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…

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9 thoughts on “White Privilege, Office Culture, and Subversive Black Identities

  1. Interview Request

    Hello Dear and Respected,
    I hope you are fine and carrying on the great work you have been doing for the Internet surfers. I am Ghazala Khan from The Pakistani Spectator (TPS), We at TPS throw a candid look on everything happening in and for Pakistan in the world. We are trying to contribute our humble share in the webosphere. Our aim is to foster peace, progress and harmony with passion.

    We at TPS are carrying out a new series of interviews with the notable passionate bloggers, writers, and webmasters. In that regard, we would like to interview you, if you don’t mind. Please send us your approval for your interview at my email address “ghazala.khi at gmail.com”, so that I could send you the Interview questions. We would be extremely grateful.

    regards.

    Ghazala Khan
    The Pakistani Spectator
    http://www.pakspectator.com

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  2. Didn’t know you were back – welcome. I especially like your last observation that most white americans do not have to accomodate their personalities to non-whites in order to succeed. This post should go out to all those who think everyone is on equal footing.

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  3. as-salaam u 3lakum Aziza.

    Great song, the vibe does something to you Mos Def-initely. Reminds me of a guy I couldn’t shake for the longest … he used this beat for a track on a mixtape of his. Here’s a link to a Mystic remix track. There’s also a Talib remix which is pretty excellent and positive. In any form…It’s my personal “my people, my fam” song.

    ..Insha’Allah your venture back home is a smooth and safe one.

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  4. Pingback: White Privilege, Office Culture, and Subversive Black Identities « The Blog and the Bullet

  5. Pingback: White Privilege, Office Culture, and Subversive Black Identities « The Mustard Seed

  6. I find as an African American man I’m often seen as a threat. If I’m aggressive it’s called overbearing. If I’m strong than I’m intimidating. And what really gets to me is they need not justify their assumptions. Much can be said of the treatment of people who don’t fit the norm in size or physical beauty. A white privilege is that White people will not be judged by this standard unless it relates to size or physical beauty. Another dynamic is that often people don’t want to admit privilege exists because they have never seen it. Imagine is you applied that rule to other things in our world. Perhaps one of the most detrimental things about White privilege is that it is not free. In accepting privilege you deprive someone else of their place at the table.

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  7. I wonder if it’s too late to keep this discussion going, because I have a couple questions for you, angry Black Muslim woman. When you say that you change your behavior and your speech patterns to make others feel comfortable, what do you mean? How specifically do you change your behavior? What do you do, or not do, to make white people feel more comfortable? How exactly do you change your speech patterns to make them more acceptable to white people?

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