I have worked for white people my entire life. Out of all the jobs I’ve had — there have been a lot — only one of my employers was non-white. In a group text with friends, we started talking about our jobs and our co-workers and realized that each one of us was employed by other white people. Then, someone said what most of us were already thinking.
My first “real” job was as a sales girl in a store called Janie and Jack. J&J sold baby clothes that were worth more than my day’s pay but I loved that job because I got to be in a nice, well-lit environment and there was a pretzel place a few doors down that smelled amazing. I got to buy my own pretzels with my own money which is a huge deal when you’re 15.
I was the only Latina person working at J&J and in the three months that I worked there, I only saw one family of minorities enter the store. When they left the store, my weekend manager Kathy (not her real name) asked me to go to the rack they had been near and check that no clothes were stolen.
Later in my time there, Kathy accused me of taking money from the cash register. The accusation was absurd because my cash register was positioned directly underneath a surveillance camera… and also because I wasn’t stealing anything. Nevertheless, Kathy took back her accusation and chalked it up to me not understanding how a cash register worked.
Unfortunately, Kathy had already mentioned the missing money to my weekday manager Joanne (also not her real name). Joanne approached me about the money. She didn’t approach any of the other sales girls. In fact, the other girls didn’t even know money had gone missing.
Time and security tapes would eventually reveal that Kathy was the one taking small amounts of money from one of the cash registers when she was doing evening counts. I got an apology for the accusation, but I’ll never forget what it was like to be singled out like that. It was the first time I experienced microaggressions in the work place, certainly not the last.
In today’s post-racial America, racism hasn’t gone anywhere. There is still a clear divide between the powerful and the powerless. While people of color have made great strides to scrape their way up from the bottom. If we all collectively looked behind us, we’d see how small those strides are.
When it comes to working for the dominating race, hard as we all might try, we just aren’t all on the same page. Sometimes we aren’t even reading the same book and that has created a strange level of tension in the cross cultural spectrum. It’s the new master/servant dynamic of America — and if you closely examine relationships at your workplace or university, you’ll start to see it for yourself.
After college I started working in film and television. I quickly learned that not only are the people on screen white and pretty, the people behind the scenes were exactly the same. This didn’t strike me as a problem. I figured I could escape a lot of microaggressions because of my light skin and my light skin privilege. I was all set to go.
Unfortunately, one of the people I was working under decided to introduce me as the new “spicy Latina” to several people in the office, thereby transforming me from a person into a flavor of Lays potato chips. The microaggressions came faster than I could count them. My personal favorite was when a colleague handed me the office lunch order and asked, “Can you put the order in today? We’re ordering tacos and the whole menu is in Mexican.”
Then there was also the time that I corrected someone’s pronunciation of a hotel name that was in Spanish and the response I got was, “When in America, I speak American.” America is the fifth largest Spanish speaking country in the world. Speak American, what?
So how did I navigate a predominantly white working place? The same way that most of us do it.
We develop White Self. White Self (W.S.) is a culmination of all the different white traits that people of color observe over a lifetime. One observation that I’ve picked up in my years is that white people love baby carrots. That doesn’t contribute to my W.S. but it’s something important to know since it’s my job to stock the office fridge.
W.S. is all encompassing. It changes your voice, your hair, your vocabulary, sometimes it seeps into your clothes. Your voice develops a tone that exactly matches those of your white peers. It sounds happier, it’s slightly louder, and it lilts. People trust this voice, they want to talk to it. They don’t want to talk to your natural voice, the one that drops R’s sometimes or sounds generally un-joyful because it carries the weight of being woke.
Your hair — once curly, wild, and big — is either slicked back or straightened to the point of breaking so that it matches the naturally tame locks of your employer. At first, it’s not a big deal, until you look at yourself in the mirror one day and wonder when the part of you that showed everyone you were ethnic died a slow death.
To match your new voice you pick up new words. Words that you hear around the office frequently. Names of bands that you hear despite never having heard the band. Your talking points no longer revolve around social injustices they revolve around tabloid topics and what kind of furniture your co-worker is buying to decorate her apartment in a freshly gentrified neighborhood.
Inside you’re screaming. You can see your ancestors who fought and died for everything you have, collectively shaking their heads.
For most people of color in low-to-mid level positions, earning a paycheck goes hand in hand with experiencing degradation while smiling. Maybe once or twice you correct people on their racist jokes, but once the social circles of work start to close you out, you ease up. After all, it’s eat or be eaten here.
So the real question becomes, is there a way to avoid whitewashing your soul for money?
The real answer is: not yet.
As it stands “Caucasians” are still the racial group in power. That means they’re also in control of most jobs. Nearly every job I have ever had has been given to me at the mercy of some white person sitting behind a desk. Why aren’t many P.O.C. doing the hiring? Because we just aren’t there. We don’t have a seat at that table.
History is not on our side when it comes to this table with which everyone is so concerned. Because we have not been there, the belief is that we can’t get there. The glass ceiling that is preventing women from moving up and earning equal pay is not as thick as the glass ceiling that is preventing woman of color from moving up. While white women earn less than men, Asian women earn less than white women, Latina women earn less than Asian women, and Black women earn less than everyone.
So not only are we suffering socially from having to assimilate in the work place, we’re suffering fiscally. Both of these things equate to suffering emotionally. Inferiority is not something that feels good when you go home at night with your unequal pay check. Hearing white co-workers toss around words like “ghetto” and discuss their fact-pinions about ISIS and how illogical Islam is, like they’re about that life, can eat away at a person.
Although these are things we can’t change on our own just yet, they’re going to be in our control soon enough if we are willing to grasp at that control now. Get that education you didn’t think you could. Apply for that job or promotion that seems out of reach. Put yourself in a position to be invited to the table.
It’s like my mom told me on the drive up to college before my freshman year, “You’re disadvantaged because you’re a woman, a minority, and a believer. That doesn’t mean you can’t do just as well as all these white girls out here. Don’t let them make you think they’re better.”
So put some lotion on that thick skin and devise your plots. World domination is possible.
Image from BoriquaChicks