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.