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.

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Reflections on Fighting Age-Discrimination to Build Unity

By John McDevitt

Two summers ago I was hired in a phone interview at the now bankrupt A&P foodstore. I mentioned in the interview that I had previously worked there as a teenager. The manager, anxious to hire someone with previous experience, hired me by phone and sent off the offer letter for the position. A little more than a week after I began working, I received a call on my day off telling me, “I’m sorry, but we are not going to need you anymore because we think the work might make your back hurt.”

I was surprised because I had stocked all the shelves, kept the dairy aisle in order and completed all the tasks on time, even early. It was odd to me since I never raised having any back pain. It was only afterwards that I began to think about the reason.

After I moved to New Mexico in 2015, I was hired as a security guard at a local casino. I was told by management: “We have the older guys work outside, not inside of the casino.” The position outside paid $1.50 less an hour. My 80-year old Latino co-worker who worked day shift was not considered for an indoor position, but worked outdoors during the day due to his poor night vision. He was still working because he could not survive on the Social Security of a worker who had earned minimum wage his entire life.

I’m new to being seen as an older worker, but having arrived at this stage in my life I have come to know what we call age discrimination. I’m telling this story not to adopt a new identity as an “older worker,” but to build the maximum unity of workers of all ages to stand up to this discrimination that impacts younger and older alike.

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Engineer Took All the Right Steps But Still Didn’t Receive Fair Pay

By Cheryl Hughes

Cheryl Hughes headshot

Cheryl Hughes

I was a divorced mother of two when I began pursuing an engineering degree in 1982. I had to overcome many obstacles such as an overwhelming male majority in the field, time management constraints, child care dilemmas, and finding a balance between motherhood and being a student. However, there was one obstacle I couldn’t overcome — pay inequity.

I was hired by a manufacturer on February 1, 1995, as an associate engineer with a starting salary of $39,600. When I asked for more money, I was told it was not in the budget. I decided to accept the offer and prove that I was worthy of a higher salary.

While working there, I befriended a white male engineer. He had asked the salaries of our white co-workers. In 1996, he asked my salary; I replied, “$44,423.22.” He told me that I, an African American woman, was being discriminated against. The next day, he gave me pamphlets from the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission. Despite learning that I was underpaid, I worked diligently to improve my skills. My performance evaluations were good. When a young white woman was hired at my firm, my friend told me that she earned $2,000 more than I did. At this time, I had a master’s degree in electrical engineering and three years of electrical engineering experience. This young woman had one year of co-op experience and a bachelor’s degree in engineering.

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