What It’s Like Being Literally The Only Black Person In Your 50-Person Office

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I can’t really recall a time I wasn’t the only black person somewhere. I was raised in and surrounded by mcmansions, went to a college with a 5% black population, and am the “best friend” your girlfriend is referring to when she says, “I’m not racist; my best friend is black!” So, it didn’t come as a surprise to me when I accepted a new position in early 2016, and again found myself to be the only black person in the entire building.

What surprised me was the unshakable feeling of isolation, the experience of covert racism, and the overwhelming challenges my parents promised I would face being a young, black professional. Being the only black person in a midsize company invites a blended paradox of emotions; it is both motivating and spirit-shaking, tolerable and burdensome, and it gives me the pressure and responsibility to represent an entire race, and well, even when that’s an actual impossibility.

And with that, I need to note that I can only speak from my experience; I cannot represent a whole race with an essay. This is my narrative. I encourage readers to ask their coworkers and peers about one another’s experiences, and employers to step it up and make diversity more of a priority.

Paying The “Black Tax”

An aspect of being a black professional is paying the “black tax,” aka the fact that we must perform twice as hard and be twice as presentable to be considered just as good as our white peers.

With time, most of the company has grown to see me as an individual — as Jazmine, not just “the black girl.” However, it is the latter description that I’m still conscious of at all times, because for some, they are still very conscious of it at all times. When returning an expense report, when voicing my opinion in a conference room, or when the conversation of current events comes up in the office, often I am singled-out and watched more closely, mistaken as “sassy,” or assumed that I must only feel that way about [insert political issue] because I’m black.

Because I’m forced to lead with my skin color, negative stereotypes and preconceived ideas about my work ethic, integrity, and convictions introduce me before I’m able to introduce myself. So, when choosing my words and actions, I strategically think about how I can out-perform and raise the standard of the person they are expecting me to be. So I keep diligent receipts of everything I purchase, get everything in writing, at times choose more submissive wording, and am sure to have factual evidence when explaining my stance on an idea, or why black lives do, in fact, matter. The fact that I feel like I am kept at a greater distance until I dispel every stereotype and generalization is precisely what it is like to be black in corporate America, and something most of white friends do not endure, ever.

Being The Black Sheep

I’m greeted by faces that do not look like me, by people who do not necessarily think like me, and by people who, in a different scenario, might be afraid of me. In my experience, I don’t think my coworkers ever thought I was a “thug,” but I could tell some thought we wouldn’t have much in common, and shouldn’t try to befriend me.

Unfortunately, I have had these interactions time and time again in my life — it’s like some people think, “She’s black. She’s probably from the ghetto, maybe didn’t go to college, what could we possibly have in common?” So the lunch invitations aren’t received, and the white noise starts to sound a lot more like whispering and snickering. I begin to feel insecure, and thus, I kind of put on this tap show of, “See, we have tons in common! I’m not threatening, or standoffish! I like brunch, too!” Giving into these insecurities and putting away the tap shoes are still things I wrestle with, which I’m embarrassed to admit. But on many occasions, coworkers declare, “Man, you’re way different than I was expecting,” or something to such effect. It feels like a victory that’s deflating at the same time. But I continue keeping the “tap shoes” nearby.

Why I Keep Going

It occurred to me recently that, for some of my coworkers, I am the only black person they interact with on a regular basis. It’s important to me that I not shy away from either conversations about blacks as a demographic or blacks as a race. I want to open a window into my world to shed light on things that are kept out of the media they consume. It’s important they interact with me, and I interact with them, because I may be the only way they learn.

While I have divulged my insecurities and experiences above, I don’t let my being black serve as a crutch. I am constantly motivated by my experiences to set an example of what should be the new black expectation — or how there shouldn’t be any specific expectation — for people who have the unfortunate preconceived notions I’ve mentioned.

Lastly, I can hardly be the only one in this position. I want to challenge companies to make diversity more of a priority. It’s vital to see and hear many different stories, and to learn from many different lives. Because if a company isn’t growing and evolving, it’s not going anywhere.

Jazmine Reed is embarrassed to admit her bank account is flooded with Taco Bell and premium Kardashian app purchases, but she’s working on it. Read more at JNReed.com.

Image via Pexels

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  • Elbee

    Preach! Great article and I can totally relate. Among other instances, when one of my future bosses brought me in for an in-person interview after a previous phone interview she later told me she was surprised I was Black because I have a “white-sounding voice” and a “white” name. She also liked to touch my hair -_-

    And girl, your college had a 5% black population!? I went to a University of California and mine had 2.5%. Count yourself lucky.

    • Your boss liked to touch your hair?? That sounds disrespectful in any work setting unless you’re in a hair salon or something!

      • Elbee

        Yes, very disrespectful. And of course I felt odd saying no since… she was my boss!

        • Erin Williams

          I’m so sorry, because you shouldn’t even have to say it! I can’t imagine that situation without thinking your body language must have telegraphed discomfort to anyone paying even a little attention (I know mine sure would have!).

  • D. Broussard

    So relatable! I experienced both sides of the story- my mom raised me mostly in the inner city of Oakland, CA and my dad raised me some in the suburbs nearly an hour away. I’m really in tune to my identity as a black person, and I have absolutely had that shattered when I’m the only person in a classroom, job, etc. who is Black.

    Even going places like alternative shows and EDM clubs etc. are a trip because I can tell people look at my fro or twists or my boyfriend’s locs and don’t think we belong there. These girls behind me at the show consistently tried to push past me, and I’m pretty sure we’re pissed and didn’t think I knew any of the songs…. they weren’t that quiet, even over the blaring guitar rifts.

  • CaityB

    Thank you for this article. It is so why I wish companies would have legit diversity initiatives. The phrase that comes to mind is “One person is a token, two is a minority, three begin to change the conversation in the room.” One person can still be inhibited by the overwhelming majority. Two may make eye contact with each other. But three can bounce off each other and begin to trade ideas out loud that can change the direction of the conversation. This is important. This matters. More than three matters. Thank you for speaking from your experience.

  • Justine

    This entire essay is the best rebuttal to anyone who believes that bullsh– about white privilege being trivial or just a downright myth.

    Because as a white woman, I can walk into a room and not have to worry about dispelling a certain set of assumptions people are already making based on my race or ethnicity. My actions won’t be a reflection on my entire race; no one will implicitly demand that I speak for all white people. I am easily surrounded by people who look like me — whether that’s in the office or on billboards or on TV shows.

    What you describe here sounds truly exhausting and nerve-wracking. I’m in awe of the aplomb and perseverance with which you you clearly handle it all. Plus here you are, sharing you experience and calling out the covert racism and implicit bias that a ridiculous amount of people must go through. Thank your for letting us hear your story and learn from your life!

    I really, really hope TFD features more essays like this.

  • GBee

    This is so important. I just finished submitting our EEO-1 report and I was very disappointed in our lack of diversity. Especially looking at previous submissions and seeing that we have not made any progress. In fact we only had one additional employee this year who was non-white.

  • Jasmine

    Really enjoyed reading this perspective.

  • Whitney

    This article is pretty much my life. There are two black people on the floor I work on. Two. I’m often the ‘token black girl’ in many social situations. I went to a predominantly white school and college. I’m fine with it most of the time until the ‘why do black people?’ questions start. Or on days like today when my hair is straightened and looks ‘so nice it can’t be real.’ I too am conccious of how I speak and address issues at work; scared to be labled an ‘angry black woman’. Its wonderful to read an article on TFD I so closely relate to.

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