Black History Month is here and I have so much to celebrate being the founder and CEO of my own PR and media relations company. I quit corporate America because of toxic managers, bad company culture, low pay and unrealistic expectations.
5 Things To Never Say to a Black Coworker
“Is that your real hair?”
“You’re being a diva.”
“You’re so sassy.”
“You’re too intimidating.”
“I was so happy they hired you.”
Working for myself, I’m happier and I make way more money. I have healthy client relationships and get to be in control of my career path. For once, I no longer feel limited or capped. Sounds pretty good, right?
I can honestly attribute a portion of my current success as a Black business owner to no longer having to interact and engage in oftentimes inappropriate and uncomfortable conversations with managers and colleagues in desperate need of DEI and unconscious bias training.
I was one of the very few if not the only Black employee at most of the companies I worked for. So already, not good. I felt that I had to code-switch to get my point across and be understood in the office or on video calls. This ate away at my morale and eventually led to burnout. Other Black employees have reportedly felt the same.
Post George Floyd, so many startups and their staffs feel that they have the authority to speak on Black and systemic issues when they themselves couldn’t be further detached and have done little to nothing to support and amplify their Black coworkers and communities.
Startups and their teams have to be more mindful of how Black employees are treated and spoken to at work. If you believe things are improving and aren’t so bad, then check out the actual phrases that have been said to me in my years working for corporate America. Afterwards, you might just think otherwise.
“You’re Being a Diva”
One manager told me that I was being a diva after I asked the office manager to assist with my monitor, which had suddenly stopped working. Doesn’t this problem fall into the role of office manager? Black women have been called divas and painted as being overly dramatic just because they asked for the tools and resources needed to do their jobs well. I often refer to myself as a diva with my family and friends. Hearing this from a coworker who I had no connection with was suffocating.
“You’re So Sassy”
I was told this in a meeting by my CEO in front of a client, too, of all things. Not only was I mortified and embarrassed, but the word “sassy” is considered to be extremely racist and a form of gaslighting. I have a voice that projects and rather than focusing on what I was saying, my white colleagues were focusing on how I was saying it and missed the point I was trying to make altogether.
“You’re Too Intimidating”
A manager told me that I’m intimidating and that in order for me to do well at the company and relate to my team, I would have to be more self-deprecating; in other words, put myself down so that I could make my team feel good. Let’s be clear: This manager was intimidated and felt the need to label me as aggressive as a way to get me to shut up. This disgusting tactic has been used by oppressors throughout history and continues too often in the workplace.
“Can You Add This (Black) Client on LinkedIn?”
At one company I worked for, my manager kept begging me to connect with their newest client’s Black team member on LinkedIn so that the agency could appear to have diverse talent. Funny enough, that Black team member and I remained friends and ditched the company. Oh, and I was the only Black employee.
“Let’s Put The Rims On It!”
A manager I had said this to me in a 1:1 about a PR campaign. In that same meeting, rap lyrics were being referenced as a way for me to understand or grasp what he was saying.
I didn’t. I quit the job because of this manager with no notice. And can someone please explain to me what “put the rims on it” even means?
“Is That Your Real Hair?”
I think every Black person has been asked this at work, which doesn’t make it okay whatsoever, but we all have a story to tell here. For me, this came up when I was interviewing at a few different companies early in my career. They asked me about my bald head and went further to inquire why I dyed it platinum blonde. I’ve had white coworkers try rubbing my head after never meeting or speaking to me. Creepy, right? Black people are not animals in a petting zoo.
“‘My Girl’ or ‘What’s Good, B?’”
I can’t count the number of times I have been referred to as “B” or “My girl” at work. I always shut it down and have had to tell my white colleagues to never give me a nickname. I despise nicknames. Only my mom can do that. Plus, the abbreviation to “B” is stereotypical and cringe to say the least. Learn how to pronounce my name or don’t ask how I’m doing.
“I Just Assumed You Were White”
“When I heard the name ‘Brennan,’ I just assumed you were a white Irish guy,” came from the mouth of a person I once worked with. Why? Because being Black means you can only have certain names? I couldn’t register that I was being told this on Day Two of a new job by a complete stranger. I often wondered if this company decided to interview me because certain assumptions were made about my name and me.
“I’m So Happy They Hired You”
Followed by, “We need more people like you.” I know that the intentions here might be good, but this is such a horrible delivery, especially coming from a white colleague who is using your race as an entryway for conversation. The word “you” is so triggering here and needs to get dropped going forward.
“I Grew Up in a Black Neighborhood”
Guess what? I didn’t. I went to private school most of my life, and grew up in surroundings that some might call privileged. Why do white colleagues feel this is okay to say, and to just assume that all Black people have the same upbringing and come from poverty? I also see this as a desperate attempt to look for street cred.
I hope after reading this list that you recognize that change must happen at work. Although it won’t happen overnight, it has to start now. If startups continue to fail at making their workplaces more inclusive and safe for Black employees year-round, then they should prepare for top Black talent to take their expertise elsewhere. Or better yet, launch their own companies. Like I did.