Returning to the Office . . . While Black
Speaker 1: It was two years ago that our office like so much of New York and very shortly, much of the nation shut down. Businesses everywhere suddenly put those work from home contingency plans to the test. For people who have been working from home for the better part of two years, going back to the office now is undeniably complicated. Here's The Radio Hour's producer KalaLea.
KalaLea: On March 11th, 2020, I was sitting on the A train on my way to the office, listening to music as I do on most mornings.
The band, Tame Impala had recently released some new music. Actually it was an album. Then an email came in. It was addressed to the entire staff. It said, "If you're on your way to the office, turn back and work from home. If you're here, make your way home." My first thought literally was dreams really do come true. I get to work from home.
Two years later, many of us who have had the privilege to work from home are going back to the office and honestly, I'm not feeling good about it. It's really tough admitting this because I like my teammates and the work that I do. I can see some of the benefits, face-to-face collaboration, human connection but for me, these things don't outweigh the benefits of working in my own space.
Keisha: What's wrong with not going into the office if the work gets done?
KalaLea: A research group called Future Forum conducted a poll in 2021 and found that 21% of white professionals were looking forward to going back into the office full time. Now that's not a lot, but the number of Black professionals looking forward to returning was a mere 3%.
Keisha: Coming back to work is partially about surveillance and micromanagement and people of color feel that in a different way, everybody feels it, but people of color feel it in a different way.
KalaLea: This is Keisha, she's an executive in podcasting. I met her at a podcast event a few years ago.
Keisha: Being a Black person in an office setting is always interesting because we're trying to assimilate to a culture and also office culture is very much so predicated on professionalism, which is predicated on whiteness and professionalism and white supremacy tend to go hand in hand. A lot of that, even in the nicest places trickle down.
KalaLea: Sometimes being at the office can feel like being at a friend of a friend of a friend's dinner party for hours upon hours, smiling, even when you don't necessarily get the joke, acting as if you've heard of a particular actor or book author, when you know good and well that you don't and not being able to stand up and scream, "It's too freaking cold in here. I can't take it anymore."
Keisha: That's a lot of your life to be doing the musical theater thing. It's you, but it's not you. It's you but when you get home, you go, "[unintelligible 00:03:50]."
KalaLea: Keisha went fully remote in 2021.
Keisha: I stopped code-switching years ago but then there comes where I have to question what people think of me or how that went because I speak a certain way. I'm not putting the bank teller voice on anymore.
Cassius Green: Mind helping me out.
Langston: Well, you don't talk white enough. I'm not talking about Will Smith's wife. That ain't white, that's just proper? I'm talking about the real deal.
Cassius: So like, "Hello, Mr. Everett, Cassius Green here. Sorry to bother you.
Langston: You got it wrong. I'm not talking about--
KalaLea: Keisha loves her new job, but she doesn't miss being in the office at all.
Keisha: Yes. The AC is too damn high. Forced communal lunches or the strongly suggested communal lunch, open floor plan. If this is the only place I got to go, then that feels racist.
KalaLea: Okay, she's being hyperbolic, but there is such a thing as the white gaze and the pressure of visibility that comes being a "minority."
Keisha: I would love to be feet on the couch relaxed like some of my colleagues have that I've seen in the past but I don't know how that feels. I don't know if I could allow myself that.
Deon Cole: It's called managing your Blackness. See white people, y'all could be white all day long. Black people can't be black all day long. Society don't play that.
Keisha: You were raised not to make the collective of Black humanity look like slobs. That's what it is. It's partially about, we are a clean people. We are a clean family and your mama taught you well, but also what you're not going to do is leave that dish in there so that when the next Black person comes behind you they get blamed for it and that's part of the legacy of being Black in public spaces as well is doing our community service for each other, even when we're not in the room with each other.
KalaLea: Yes. I guess that's where the exhaustion comes in too.
Keisha: We don't even know it because that's our baseline.
KalaLea: Do you think you'll ever go back to an office?
