Nowhere is Safe: Microaggressions, Working from Home & Being Black in America

The physical pain of working in a physical office was real. I had heart palpitations every time I sat at my desk. I’d use any excuse to take meetings over conference calls rather than in person. Most sick days were really mental health days, just to avoid the office tension. Because even though no one said it aloud, people were always noticing me, and judging me from the moment I walked in until the moment I left.

COVID-19 gave me the best excuse yet to work from home. After years of doctor’s appointments, prescriptions, and prayers for healing, it’s probably time to celebrate. Yet, the more things change in this “new normal” we’re living in, the more (bad) things seem to stay the same. The past two months gave me false hope that hiding in my house, working from home with my white-collar job, would shield me from that danger.

Recent riots and protests in response to the killing of black people are just the culmination of little fires happening everywhere. These sparks fly every time a black person and people in positions of power clash, and it’s not just at the hands of police.

Gallup recently published a poll that found 62% of workers surveyed in the U.S. want to keep working from home, even after the current pandemic ends. I have no idea if it’s for the same reasons I have, and that’s a problem. 

The way the data was presented and (likely) collected sadly won’t help us fully weigh the benefits and danger work-from-home (WFH) culture will have specifically in a country with one of the worst track records for creating safe spaces for people of color. A huge red flag in the Gallup poll is the lack of any disaggregated data by race or gender. Giving us the most basic analysis shows how the voices of some are either made invisible or insignificant.

Not asking how many of the 2,276 Americans surveyed were black, and what percentage of black/brown folks made up the 62% excited about WFH, is a perfect example of the toxic root of all physical and psychic violence against black people— microaggressions.

Microaggressions are already “difficult to spot” because they’re meant to be more subtle forms of racism, like complimenting the way a black person talks or questioning a black executive’s credentials for a job. Examples of microaggression range from clutching one’s purse as a black man approaches, to not including people of color in positions of leadership or the decision-making process. They give off a vibe that people of color will just accept or deal with what the powers-that-be decide is best for the company (or country). 

We can’t underestimate how dangerous microaggressions are. The fear of a black man stepping on to an office building elevator set off one of the worse massacres of black citizens in U.S. history.

Social distancing can’t stop that mindset from spreading. If anything, social distancing is the perfect environment to ignore the presence of staff of color. And, for the more aggressive microaggressor, it’s an excuse to use the most invasive surveillance tools to micromanage staff of color, who disproportionately feel the undue pressure to show and prove their value.

Even after this pandemic ends, microaggressive behavior will kill more black and brown employees, literally, than any virus or institutionalized violence. Heart disease is still the leading cause of death for African Americans, based on the Centers for Disease Control (CDC) website. “People who are recipients of greater amounts of microaggressions tend to have poorer physical health. They are likely to have high blood pressure, extreme vigilance that they have to deal with in terms of their autonomic nervous system,” says Columbia University psychology professor Dr. Derald Sue. In a 2018 Journal of Multicultural Counseling and Development study, 89% of race-based trauma cases were triggered by “covert acts of racism” (a.k.a., microaggressions).

Along with this clear evidence that racism damages our physical health, a 2019 Havard Business Review survey found that “almost half of black and Latinx respondents had left a job at least partly for mental health reasons, compared with 32% of Caucasian respondents.” 

What does this say about the diversity and inclusion (or D&I) initiatives we rushed into in the “old normal”, just to save face? How effective was closing down shop (like Starbucks) and mandating workshops, or listening to all those TED talks? If we never find out what’s changed or not changed for black people working from home, it’ll be impossible to know whether or not we’re simply exacerbating the problem. 

Add to that the fact that black men and women make up less than 40% of the total entry-level workforce for most office jobs, and that more than half of that 40% are weeded out as you rise the ranks to the C-suite. That means fewer people at the top committing to the cognitive work needed to unlearn microaggressive behavior, work that has to happen every week or once a month, but definitely not once in a blue moon.

I tried my best to process these thoughts and voice them over in the video above. Feel free to comment below on ways you’ve experienced racial trauma in the workplace, and what you’ve seen done that’s made it harder or easier to find safety at work. Also, share if you’re feeling safer since you’ve started working from home. Is there level of protection you sense, as a black employee, when you’re not working within a physical office setting?

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