I’ve worked on-and-off in corporate America for 12 years as a consultant, independent contractor, and an employee. In that time, I’ve had the dubious distinction of being the only black man, and many times, the only black person, at the companies where I was employed.
The thing about being the only black person in the office is that it comes with responsibility. Not job responsibility, because that’s a given, but psychosocial responsibility.
Many times, I, and other black men in similar situations, represent the lone intimate contact that our white colleagues will have with other black people, and black men in particular. The extent of these interactions will be largely determined by their comfort level and acceptance.
While many (white people) find it shocking that a black man can still be the sole representative of the black race in any workplace, others (black people) know the phenomenon of the “token” black employee is still alive and well – especially in geographical regions where there is not a high preponderance, or deep pool, of blacks who work in executive or corporate positions.
Corporate environments are not for everyone; this seems to hold especially true for black men.
Because of the obvious absence of black men in the offices and corridors of corporate America, one can draw the assumption that black men don’t have a predilection for corporate jobs. That’s not true. They just don’t like, and in many cases, can not handle, its superficial nature.
Entry into the corporate environment for black men is especially rigorous. Qualifications and racism aside, there are high barriers to entry which many of us simply are not aware of. These barriers, which also serve as filters, predicated on the fears of those who create them.
On an executive level, hiring managers base their decisions around answers which revolve around questions such as: Can I see him bringing strong leadership to this company? Will the others follow him? How will his subordinates respond to him? Will they respect him? Will they like him? Will the other directors/managers/supervisors get along with him? Can we trust him?
On an administrative level, the questions are similar: Will he get along with others in the office? Can he take direction well? Will he be a reliable employee? Is he going to make trouble for me?
From what I’ve seen, and what I’ve been told by people in HR who have spoken to me in confidence, is that for black men, the real question is this: Does he fit in?
Every company has its culture, and every office has its personnel. When black men show up for an interview they are often unaware of each, and affected by both. Fitting in – or the perceived ability to fit in – is a major consideration in hiring decisions.
But it doesn’t end with the obvious. On a deeper level, fitting in can also mean upholding someone else’s agenda. Sometimes black men are hired because they will be less of a threat for advancement (i.e. less likely to take someone’s job), and less expensive because they tend to lack executive opportunities, and thus executive experience for competitive executive pay, or because they make a positive statement about a company’s “commitment” to a diverse workforce.
Whatever the case, the office dynamics between black men and their white co-workers are truly something to behold. It’s common knowledge among black men who work in corporate America that white people get PR points for being politically correct; therefore it behooves them to act as if they don’t notice color.
But they do. You can see it in their eyes when black men show up for interviews (especially when they don’t have a “black” sounding name – yes, discrimination takes place on that level as well). Once hired, we have to quickly put people at ease with the hiring decision by making co-workers feel comfortable, or by proving that we are qualified for the jobs they have been given.
This is why so many black men who work in corporate America fit a particular profile: educated, articulate, cultured, and non-threatening. When these characteristics are on full display, they contribute to the comfort level of whites.
Once some level of comfort is achieved, it can only be reinforced with positive interactions over a period of time. Each interaction with our white co-workers will either confirm, or dispel pre-conceived notions that they have about us. Yes, we are in a delicate position to altar perceptions. We are also in a position of burden.
We may be comfortable within ourselves to function happily in our situations, but we are never happy with our isolated situations. Would any woman feel comfortable being the only female in an all male office? Kinship is very important in any sphere of life, and it creates a sense of belonging.
Furthermore, there’s always the presence of a palpable racial dynamic, in spite of our efforts to ignore it.
We can sense it just in the way we are greeted (or not greeted), the content of the conversations that we have with others, body language, enthusiasm, etc. All of these actions or inactions leave us feeling like outsiders.
Sometimes our outsider status can work for us; making us more approachable by members of groups that we are not a part of. Other times, it’s a liability when it comes to positioning and promoting ourselves because the key individuals that we need to win over have forged alliances with others.
If you are a white person reading this, just know that the token black guy in your office is well aware of it. He is also aware of the fact that you are aware of this too. Accept and embrace your differences; don’t try to hide them. He can provide a deeper understanding, and a greater appreciation of black culture when opportunities present themselves.
And above all, remember this: A black man, no matter how educated, cultured, or refined, thinks differently because his journey and his experience is usually quite different than that of his white male peers. We also have to work two to three times as hard to achieve the same successes. We may be in the same river with our white male counterparts, but we are not in the same boat. Even with a black president.