I used to keep my distance. I was professionally courteous but made little effort to get to know my colleagues very deeply. There were so few people in the work environment I could relate to culturally or who shared my economic background or who seemed interested in news and events that were important in my world.
It seemed that Black lives didn’t matter nor was this movement and any of the many atrocities that led to it even mentioned. Plus there is significant distance in age between me and most of my colleagues. It was clear they weren’t feeling me nor were they trying to include me in their worlds. Our work environment is extremely busy so people don’t often connect outside of work. It’s rare that people even take lunch together.
One colleague changed all that. We exchanged a couple of significant expressions in response to an out-of-control and terse-to-the-point-of-impoliteness colleague and made a dinner date. Then she left our organization. Another new hire came on board and left barely a year in. And then a third came and left. All were young women of color; we’d connected and bonded. Just being able to give a subtle eye signals or glance across a room was comforting.
A more senior colleague who I saw rarely because we both worked in the field more than in the office also left the organization. He predated me. His stature and personality and talent made his leaving a significant blow. Each of these leavings made small dents in my armor, even though I know how the comings and goings of personnel work in organizations.
All of these folks of color connected because it turns out that we experienced the organization in similar ways despite our age, education, location, income, ethnic and job differences. When we talked – one –on-one never as a group – we bonded as we realized that we were not alone in the puzzled/negative feelings and experiences in an organization whose work we enjoyed and believed in. (Not to say that the work couldn’t be even higher elevated and more consistently relevant to us and our tribes.)
Finally, after a time of basically all-white-people-all-the -time, it happened that there were 9 people-of-color at the organization simultaneously. We formed an affinity group that met monthly for one hour (with the blessing of management). This blessing was important because it meant that hourly workers would be paid while they attended the meeting. All of us –apprentices, and staff – shared experiences and ideas. Having the group helped us to stop feeling isolated and a bit anxious at times.
During the meetings we learned that it had taken one person four years to get to our (overwhelmingly white) institution from his former (mostly white) institution. Two others had direct experiences of gross insensitivity – one from a colleague, one from a board member, early during their tenure. Their complaints were dismissed and white-plained. Almost everyone had started looking to escape the organization almost from the moments they began. All agreed that the organization’s work was great and that some individuals were stellar, but as an organism the institution felt unfriendly, mom-supportive, cautious and non-stimulating. Except for when you were in the affinity group – you often felt with yourself and by yourself . There was no other place in the organization to talk about racism, racial matters and social turmoil that happened in the news. There was no discussion of the Trump administration and its various shenanigans that I witnessed and no one, save for the members of the affinity group to share: the 13th, Aunty Maxine, Girl’s Trip +++ with.
Four months after the affinity group started, four of our members are gone (three of their own accord, a fourth whose reason for leaving we don’t know).
That’s it. In this organization and too-too many others, it’s hard for people of color to get hired yet easy for them to be gone. Sigh. Bye. The space they occupied is easily filled by someone else. There seems to be an inexhaustible stream of young, energetic, college-educated, solidly/upwardly middle-class white people (women mostly) to fill any and all openings*. Employment parity will not be achieved any decade soon, if ever.
In my heart at least, I go back to keeping my distance in the shallow side of the organizational waters. Sharing what I can if asked, being cordial always, but not having any expectations of forming meaningful connections with anyone. I know just how short-lived and tenuous those connections are. It’s less painful this way.
(*I did feel a bit of a bond with a young white woman whose background was more low-middle like mine. She left the organization, too. And I felt her absence because she had joie de vivre.)
If you like this post, you might also like: