maybe that manager asks people in her network, like Heather, if they’ve worked with me before. Heather goes on to tell her that I was disengaged in the training, and the manager makes the decision to move on to other candidates.

This is my biggest issue with Heather’s assumption of me; it might not be an isolated incident. I can take it upon myself not to disengage from the training, and I can find ways to bring out my personality at work, but I can’t control who Heather talks to. Her small assumption could have a huge impact on my career.

Here’s a non-comprehensive list of things that Black people deal with in the workplace:

  1. Microaggressions
  2. Impostor syndrome
  3. A lack of representation
  4. A lack of sponsorship
  5. Unconsciously (and consciously) biased co-workers

This list doesn’t include the pressures that we face outside of work. On top of all these issues, we’re supposed to show up to work and look happy so our non-minority co-workers are comfortable.

Next time, instead of asking me why I’m not smiling, ask yourself if you’re part of the reason why.

Do the straight white men in your workplace get treated better than you? Do you have a story to tell about your experience at your company? (Hint: the answer to this question is yes).

We’d love to hear it! Submit your story at Dyversifi. Your story is completely anonymous, and it helps diverse employees like you gain insight into what it’s like to work at your company.


Toby Egbuna is the Co-Founder of Dyversifi, a career reviews platform for diverse employees.