Being Black at work right now means doing a lot of extra emotional labor
When I was a young, green writer just starting out my career, I lived in New York City while stop and frisk — the intrusive NYPD search policy of yesteryear — was still in full effect. One day, on my way to the office, I descended the stairs at a stop in Williamsburg, Brooklyn (which, for those who aren’t privy, is not exactly the most diverse neighborhood in America). There were four cops watching the turnstiles, and as I entered, all of their gazes turned to me, a lone chocolate chip in the middle of a sea of cookie dough. They gave me a visual once over, but didn’t stop me as I walked by. I suspect it’s because I was in fitted office attire and not baggy clothes or a hoodie. Ah, respectability politics.
Even without a physical frisk, I felt violated somehow. I could see their faces travel from “he doesn’t belong in this neighborhood” to “he may be a possible criminal” to “but he’s a nicely dressed man” to “so he’s one of the good ones” in the seconds I walked by them. It’s hard to describe how hurtful it was, even to myself, let alone to my mostly white coworkers. So with that fresh in my mind, I hid my emotional torment under smiles and jokes during my 8-hour shift.
While it’s encouraging that “diversity and inclusion” in the workplace is on the rise, what non-Black folks don’t realize that in many industries and many cities, there are still only a few (or one) of us in the office. This leads to some awkward moments around the water cooler when the conversation turns to race. And sometimes, those conversations — even if seemingly innocuous — prove harmful to us and to our work environment as a whole.
As recent protests and debate surrounding the killings of Black Americans George Floyd, Breonna Taylor, Ahmaud Arbery, Tony McDade, and most recently Rayshard Brooks, rage on, people are having many more race conversations at work than usual. Even if these discussions are prompted by well-meaning white and non-Black POC, they may require Black people to regulate the anger and sadness they feel about these situations into something more palatable for their coworkers’ perception of appropriate workplace behavior. This is an example of emotional labor.
Let me break it down for you real quick. As Alicia Grandey, a psychologist and professor of psychology at Penn State University puts it, emotional labor is “work-role specific, and it involves managing emotions during interactions to achieve professional goals and conform to work-role requirements.”
Ambushing a Black co-worker with questions about how to raise their white child to not be racist is not appropriate.
Grandey says that that when a person performs emotional labor, they tend to have to act, “modifying their feelings by using cognitive strategies to change the way they feel.” No one is comfortable with an inconsolably sobbing or angrily shouting colleague in the office, and thus Black people are used to shielding our true emotions about these life or death topics, like I did that day in the newsroom.
For the naysayers who feel I’m being dramatic, just take a look at a recent post in Fishbowl, a workplace social network that connects professionals through transparent conversations. The app, which isolates discussions by industry, has seen a rise in Black workers talking about their discomfort regulating how they feel at work due to current events.
“Y'all it's been really difficult having to fake my smiles during these virtual happy hours and talk about mundane things all the while dealing (yet again) with what it means to be black in America,” one post in the group “Black Professionals in Accounting” reads. This experience is echoed in other posts on the platform, and is frustrating to hear, especially when well-meaning comments of support for Black equality might seem like the bare minimum.
The point is, enhancing race relations and really caring about Black lives means doing the work, sometimes quietly and in a way that won't necessarily garner public praise.
“For most people it's easy just to ignore uncomfortable situations and hope things will eventually return to ‘normal,’ but that could send the wrong message to your Black coworkers.” Linda Abonyo, governance liaison in Virginia, tells Mic. “So there's no harm in reaching out and letting your Black co-workers know that you're aware that they may be dealing with things in their own way and that you're there for them if they want to talk.”
That’s a really big “if” that everyone needs to learn to respect. Ambushing a Black co-worker with questions about how to raise their white child to not be racist is not appropriate. There’s a ton of easily obtainable literature on this topic.
Also, when certain colleagues at work suddenly seem to care about Black lives, it can feel disingenuous. “In my opinion I think it's too late for comfort,” says Quin Martin, a Twitch streamer and Office Administrator in Lancaster, PA to Mic. “I think it's time for focus, education and listening. Focusing on the issues at hand, educating yourself, and listening — really listening — to Black people when they speak about their experiences.”
So, if you truly want to be an ally, it takes more than just putting a black square up on Instagram or showing sympathy to the one or two Black managers, HR representatives, or IT guys in your office. “Get some real-time knowledge. Go to a Black neighborhood and volunteer in the library — and not because [you] want to save the brown kids,” says Chontelle Matthews, a counselor in Washington, D.C., “but because [you] want to really be a part of a world where folks live and work together.”
The point is, enhancing race relations and really caring about Black lives means doing the work, sometimes quietly and in a way that won't necessarily garner public praise. Reconsider starting uninvited conversations about police brutality with your Black coworkers, asking them to explain things to you, or “checking in” if you’ve never had that kind of relationship with them prior to George Floyd’s death. Young Black men and women have been murdered by the police for as long as police have existed. Silence is indeed violence, but you can always be there for your Black coworkers without making them do more emotional labor than they need to during this time.
All this discussion brings me back to my almost run-in with the police that day in Brooklyn. At the end of my shift, I was still upset. So I talked to a white editor about it, thinking it might make a good story. But he didn’t quite see the merit in talking about “something that almost happened” to me. In fact, in words I never forgot, he said he “almost wished something had happened to me, because that would make for a great story.”
I don’t need to say this, thankfully, to a lot of you, but don’t make my trauma — your juicy drama. But do educate yourself about other groups, on your own and with others who might be willing to help. Once you’ve armed yourself as best you can, you can use your privilege to support those who continue to press on without it. And that’s what we need in order to stir up a little change at work and beyond.