Working While Black: 10 Racial Microaggressions Experienced in the Workplace

By Robin M. Boylorn

I have worked, on and off, since I was fifteen years old.  My summer office job financed the name brand school clothes my mother couldn’t afford and grounded me in the work ethic I learned from watching the women in my family go to work from sun up to sun down cleaning houses, dismembering chickens, doing customer service or janitorial work, bookkeeping, caregiving, answering phones.  I watched them get up early and come home late, carpool with other working women, and barter with each other to make sure every day needs were met.  They smiled when they were tired and went to work when they were sick because they understood that they constantly had something to prove on their job (as black folk).  They also knew that showing their humanity jeopardized their jobs.  They had to be superwomen, they had to compartmentalize their emotions, they had to separate the work they did from the people they were.  I learned from them that my work does not define me, I define myself.  So even though my aunt cleaned other folks’ houses she was never a maid.  And even though my grandmother kept other folks’ children she was never a mammy.  And even though I was college-educated and ambitious in my twenties, I was never privileged.  Working while black, regardless of your circumstances, carries with it the weight of blatant or casual racism.

Talking with a friend I likened being black and successful in the workplace to being a so-called model minority.  Model minorities know their place and don’t stand out or shine.  Model minorities grin and bear micro and macroaggressions and call them coincidences.  Model minorities on the job are mediocre minorities who live out minority stereotypes.

I was not taught to be a model minority.  Instead I was taught to have a strong work ethic, to be prepared to work twice as hard to get half as far, and to maintain my dignity and self-respect in the face of all forms of discrimination.  These were my instructions for survival as a blackgirl in a racist, classist, capitalistic and patriarchal culture.  These were my safeguards as a blackgirl working.  I was taught that as a black woman oppression would be an inevitable part of my life but that I did not have to be defined by mistreatment.  My mother and othermothers taught me that I could defy misconceptions and handle my business.  They helped me understand that an acknowledgment of oppression is not acquiescence.

I remember listening to the working women in my community complain about being treated badly on their jobs but refusing to react or respond to the injustices they experienced out of fear of being fired.  Instead, they woke up early enough to bathe, pull sponge rollers from their hair, apply make up and lipstick, and put on professionally laundered uniforms and comfortable shoes so that they could walk into their places of employment with their heads held high and their dignity in check.  They refused to be shamed.  They refused to be silenced.  They refused to be stereotyped.  It didn’t matter that they would never make more than ends meet.  It didn’t matter that they were told, repeatedly, that they were replaceable, and talked to in harsh tones for any mistake or air of arrogance or self-respect, and threatened with sanction for missing work to care for sick children.  They took pride in their work, even when the people they worked for, or with, worked against them.  They saw their jobs as necessary but they rebelled against the discrimination by refusing to be defined by what they did for a living.  I watched women and men of color resist and critique workplace discrimination in ways that were possible for them.  Resistance cannot always be visible (working-class folk literally “need” their jobs to survive, and middle-class folk are generally one or two paychecks from poverty), and rejection is not always audible, but we can still resist and reject the harmful effects of workplace discrimination.

As a university professor I have the luxury (that my forebears did not) of defining myself by my occupation because it is seen as prestigious, but my job does not protect me (or others, see this article and this book) from racism and sexism.  Having a Ph.D. did not keep two students, during my first year teaching, from saying to a colleague, “We are sure she’s smart…but it does not come across in the classroom.”

Racial microaggressions are real and while they are sometimes felt and experienced tangentially, folk of color are marginalized in similar ways simply because they are of color.  Prestige of position is not protection.

Based on conversations, observations and personal experiences I have compiled a list of racial microaggressions that people of color often experience in the workplace.  This list is not exhaustive and is not intended to be wholly representative.  I recognize that factors such as occupation, generation, education, income/social class, gender identity and performance, sex, sexuality, ability, and age impact how and to what degree these things are experienced.

The list is presented in second person in an attempt to encourage the reader to “experience” the experience and consider its impact.

10 Realities and Racial Microaggressions People of Color Experience in the Workplace
  1. You are expected to speak for and on behalf of people of color everywhere.  You are sometimes expected to be the barometer of racism.  If there is a conscience in the workplace, you are it.  You carry the burden of calling out discrimination when you see/experience it with the risk of retaliation which can be anything from being overlooked for a promotion, to losing your job altogether for creating a “hostile” environment.  If/when you don’t call out racism, you emotional turmoil and guilt, feeling like a sell out for not standing up for yourself or others.
  2. You are routinely accused of being hostile, aggressive, difficult and/or angry.  You are told that your colleagues/students/co-workers/customers are intimidated by you and are afraid to approach you.    You are encouraged in evaluations to “smile more,” and “be more friendly.”  You practice a fake ass smile in the mirror on your way out the door and practice all the way to work.  You fear that your resting face pose makes people think you are mean.
  3. You are required to be the diversity on committees and in meetings because black is the only diversity that matters.  Your blackness makes it easy to “see” that a diversity quota has been met.
  4. You feel unappreciated, undercompensated and overworked.  You are afraid to ask for compensation, a promotion, praise or affirmation.  You have been socialized to be satisfied that you have a job.  You feel guilty for not feeling grateful.
  5. You are regularly nominated for or assigned extra tasks and responsibilities for things no one else wants to do (especially things involving other POC).  You are encouraged to work with other people of color, join people of color groups, attend people of color activities, etc.
  6. Your absence (at work, at meetings, at parties) stands out with no regard to how exhausting it is to be the only black person in the room.  You are encouraged to not think of yourself as black when you are the only black person in the room.
  7. You are often vilified and/or criticized for doing your work (too early or on time, well or not good enough).  You are labeled as either an overachiever or a slacker, as too ambitious or lazy.  You struggle to find the balance between these things.
  8. You feel that no matter what you do or how hard you work, you need to do more (or sometimes less).  Nothing is ever (good) enough.
  9. You feel the need to constantly prove yourself worthy of your job or opportunity.  You know that some people assume you got your job, promotion, award, or special recognition, not because you worked your ass off or deserve it, but because you are black (there goes that damn black privilege again, cause you know affirmative action causes folk to get jobs they are unqualified for and shit <insert sideye>).
  10. You feel isolated, misunderstood, misrecognized, misrepresented, and missing in action.  You wonder how you can feel invisible and hypervisible at the same time.

Reprinted with permission from The Crunk Feminist Collective.

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