Having worked since I was age 16, I have dealt with my fair share of passive-aggressive and not-so-passive-aggressive actions and words towards me when it comes to being a Black male in predominately White spaces.
In my first job as a Summer worker for a local government organization, I experienced my first microaggression. At the time, the word wasn’t commonplace, and I didn’t realize what was happening. I had worked for the organization for two Summers at this point and had gained a great rapport with the staff (or so I thought). I remember the day the aggression attacked. It was a slow day at the office. I had been placed in charge of helping to create this coloring book for the organization since my artistic skills were known. I was doing some research for the book and ended up taking a typical internet spiral. Unfortunately, at that moment, one of my superiors (who happened to be White) caught me in the midst of it. Instead of just calling me out and admonishing for my actions, she decided to unleash her inner “Karen” on me fueled as hurtful words came flooding from her mouth. She then grabbed me from my chair and drug me to my supervisor. Then, she proceeded to tell him what happened and said to “do something with him [me].” My supervisor (also Black) talked to me and put me on a few menial tasks. Every time I think about that moment, I still think about that scared 17-year-old afraid for his future and his standing as “one of the good ones.”
Fast forward to a 21-year-old college dropout wandering trying to find himself. After battling through a year-long bout with depression, I finally found my footing as an adult by getting my first “real” job at my local hospital. To say that job shaped both good and bad work habits would be an understatement. Doing the same mundane tasks daily can wear on your soul. But the one thing I never really experience in plain sight was the harsh words and aggressive actions of my White co-workers and department heads. That was until one fateful day when our computer system decided to go down, and my department was forced to do everything manually. At this point, the new delivery system had only been in place for two or three months. So being the type-A personality I am, I took over and started handing out orders to our assembly line. In the midst of this, I still had my usual paper load to do before the night over. But we maintained a pace like a relay team at the state-wide track meet as I handed out orders while my co-workers went back and forth.
At one point, one of my superiors came in to see how things were going. We continued our conversation while I continued doing my work. I thought I was mastering the art of multi-tasking but not. After having a day off, I came to work the next day and was informed of an unannounced meeting. Unbeknownst to me, I was in huge trouble for just doing my job while Black. Thank god for one of my co-workers having a conscience and telling me what the meeting was really about. My superior decided to have a “Karen” moment and tell my area manager that I ignored her while trying to keep my department from going into further chaos. I went through all the emotions — confusion, anxiousness, shock, and anger — as I received this news. I was so blindsided as my supervisor (who happened to Black) seemed worried more about his job rather than protecting his employees. Eventually, the meeting was canceled due to management realizing it was silly and unnecessary. That day changed my perspective on my job as my hatred towards the place intensified. My relationship with my supervisor and department manager was never the same again.
The next “Karen” encounter occurred while working at an eatery known for its “clean eating.” Now for months, I had tolerated the broken promises and the toxic ghetto-soap-opera-of-the-week atmosphere without complaint. The entire time I worked there my school schedule was a problem. I tolerated it because I needed a stable part-time job while working towards my Master’s. The one thing that always bothered was my subpar inappropriate manager with a nasty disposition. On more than one occasion, she pulled me to the side and told me things no manager should ever tell an employee.
But the final straw for me came on one of my class days. I had my schedule planned out where it finally didn’t interfere with my work. On this particular day, I had agreed to take a co-worker home, which was no problem since she lived across the street. As time inched closer and closer to my class starting, I decided to take some initiative by walking over to my manager so I could close my register and be on my way. Upon seeing me in her vision, she shoed me away as if I was one of her children. To top it off, she had a grimace on her face while sipping on the place’s diabetes-inducing lemonade. Like the previous episode, a flood of emotions washed over me as I walked away. I was flabbergasted, uneasy, and astonished by this woman’s callous behavior. As a result, a few weeks later, I announced I found another job. I had tolerated that place for long enough.
As a Black man, you would think that your own wouldn’t go against you, but sometimes, the worst microaggressions come from your skin folk and other minorities. I worked for a major paint retailer for years, becoming the subject of many microaggressions and outbursts from those with privilege and many without. But a key moment changed not only my outlook on the workplace but how power dynamics can corrupt the powerless. At my final location as a humble employee, my entire time there was filled with unspoken tension and jealousy as the older Black assistant and a younger Latino manager seemed thrown off by my ambition and drive for things outside of the job.
After one too many times of nonchalant, gaslighting behavior, I came into work one day in a bad mood. I decided to not speak to either one of them out of fear I would explode on the spot. My disposition didn’t sit well with my manager. Instead of confronting me like an adult, he decided to recruit my assistant manager into some intimidation tact meant to shake me. I took every ounce of my being to not go off on both of them. I knew at that moment I had to make a change in my life. Within the next month, I got my position as a part-time professor, and haven’t looked back since.
All these episodes taught me how to guard my spirit and energy against those focused on with ill-intentions. Despite my standoffishness, I still have not let others’ prejudices taint me from seeing the light in most humans.
Tune in next week for more on my microaggression experiences as a freelancer, and continue to watch this space for more on my writing journey.