I'm writing this piece on a Thursday night, days after riots and protests erupted following the murder of George Floyd. Posting on social media didn't feel authentic to me. Protesting didn't feel enduring. For me, they both felt like actions that would temporarily make me feel good about myself without any real lasting impact.
It took days to write this because I needed time for the words to catch up with my emotions. Since then, I've had a number of people reach out to me, some with genuine concern for my mental state and others who seemed to be offering a "check the box" gesture. They were mostly all the same in content: "What can I do?" or "If you need to talk or vent, I'm here." Some even expressed how sorry they were for what I must be going through. The problem is, no one should feel sorry for me. No one should feel sorry for Black people.
Now, I must provide some context on my background. I'm no stranger to being in spaces where I'm either the only Black person or one of few. I attended a majority-white southern school and majored in engineering. After graduating, I went into manufacturing where the majority of Black employees were hourly and working on the plant floor — rarely in the office. My presence was definitely known and talked about. I then went to another majority-white school to get my MBA. After graduating, I went into consulting, which is an industry dominated by white men and women both within the consulting firms themselves and the clients served.
The problem is, no one should feel sorry for me. No one should feel sorry for Black people.
Over the years, I have found that exclusionary behavior in the workplace occurs in different ways and well within the bounds of HR policies and have included such actions as unwelcoming glares from strangers, demeaning whispers within earshot, performance ratings and promotions that always seem to fall short of the unwritten expectations. This exclusionary behavior manifests itself in stealthy actions and subjective behaviors that, when said aloud, sound ridiculous. In these situations, you start to second guess yourself and the innate judgement which has guided you your entire life. But these experiences are very much real and very much a part of being Black in corporate America.
Furthermore, beyond the workplace, I have been taken aback by the treatment I have received on countless occasions since moving to the Bay Area years ago. This has ranged from Ubers cancelling on me once I was in their line of sight (I don't upload my photo to rideshare apps for this reason) to unfriendly stares at upscale restaurants. I've noted store security openly following me around in department and grocery stores so often that I started making a game of it. I made a point to get as close as possible to the person following me while pretending to casually peruse the items near them. Invariably, they would get uncomfortable by the closeness and walk away. I did this to send a clear message. I did this to show that it's not me who needs to be uncomfortable; it's not me who needs to change. Some people may question why I continue to put myself in seemingly uncomfortable situations that were oftentimes unwelcoming and even hostile, but my reasoning was that I have my life to live. And I never believed I should limit myself based on who may or may not be uncomfortable with my presence.
I have my life to live. And I never believed I should limit myself based on who may or may not be uncomfortable with my presence.
But I'm not telling you any of this so you can feel sorry for me. Feeling sorry, in my mind, connotes a sense of "otherness" as if the current events are happening to me and not them. But, that's not the case. What has occurred and continues to occur is happening to everyone. What has occurred — from these microaggressions to the deaths of George Floyd, Breonna Taylor, and so many others — should elicit a feeling of repulsion and sadness for humanity, not just for Black people. In the case of George Floyd, a man was murdered, who regardless of the decisions that led him to that place at that moment, did not deserve to die by the hands of the police.
There are so many people (of all races) within my circle that have been rocked by these recent events. But sadly, for me and every Black person I know, it wasn't much of a shock. As a Black person, you become accustomed to the extra burden you carry in social and professional settings simply because of what you look like. The events of late forced me to reflect on current events as well as my past experiences and ask the question: what now? As professional women, what can we do? What value can we add besides a catchy post on LinkedIn or Instagram?
For me, it all starts at home. Regardless of your race, have an honest assessment of your circle of friends and acquaintances. What do they look like? Do they fall within your comfortable safe space? When your friends say something racist or derogatory towards another race, do you speak up, sit quietly, or laugh along? Who do you allow your kids to play with? When you broaden your circle, you broaden your sphere of understanding and empathy. There's a personal connection that develops so that when something tragic happens or an injustice is done, you can see someone that you care about in that person.
When you broaden your circle, you broaden your sphere of understanding and empathy.
Now, I'm not saying that you should go out and inauthentically seek out a Black person to befriend just so you can say you have a Black friend. But what I am saying is that you should be okay with being uncomfortable and seeking out opportunities to engage with people from all backgrounds, including people of different age groups, sexual orientations, and nationalities.
In the workplace, you can seek out opportunities to mentor and be mentored by people that don't look like you. You can make more of an effort to open your eyes, pay attention, validate good behaviors, and call out bad behaviors. If a coworker trusts you enough to share how they are feeling about a negative experience, the last thing you should do is to try to rationalize the event. The way one person behaves towards another person may vary and be based on superficial attributes such as gender, skin color, weight etc… So, if someone says, "Person X did Y to me," it's woefully disrespectful to dismiss the comment just because it's not a shared experience.People oftentimes behave differently towards different people. It's not for me to say someone else's experience isn't valid based on my experience because, quite frankly, both could be true.
I strongly believe that the actions you take behind the scenes, when no one is looking, are the ones that provide the greatest impact.
You can also help shape recruiting efforts to target schools and organizations like NSBE (National Society of Black Engineers) that provide a gold mine of talent to source from. And when your company sponsors DEI initiatives, (which oftentimes most benefit Asian and white women) become involved in those initiatives to help ensure they equally consider Black women.
You don't need a grand gesture worthy of television coverage to make a difference. I strongly believe that the actions you take behind the scenes, when no one is looking, are the ones that provide the greatest impact. Rather than passively feeling sorry for Black people and events that have transpired, take action in a way that is authentic to you and the spaces that you can influence.
WRITTEN BYAji Oliyide