Graduating from USC with a degree in industrial engineering never could have prepared me for the racism I would face living in Orange County, CA. In fact, my education at USC did the exact opposite. I moved in diverse circles, chatted with folks from all over the world on a daily basis, and even though I was born in a predominantly black area in Oakland, CA, I had pretty much become accustomed to racial heterogeneity. There were tons of people like me on campus and in Los Angeles. Then I got my first job at a popular theme park and everything changed.
I was 22. It was my first job. I loved the company and intended to be there until I retired. I had pretty much worshipped the brand since I was a small child. I basically came in both wide-eyed and with my eyes wide shut at the same time.
I was the only person of color on my team, but that didn’t bother me. It actually seemed like an asset at first. Being black with an engineering degree drew people to want to know more about me. No doubt they thought I was some kind of exception -– even though I really wasn’t. I enjoyed it nonetheless. I was more than happy to show my analytical ability in just about every scenario I found myself in. I was confident.
I had an older peer, about 60, who had been at the company for 40 years. He was a pretty nice man. He made jokes about everything and knew the theme park like the back of his hand. Our jobs required that we work in close proximity to one another. He was a white male who, as he got more comfortable with me, frequently used the term “cholo” as an adjective. He found great amusement in the Spanish-speaking staff on campus. I never said anything. It was the combination of a fear of ruffling feathers, desperation to have a paycheck for my growing family, and acquiescence to authority that silenced me.
One day we had some downtime in the office. We were chatting about life at the park. He started,” I have been here a very long time.”
I was eager to hear more.
“You know, when I first got here, you had to be dressed up to go into the park. All the receptionists, hostesses, and food workers were these tall, thin white women.”
He chuckled. I did too.
Then he pointed at me and said, “And, ‘Africans’ -– like yourself –- they would never have been allowed to work front of house. They had to stay in the kitchens.”
I froze. I had no idea where this was going next, but I was already hurt. I just stood there and plastered a smile on my face.
He went on, “And everything was different. I mean, even hairstyles. ‘Corn rolls’ -– like yours –- they never would have been allowed either. Now, we have guys with ‘em.” Next to him sat his peer, an older white woman whose contribution to the conversation was the occasional nod in agreement.
I laughed and stayed for another few minutes. I stood there while he talked, but I couldn’t hear anything he was saying. I was so emotional over his marginalization of my personhood that tears started to wad up in my throat. My chest felt dry. My eyes felt wet. I excused myself to the restroom.
I walked into the stall. Closed the door. Locked it. Sat down on the closed commode and cried. I cried so hard that I was surprised at the fervor with which the tears were coming out of me. I kept crying, but I couldn’t really understand why. There was nothing wrong with being called “African,” right? And, I had flat twists –- which I had only recently started wearing after the birth of my son –- so, it was understandable that he confused them with cornrows or French braids. Why was I so upset?
Well, probably because I’m not “African.” And I don’t wear “corn rolls.” I was made uncomfortable in an environment that was supposed to be safe. I was singled out. My color became a liability.
I never talked about the incident at work. Instead, I went home and told my husband, mom, and mom-in-law. They told me to keep my head down, do great work, grin, and bear it. So, I did.
A few weeks later, while sitting in my office, I overheard some of the ladies in the neighboring office talking. They reported to my male co-worker and the older woman who liked to nod. They were discussing a recent audition one of them had done for a television show. One girl explained to the group that she had gotten “all BET.” She said that with a diction and speech pattern that mimicked what she thought “getting BET” sounded like. She joked about singing an Erykah Badu song and how “ghetto” she was.
I froze again. I stayed in my seat. I didn’t cry. Hearing my moms and my husband in my head, I just swallowed it and kept working.
It wasn’t until weeks, even months, later that I reported the incidents to my boss. Both the older gentleman and I were her direct reports. She was a very pretty white woman about twenty years my senior. I respected her immensely. I feared her too. But, she had always treated me well.
We were discussing a different event in the office for our weekly touch base when I broke down uncontrollably crying. I told her what happened. I told her what had been said. I sobbed. I sobbed more. Then she handed me a box of tissues.
She let me cry for a bit. Then she said, “Well, I understand this is difficult. I have friends from the continent of Africa so I know that this is a very sensitive thing.” She seemed to empathize with my concerns. She continued, “But, I’m sure he meant nothing by it. You know, he is ‘old school’.”
Not knowing what to say, I just agreed with her.
“I will report it to Employee Relations and get it sorted out. But, you have said some things, too.” I had no clue what she meant by that. No one had ever come to me and said anything about my conduct. I just nodded because I felt like she wasn’t receptive anymore. Then she said, “Don’t talk to him about it directly. Let Employee Relations handle it.”
I left the office feeling half gratified and half disappointed. It was a relief to finally share it with her. But, I knew nothing would come of it. I met with Employee Relations. They performed an “investigation.” They said it was handled. That was it. No apology. Nothing. I signed some papers. I assumed he did, too.
He enjoyed accolades and awards. He strolled into work every day between 10 and 11 just counting down the days to retirement. He stopped saying “cholo” around me. And that was that.
For the next two years, my boss forced me to work with him. She partnered me with him whenever she could. She made me teach him how to use basic office programs. She forced me to hand off some of my reports to him so that I had to “learn to deal with people of different backgrounds.”
When I struggled to connect with this man who was 40 years my senior and set in his ways, she marked me down on performance evaluations stating that I had poor relationship skills. For two years, I had soaring reviews in the functions of my job but poor reviews in interpersonal ability. It became a “thing” in the office. I felt like I had done something wrong by telling her at all.
I attempted to leave the company only to have her tell my future employer that I was a less-than-stellar candidate. I tried to leave the department only to have her tell me that virtually every other position there sucked. I was trapped. Gagged and trapped.
I eventually left the company for a growth opportunity elsewhere. But, the experience never left my mind. It still hurts when I think about it. It just proved to me that corporate America still struggles with understanding its own diversity. I was experiencing office racism for the first time. My employer seemed inexperienced at handling it, too.
As America becomes more diverse, good ‘ol boys like my male peer will inevitably fade away. But, that doesn’t mean we shouldn’t at least try to educate them a bit before they do.