Working while Black…what that check really costs

After talking about it for what seems like forever, I have finally started my new position. Despite the early wake up time and the hellacious commute, I couldn’t be happier. My happiness though is not just in having a new job; my happiness is rooted in the fact that for the first time in eleven years I am allowed once again to be fully human.

Prior to moving to Maine in 2002, my Blackness was simply a part of who I was as a person, no more, no less. Yet once I moved to Maine, the totality of my being was reduced to being Black and always needing to make others comfortable with my difference. Always fighting to be seen as more than a Black person is tiring; knowing that my professional credibility always hinged on white approval took a toll on me and even the relationship that I hold most dear.

The past year was my personal breaking point. The place where I knew change had to come because my ability to keep smiling and passing the open windows was starting to wane. My rage started to simmer dangerously close to the top despite the mental games I played with myself.

My professional life was the catalyst for change because after 5 years of working tirelessly and giving of myself fully, it was also the place where it became clear that I would never move beyond my Blackness. No matter how hard I tried. In the end it was also the place where my Blackness would allow me to be metaphorically slapped in the face as my employers decided to take my hard work and flush it down the toilet thus impacting hundreds of area youth. It was also the space where white men decided that they are above state laws and decided to honor my hard work and commitment to helping others by flaunting state laws and not paying me for five years of unused paid time off, totaling well over $5000 and instead giving me $50 cash in a card and wishing me well.

Working while Black is always a complicated affair, our credentials are viewed with suspicion, after all, those degrees were probably the result of affirmative action and not evidence of talent and skill. Even partial acceptance in the professional realm requires some worthy white person to make it clear that they think you are acceptable. In my case, a few well-placed connections with white men who others admire helped pave my way in recent years.  Of course even once you get the white stamp of approval, there is always the fear that it can be taken away. MSNBC personality Melissa Harris-Perry touched upon this in a discussion with bell hooks in November 2013.

In starting my new position at Community Change, Inc. this week, I was struck by how I no longer need to have a white stamp of approval, just to be seen as acceptable. My success or lack of success will be basely solely on my merits as a professional. Period. When I have a moment where the dynamics of race and power are feeling wonky, rather than sitting in my discomfort, I can name it without being met with blank eyes and the overeager protests that “Race doesn’t matter”…in America in this present day, race always matters.  To deny it is to ensure that racial healing will never happen because we are not mature enough as a nation to do the heavy lifting required to make inclusivity and parity more than words.

Work by its very nature is hard, yet in a nation unwilling to be real about race, it means that working as a person of color is always going to be harder than it is for our white peers and when we add gender it gets even murkier. Yet to work in places located in spaces where people of color are not the norm is to create a battle that few people of difference can ever hope to win. To win is to lay ourselves bare, to take the metaphorical whip and be beaten with that whip daily and hope that our spirit can withstand the daily attacks. There is no job worth losing one’s personal worth.  Many well-meaning people have asked me why I am traveling two hours each way for my new job; I am traveling because my life depends on it. My being is worth traveling 200 plus miles a day to enter spaces where I can be myself without apology or explanation.

3 thoughts on “Working while Black…what that check really costs”

  1. I happen to stumble onto your blog and have recommended it to so many people. I love your insights. Glad to know you are happier in your new job. Your comments “Working while Black” are wonderful and I fully understand and appreciate to be able to be seen as a professional not a black professional. Here is a challenge,I love to hear you comments on why it is so hard for Black professionals(male & female) to work with Black Female professionals in executive positions.

  2. I hope the job is fabulous! I had no idea that the last job was so difficult. I knew about the funding issues but not that you weren’t respected appropriately. Terrific that the new job sets a new landscape and your feel so eager about it.

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