As part of my day job, I get the opportunity to support Community Health Centres and learn about their endeavours. What always fills me with joy is seeing what these CHCs do for Black communities and how the Afro-Carribean and Black (ACB) community comes together. More recently, TAIBU Community Health Centre located in Scarborough, ON, developed a documentary about Working While Black – and it was eye opening.
The documentary focused on statistics and anecdotes that highlighted that workplaces and the staff in them already have a preconceived notion about Black people before these Black people even walk into the building, hence the idea that it is a condition we suffer from and not something we can even control. This is a great example of bias, micro-aggressions, even blatant racism. These kinds of work place behaviours can come through as joking about differences (smelly lunches, clothing, hair styles) or go so far as not to hire people with "ethnic" names. Some of the anecdotes shared highlighted a lack of DEI training, being fired or mistreated for race, being spoken to differently in an emotionally abusive way.
I can personally recall a few times I experienced things like this. At one of the many Shoppers Drug Marts I worked in, a customer called to complain about the way I went about doing a refund despite it being policy, and referred to me as the “Black cashier”. My supervisor was happy to report that because she “didn’t see colour” she “couldn’t even remember who the Black cashier was”! How… drole? Another time my coworkers (bless their souls) thought that "Negro" on mascara packaging was not Black in Spanish, but rather was the N word. I had to explain that since it was after "Black" and "Noir" on the packaging…clearly it was Spanish and not the N word. As I made my way into corporate organizations, I have been blessed to never be the only Black colleague and for the staff to be diverse. That being said, I was still afraid to do my interview for my current role since I had lilac purple braids but here I am a year later, still employed by them.
Working While Black really highlighted that Black people walk into a work place knowing that people will see them differently, that there may be undeserved competition, that they have to show up and perform 150% for a raise that someone who is a different race may get for even when working subpar, that they may have to defend themselves for actions or words unnecessarily and be prepared for unfair repercussions and that all of these mental gymnastics will affect other areas of their lives, especially if they don’t have other Black colleagues to commiserate with. I had truly never thought about any of these facts in this way, that the code switching, protecting of energy, self-censoring are all defenses of something we have collectively not asked for but still suffer whenever we go to our place of employment.
After all of this, at the end of the documentary they have a six step plan on how to survive Working While Black and the most jarring of the six to me was to ensure you don’t need the job. Essentially, have enough savings, or emotional strength, or fortitude to find another job so that no matter how you defend yourself, no matter what situation occurs you can protect yourself and simply walk away from the role. Considering how Black people are already poorer and marginalized, it baffles me that the best recommendation we have is, try to be as independent from this role as possible so you don’t get used or abused. So many people, not even racialized, are living paycheck to paycheck in this economy and yet I fully understand why you should just walk away from a place that is degrading you because of your race. There were other advices like, finding a community where you can share your experience and holding safe spaces, which I do also fully agree with.
When this documentary becomes available to the masses we will share with our viewers. Let us know your thoughts on Working While Black and feel free to share any work experiences you’ve had that were unfavourable due to your race.