White Privilege, Office Culture, and Subversive Black Identities

I’m pretty late in posting this. Samah2007 has some pretty insightful and thought provoking articles over at Jamerican Muslimah. She’s one of my favorite writers because she’s honest, funny, and smart. Not long ago, she posted an article that got me thinking about what I’m going to have to deal with when I come back to the states.

Yesterday I was struck by a profound thought. I realized that I have taken classes related to race, ethnicity, White privilege and institutional racism but haven’t given much thought as to how strongly White privilege features in office culture. In the ten plus years that I’ve worked in office environments I’ve certainly seen my share of overt and subtle racism; it’s been reflected in pay grades, promotions, firings, in a supervisor’s decision as to whether a person is a “good fit” for the organization etc. I asked myself, what about the day-to-day interaction in the office? How does White privilege operate and in what ways? As a person of color, how am I am at a disadvantage? What survival techniques must I employ/adopt in order to stay afloat in today’s office environment?

Not that I’ve escaped the world of White privilege in academia, instead it plays out in different ways. But at least there are some presumptions of merit in academia and a few departments about their positions of power and responsibility to the intellectual and broader community. As a Black woman, I have spent most of my life in multi-cultural and majority white environments, so I know how to deal with a diverse set of people. You become a chameleon of sorts, trying to find a common ground to relate to people with widely divergent backgrounds, beliefs, and preferences.

Eventually my demeanor and to some degree- persona- is transformed once I step into the office. I tone down my Jamerican culture (as much as I can any way) and become someone else for 8 hours or more. You may say, all of us transform when we’re at work. All of us “play the game to some degree.” While that is certainly true, people of color who have not fully adopted mainstream White culture must go the extra mile. We must work hard to ensure that we are not perceived (by White co-workers or managers) as threatening, angry, loud, uncooperative, and (God forbid) uneducated or unqualified in any way. In a nutshell, we must work our asses off and at the same time make the White people around us feel comfortable.

Samah then goes on to explore the ways these accommodations can cause fractures in a Black American’s identity. Some individuals have striven so hard to be accepted and to succeed in majority white environments may find themselves transformed with little vestiges of their original self. Others, I know, feel disingenuous as they wear different masks for different people. It is interesting how this plays out in many different environments. Even in the Muslim community, whether on college campuses or in my local area, I find myself shape shifting make people comfortable with me as a Black woman. It is something I do almost instinctually, because this is how I’ve been able to survive in the broader society, in both the corporate world and academia. When I do fall into my normal speech patterns or topics of conversation, I am either very aware or made aware that what I say and how I say things has made my others uncomfortable. This reminds me of the backlash against PC (often by privileged white males). They are often resistant to making accommodations to make others comfortable or even relate to different groups by changing their speech, patterns of behavior etc. Very few white Americans, outside of those who have assimilated into either Black urban or rural culture, will have to make many accommodations to other people’s culture. They can be successful without having close relationships with Blacks, Asians, Hispanics/Latinos/Chicanos, or Native Americans. Nor is their material success in this society predicated on their ability to move comfortably in majority non-white environments. Just something to think about…
More thoughts on this to come…