Why I can no longer avoid race conversations at work
Before I moved to the South, I never had to worry about having conversations about race at work. Maybe it was a Midwest thing, but it just didn’t happen to me there. Here in the South, though, they’ve happened. And each time I’ve been determined to avoid them. Like, with the same type of determination that the Mary J. Blige hive has to buzzing around in the key of NOPE. But this week I realized that that had to change.
Earlier this week I was having a discussion with a person at work. This individual happens to be in the market to buy a house. He’s gone to a few websites and “liked” certain houses to keep some kind of record of the ones in which he’s interested. One of the sites he used had a representative send him an email offering the opportunity to go look at the house. He brought this up to me because the representative that emailed him had “an Arabic sounding name”, so he wondered if this person would be competent, trustworthy and knowledgeable enough to show him the house. He must have seen my face, because he immediately said that he wasn’t trying to be racist and asked what I would do. I told him it wouldn’t matter to me. I’d go see the house. He must have felt bad, because he started talking about how he didn’t know how much experience this person would have or if this person would know much about the area, etc… Since I hate these conversations (and because I’m the only drop of melanin in the office), I said nothing. Just listened.
This conversation bled over into one about how bad his current neighborhood is. He summed up how bad the area was getting by saying, “Well [location redacted] is probably about 50% black now.” I waited for the rest of the reasoning, but it didn’t come. That was the punchline. The puzzling thing is that he even told me he looked at the crime rates in this area and commented on how low it was. Usually when people speak about an area getting bad, it’s directly related to crime. Apparently, in this case, all that new black brought on the appearance of the potential for more crime, so it’s time to move… But since I hate having these conversations at work, I said nothing. Just listened, hoping he would stop talking and the clock would keep ticking so I could leave.
Finally this conversation ended with him again talking about his neighborhood. This time he was specifically talking about the street on which he and his wife live. Both of them at times have noticed a car outside. The two of them are unsure who the car belongs to, but they see it all the time. Occasionally, the car’s owner and 3-4 of his friends (all black) will be standing by it talking. The friends’ cars will be parked before and after this main car. They’ll talk for a while, then they’ll get in their cars and go somewhere. The pattern repeats on a regular basis. My co-worker brought this up, because he’s unsure who any of these people are. He doesn’t know where any of them live. He doesn’t know what they are doing while they stand there. He doesn’t know where they go when they leave. It makes him and his wife nervous, so they’ve taken on the challenge to make their street great again by planning to call the police the next time they see them just to make sure… I hate these conversations. I hate the awkwardness. And I was ready to leave for the day, so I said nothing. And I left.
As I was driving home, I was furious. I couldn’t believe the level of ignorance in everything he had just shared with me. It angered me that he doubted the credentials of a real estate agent because of his name. I was upset that he felt his neighborhood was going down simply because of the presence of more black people, despite an absence of actual crime. And I was irate that he automatically assumed that these guys he watches on his street were criminals and that he needed to get law enforcement involved to check them for drugs and the like.
But then I started thinking of the growing list of names that we’ve attached to hashtags in the last few years. In my head I could picture my co-worker calling the cops. I could see the cops rolling up on this small group of young black men (who probably aren’t doing anything illegal), and I could see the situation going horribly wrong. Why? Because he’s calling the police with a possible threat, so they would show up assuming that there is a threat. And by the end of that situation, we could have anywhere from 1-5 more names to add to the growing list of hashtags. And all that could be because I didn’t say something. I didn’t take the opportunity to dispel the myth that strange, unknown black people must be up to no good. I didn’t speak up. I chose to stay comfortable. I chose to just leave work.
So that’s why I can’t let these conversations slide anymore. I’m bound to have disagreements at work. I’m going to make the office uncomfortable for some. It will be tense at times. But if the benefit to that is that we can prevent some of these situations that turn us into hashtags then I’m here for it. Bring it on.