“You gotta walk like a (soldier)
Talk like a (stunna)
Move like a (player)
And get it like a (hustler)
Because I won’t let y’all worry me…”
(Mannie Fresh & Lil Wayne, 2002)
James Baldwin said,
“To be a Negro in this country and to be relatively conscious is to be in a rage almost all the time.”
“To be a Black person (woman) in corporate America and follow all of the rules is to operate in a state of constant worry or blissful ignorance.”
Well, I didn’t start by saying that.
Due in large part to my upbringing and the examples I had of black professional achievement, I was confident I entered the workforce with a keen sense of awareness. I would be able to spot discrimination, bias, and micro-aggressions a mile away. I trained my ear to incline at the faintest dog whistles. I was armed with the knowledge that I had to work twice as hard to get half as much. I recognized that I would have more difficulty playing and winning “the game” so I had to maneuver accordingly.
For whatever reason, perhaps the naiveté that resulted from inexperience, I thought a career in HR would provide a reasonable level of protection from the most egregious of “working while Black” experiences while also affording me the opportunity to positively influence and improve the work-life of other Black professionals. It took a few years for me to accept that the field I had chosen, the one whose behavior was supposed to be a blueprint for the entire workforce, was one of the largest barriers to a diverse and inclusive work culture.
My level of black consciousness and self-awareness prohibited me from resting on the side of blissful ignorance with many of my peers. I took risks by speaking up and challenging many of the deliberate and unintentional actions that upheld a system that kept me from being viewed and treated as an equal.
As a result, I experienced varying degrees of worry throughout my career.
The First Degree of Worry surfaced mid-career. I had reached a level of influence where the powers that be would listen, allies supported, and the blissfully ignorant would step out their comfort zones to mobilize. For the first (and only) time in my career happenstance put me in a racial majority at work. The recruiting department was co-located in two offices; one at the company headquarters that was overwhelming White and one in the former headquarters of a corporate acquisition that was overwhelmingly Black and diverse. To anyone on the outside I’m sure it looked like de jure segregation. To us, the segregated de facto, it felt familiar, safe, stress-free, and allowed us to thrive and be productive.
With the exception of quarterly meetings, we rarely co-mingled with the other recruiters. In an effort to make us a more cohesive group, the managers (who were all White) instituted a reorganization and relocation disguised as “talent development”. For the better part of a year there were changes in position, adjustments, and repeated pushing that slowly but surely diminished my influence, softened my voice, estranged my allies, and forced the blissfully ignorant back into their comfort zones.
The Second Degree of Worry was the most difficult to manage. It made a grand and commanding entrance after I vowed to not care so much about work or what the people there thought of me. Worry warts derived from the persistent nagging efforts of a Recruiting Director who seemed hell bent on making my life a living hell. I tried everything to stave off worry. I worked in an office 3 states away whenever possible JUST so I wouldn’t have to see her. Unless absolutely necessary, I refrained from speaking with her on the phone or in person unless there was a neutral third party present. I copied my manager on all email correspondence. I completed all of my work assignments prior to the deadline and aimed for perfection, no matter how long it took. When none of those things provided sustainable relief, I reported her to Ethics. Still, no improvements were made.
I accepted an offer at another company hoping the change would cure my Second Degree Worry. Unfortunately, I catapulted myself into the Third Degree of Worry . I didn’t count on six months of harassment and hostility that would eventually cause my spirit to snap.
I’ll give you the “best of” highlights.
She was the Vice President of HR. I was hired to manage Talent Acquisition Operations. Our introductory meeting included her telling me how the difficulty she experienced as a middle-class Eastern European, first-generation immigrant, growing up in NYC molded her into a no-excuse making, glass ceiling shattering bad ass. I heard, “Don’t try that slavery and systemic racism shit with me.” During a process improvement exercise she bragged that she had just hired two people without use of the applicant tracking system or following an actual process. One of those people was a Recruiting Manager who had no direct recruiting experience. I responded that I would probably be calling the EEOC to file a report.
After four months, I was the most tenured of all of the TA Managers. Except for her newly hired manager, everyone else had resigned. One Monday night my car broke down on the NJ Turnpike. I had submitted the weekly report needed for Tuesday’s meeting on Saturday before I left town and left my laptop at home in VA. When I notified her, my direct reports, and the HR Managers that I wouldn’t be able to host the meeting on Tuesday and designated the person from my team who would, she “replied all” and said I should have anticipated an emergency and that was totally unacceptable. After a call with all of her direct reports she spoke to me in such a vicious manner that one of the other managers came to my office in tears (like she was the one who was berated) to ask if I was OK.
Once I consolidated the process, streamlined reports, and gotten aged requisitions down to manageable number, I knew it was only a matter of time before I would be let go. Not one for decency or respect, she didn’t even bother to lay me off in person. She did it over the phone.
That lay off was the biggest blessing EVER. It made clear that the only time White people were worried about, or even thinking about me, was when they were trying to protect and preserve the systems that afford them their privilege. That discovery freed me from constant disturbance, anxiety and mental distress. That freedom revealed that all of my worry was misplaced and derived from a need to be accepted and validated by White people with whom I shouldn’t be concerned. That freedom put me in a state of Hakuna Matata.