Keisha: Not if I could help it, honestly.
Zoe: When I start a new job, especially a corporate job, I feel isolated until I actually search out like most people, probably another person of color, preferably a Black one, but I'll take pretty much anyone on the spectrum.
KalaLea: I'll call this woman Zoe. She works in healthcare and why do you do that?
Zoe: I feel like we've lived the same experiences. I know that they will understand the duality of self that exists within our worlds.
KalaLea: She's talking about W.E.B. Du Bois's concept of double consciousness. The sense of belonging yet, not belonging and not belonging is reinforced in the workplace through overt racism, neglect, pay inequities, and microaggression.
Zoe: How do you get your hair like that?
Speaker 3: We're depending on you to make sure that the culture here gets better.
Zoe: Can it touch your hair?
Speaker 3: I'm shocked. You would know so much about that.
Zoe: You guys wear such nice clothes.
Speaker 3: I know you've done this before, but it might be best to still have somebody shadow you.
KalaLea: I've noticed that since the George Floyd protest, some white colleagues are more careful about what they say.
Keisha: It's a little less straightforward and more we're trying to invite people in and do. You're like, "Well, why are you asking me? Am I the person that is supposed to be speaking on behalf of all Black people?" That's why microaggressions are so insidious, man, they just add up and add up and add up and then you realize what's been happening to you over time. The difference between that and work-from-home is I don't have that feeling anymore which does a lot for my stress levels. It takes away from just you wanting to do your job. I think what Black people would have always wanted to do for years and years and years is just do our jobs.
KalaLea: Of course, not everybody feels exactly the same about office culture.
Lawrence: There was life and there was laughter, there was creative collaboration, there was after-work events where we would get together and have drinks and there was life in the office.
KalaLea: Lawrence, not his real name works in advertising. He was one of the first to go back to the office.
Lawrence: There's a camaraderie that happens. I think that no matter what race or what culture you're a part of, LGBT, Asian, or what, anything like that, you're always part of the family. It's very rare that I don't feel comfortable in the space.
KalaLea: Even an extrovert like Lawrence admits he needs to pump himself up for the office with a little bit of positive self-talk.
Lawrence: Put it on your armor, get ready to go. You're going to do this thing. You're going to win.
Speaker 3: Who's stressed? Not you. Who the best it's you, who going to kill it? I'm sorry. I can't, not today.
Lawrence: As Black people, we always have to shore ourselves up and be prepared for anything that comes our way, whether it be a microaggression or people just thinking you're not good enough or not qualified. I think we always are in a situation of having to prove so much or feeling that we do based on how the society is here in America.
Rowan: Did I not raise you for better? How many times have I told you, you have to be what? You have to be what?
Olivia: Twice as good.
Rowan: Twice as good as them to get half.
KalaLea: That was a scene from Scandal, but it could have been from the mouths of my parents. I've consciously lived my life, believing that I have to work harder, be neater, be nicer, or else no one, well, no one white will employ me.
Lawrence: That is not true. That's actually going to kill us as a people because we're overworking ourselves. We're overburdening ourselves. We carry so much stress on something that we can't even change.
Robert Churchwell: [unintelligible 00:10:46] based edition. Wouldn't go to the white community to take it out.
KalaLea: When I was researching this story, I came across an oral history with the reporter, Robert Churchwell, who died in 2009. He was one of the first Black journalists to work at a white conservative Southern Newspaper. Here he is being interviewed about his first four years at his new job.
Speaker 4: The first four years of your working for the Banner, did you have an office in the paper or desk in the paper or where was your desk?
Robert Churchwell: My office was my home, front room of my father's home.
KalaLea: I hadn't thought about the many Black professionals who were effectively forced to work from home because of segregation laws. Unlike myself, Churchwell had no support from his employers
Robert Churchwell: That didn't pay telephone bill. [unintelligible 00:11:46] fancy typewriter. Needed to finance car fare.
