#BlackBlogsMatter 2018, Week 2 – Stop Worrying What White People Think
Whew! This is such a loaded topic. Not because it’s not so on point because it is. But because there is so much historical context to why Black folks obsess over what white folks think. It’s been ingrained in many of us by our parents/grandparents/great-grandparents. It’s been ingrained in us by society. Intentionally and unintentionally. “Don’t say/watch/think/do/listen to <insert anything.> What will white people think?” In some instances, worrying about what white people think could actually save your life. No hyperbole.
Society places white people at the top of the food (i.e. money, power, respect) chain so, by nature of survival, we tend to not want to upset white people any more than we’d want to upset a lion, tiger or bear. We’ve seen far too many examples of negative, even fatal, outcomes for Black people who didn’t care what white people thought. We’ve seen too many opportunities lost. We’ve seen LIVES lost. Even when we tell ourselves we don’t care, even when we don’t want to care, there’s often this little teeny tiny voice in the back of our minds thinking, “What will be the repercussions if I say what I really want to say or do what I really want to do? If I pop off right now because some white person has said something ignorant or disrespectful or treated me unfairly, what impact will that have on me? My family? My livelihood?” Because we all know at the end of the day, if someone has to go down, 10 times out of 10, it’ll be the individual of a darker hue. I’m actually getting a little heated just thinking about this, so I’m going to take it down a notch.
Let’s talk about some of the seemingly inane but deeply rooted ways caring about what white people think shows up in the workplace. Do any of these sound familiar?
“I won’t eat fried chicken or watermelon at work. I can’t let white folks see me eating that.”
“More than 2-3 of us can’t stand/talk together too long. White folks will get nervous.”
“I don’t wear my natural* hair (or braids or locs) at work or to interviews. White people view it as unprofessional.”
“I have to be at least twice as good and work at least twice as hard as my white colleagues to succeed/get opportunities at work.”
I’ve heard some version of each of these statements multiple times from multiple people. I’ve seen Black business owners who don’t use photos of Black people in their marketing materials because “white people won’t take us seriously.” I’ve also seen Black business owners make a point of not only hiring Black people, for the same reason. Now, of course I’m not saying they SHOULD only hire Black people, but when’s the last time a white person seriously worried about what non-white folks would think if they only hired white people? Or only had white people in their advertising? Granted there is more focus on diversity in recent years, but overall you could be a successful all white business and no one would blink an eye.
Black people in this country have been conditioned to worry about what white people think because, historically, what white people think has a major impact on, well, everything. So how do you stop worrying about what white people think when, most likely, your supervisor/loan officer/landlord/neighborhood police officer is a white person? To add insult to injury, at work, in addition to being judged for our blackness (are we good/smart enough?,) we are constantly being policed for tone, attitude and behavior. Making white folks uncomfortable can cost us opportunities, jobs, promotions and pay raises. This is a fact.
TRUE STORY: I had a Black male colleague who prided himself on the fact that white people (i.e. org leadership) viewed him as “safe.” Safe = not angry or scary. Relatable. One of the “good Negroes.” It worked for him. He received multiple promotions and pay raises. Mission accomplished. However, he also acknowledged that in ensuring they retained that view of him, he had to suppress other aspects of his personality. In the words of Paul Laurence Dunbar, he wore the mask.
I, too, wear the mask. But mine has cracks in it. The real me shows through from time to time. To my benefit or detriment? I don’t know. My Twitter bio says, in part, “I might say/RT some things you won’t like.” Because I might. Especially when it comes to race, racial disparities, inequities and the generally foul treatment of my people in these here United States. I used to keep my timeline pretty low-key. I’m a Virgo and an introvert so I’m not into confrontation and starting mess. I have a lot of white followers and I appreciate them, I do. As individuals, I do care what they think, especially the ones I know personally. But we are living in trying times. Too much sh*t is happening for me to sit by and only talk about HR and reality TV so I won’t make certain folks uncomfortable. The real ones, as the young folks say, will stay around and initiate a respectful dialogue so we can work on fixing things together. The others – the ones who insist on being offended, defensive and white privilege martyrs – can..
Now, don’t get me wrong. I know not caring about what the “dominant” group thinks about your words or actions is easier said than done. Especially if you rely on them for some aspect of your well-being (professional, financial, etc.) Being unapologetically Black in a world that wants to stamp your sense of pride out of you at every turn is a full-time job. When folks want to counter #BlackLivesMatter with #AllLivesMatter because valuing Black lives makes them uncomfortable and you know you’re working in the same office with some of them, it’s not easy. I get it. I, too, am a work in progress. I am all for breaking down barriers and teachable moments, but I refuse to care about the thoughts of folks who refuse to care about me aka the racist and/or willfully obtuse.
The bottom line is, in the end, focusing on what white people think makes them comfortable but what does it make you? What effect does it have on your psyche? Not being true to yourself eats away at you little by little. It causes stress and depression and high blood pressure. I’m not saying to go to work and start flipping tables when something unjust happens. But you can start by speaking up and being authentic. And you can damn sure eat fried chicken or watermelon (or whatever you like) at work whenever you want to. I know I do.
* I realize natural Black hair does not consist of only kinky/curly textured hair.