KalaLea: Shortly after the Brown versus Board of Education landmark decision, Churchwell was given a desk at the paper. A year later, the body of a young black boy, Emmett Till was found in a river. He had been murdered by some white men and Churchwell was in the office when the news came through.
Churchwell: It was awful, awful, really terrible something that happened in the United States of America.
KalaLea: One of his white coworkers approached him. His name was Les.
Robert Churchwell: We were talking that morning. Les said that's a shame of the sin something like this happened. I said to myself, "He's okay. He might be okay."
KalaLea: I could imagine Churchwell perking up a bit, thinking that he found someone who generally recognized the humanity of his people, Black people. He was probably even thinking maybe we can become work friends, but the next day it was business as usual and Les yelled across the newsroom to some of the other reporters, he'd asked if he knew the name of a certain Black man, but he didn't say, "Black man." He used the N-word.
Robert Churchwell: When he said he looked up at me. He knew he had said the wrong thing and I didn't know what to say. I just stopped. I know I said," What am I doing? What am I going to do, man?"
KalaLea: I know this feeling where you have to decide whether or not to keep quiet or point out the issue. Churchwell, he chose the latter, not to pretend.
Robert Churchwell: I rolled over to his desk and told him that Les I was surprised. I am surprised and disappointed to hear you say something like that. He went, "What is that, Rob?" I said, "You sit here and holler [inaudible 00:13:38] in Memphis." Well, he had turned all red and didn't know what to say. I rolled back over to my desk. I couldn't write because he had upset me and then he rolled over to my desk and told me, he was sorry, he was very sorry he had embarrassed me, and that he had many colored friends in Nashville. I could ask either of his colored friends how he felt about negros. That sealed the deal for me when he said that.
KalaLea: Churchwell's story reminded me of the countless times I've sat motionless at my desk when I learned of yet another killing of a Black person at the hands of the police, or when countries such as Eretria or the Democratic Republic of Congo are ravaged by war and no one at work says anything about it. Of course, I always snap back and carry on with my day but that feeling of anger and isolation, it stays with me.
James Baldwin: To be Negro in this country and to be relatively conscious is to be in a state of rage, almost all of the time and in one's work and the part of the rage is this, it isn't only what is happening to you, but is what's happening all around you and all of the time in the face of the most extraordinary and criminal indifference, indifference of most white people in this country and their ignorance.
KalaLea: Being born Black is a gift and I would never wish to change who I am but when I walk into just about any white space, I carry the knowledge of America's history with me, and throughout the day, I'm reminded of this history in small and large ways. To me, a tall shiny office building represents something more than just success and wealth. It also underscores the inequalities and greed of many American institutions. It's not a good feeling. What's it like working in the office with all white people, James?
James: Never really had to vocalize this before.
KalaLea: James is an artist and entrepreneur.
James: I would say the biggest thing to look out for is a feeling of overfamiliarity and usually that comes across like a forcedness of relatability when in fact there is nothing that we have in common in that way. It's like when you think of a well-meaning white person, like TN, all the aspects of that, where they'll be quick to tell you the Black media that they've consumed or being overtly cautious when discussing issues around race but then it almost feels like a trap. You know what I mean?
At least for me, I spin out due to anxiety where it's like, "Why are they doing this thing? Is genuine or is it from a feeling of unconscious bias?"
KalaLea: Or is it a feeling of being uncomfortable? That's what I often wonder. You know when you're uncomfortable, you make things awkward and say things that are maybe not the smartest things to say, or the most genuine things to say. I don't know.
James: No, totally and it's like navigating that awkwardness, at the core isn't as white people, is not part of our job description, but yet we are saddled with the responsibility to navigate awkwardness and if we make them feel uncomfortable, then it's aggression. It's like Black folks really aren't allowed to have bad days.
Speaker 1: That's James, an artist, and entrepreneur, he spoke with KalaLea who's one of our producers.
[00:18:56] [END OF AUDIO]
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