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Working while Black: “There was a fear in the back of my mind that I would be singled out”

A Black man recounts his experiences of being the only person of color at work and the mental and emotional toll it takes.

Working while Black: “There was a fear in the back of my mind that I would be singled out”
[Source illustration: rudall30/iStock]
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The New Way We Work podcast launched in January, and over the last several weeks we’ve  been looking at race in the workplace. We’ve talked to Racial Equity Consultant Dorianne St. Fleur about what companies get wrong about DEI; Porter Braswel from Jopwell about the myth of the pipeline problem; Code 2040 CEO Mimi Fox Melton about tone policing and white privilege at work and Dr. Courtney McCluney from Cornell University about code switching and culture fit.

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They each covered issues that are crucial to any company or individual’s progress towards addressing their shortcomings in Diversity, Equity and Inclusion. In the most recent episode, we heard from Kelly Kirkley about how he’s experienced many of these issues personally in his career.

The following has been edited for clarity.

Listen to the full episode here:


My first job in high school was a cashier at a grocery store, I was always called an Oreo, Black on the outside, White on the inside. Being told that I sound White or being told by White people, oh, I’m Blacker than you, which was the most disrespectful, annoying thing you could ever hear from someone not understanding the life experience of what it actually means.

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I’ve worked in many different industries: I worked professionally a little bit as a performer. I worked  as a counselor in arts camp. I worked for eight years as a server in a restaurant. For the last several months I’ve been in a corporate position, which is blowing my mind and it’s just the craziest transition. And it’s a weird position because it’s been remote the whole time, I’m not seeing the faces of the people who I’m working with. I’m only hearing their voices, seeing their names on the instant messenger apps.

It’s always interesting how I’m interpreting how they’re perceiving me.  I always weigh the dynamic of how the people who know I’m Black, and the people who know I’m male talk to me versus the people who might not know what I look like at all.

I got the interview for this job from a connection and I still to this day wonder, did he ever tell the hiring manager I was Black or did he ever figure out that I was Black by the way I was talking?  Obviously I know how to code switch and I hate to phrase it that way, but I was code switching to sound professional.

I don’t know if people could tell how much I was cringing on the inside and I was just keeping that smile on my face.”

It’s such an interesting process trying to feel people out in this work environment because I didn’t know how to act in a corporate environment. I thought to myself  ‘let me just interject some personality where I can and see what I get back.’ Because there’s all a huge part of me that I want to know who you are, who are my allies here? Specifically for the white people that I work with, it’s like, okay, so are we cool or not? It’s so hard doing that in a virtual work setting.

I remember this as being so prevalent in my first paid theater gig after college. It was a Gilbert and Sullivan operetta. All I wanted to do was come enjoy my first professional job and I was the only Black person in the entire cast. There was a fear in the back of my mind that I would be singled out somehow. It happened at a rehearsal, some of the lyrics were changed to reflect pop culture. There was one lyric that alluded to a rapper. I was in the ensemble, but the director says “Well we have Kelly here, so why don’t you put your arm around him, bring him up for this moment and so, he’s front and center.” And I can’t tell you how many moments in my life I’ve experienced this, but since this was my first professional job, I remember it very well.

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I don’t know if people were cringing as much as I was. I don’t know if people could tell how much I was cringing on the inside and I was just keeping that smile on my face. I was laughing it off. I think people might’ve legitimately thought it was funny and not really understanding my experience.

It took me a while of talking to my best friend about it and going back and forth: “Should I say something or should I just let it be?” But then I’m just like, “I don’t think I could live with myself if I were to ever let this go.” I went to rehearsal the next day, we did it again. I cringed, I was so uncomfortable.

And I finally came to the decision that I was going to talk to him and I was so nervous. I was such a mousy 19 year old.  I thought about the fallout that if we changed it, everybody would know that it was because I said something and I felt like there would be judgment from people. But I finally got over that and I just said, “Hi, so you know about that moment? I’m really uncomfortable with it.”

And he was just like, “Great, done. We’ll change it. No problem.” And that was it. I appreciated that, but at the same time, he didn’t show any remorse. So it’s like, ‘do you actually understand how hard it was for me to come up to you and say this and to go through the last two days having to literally be humiliated and singled out in a cast of 30 white people and me.’

I just kept thinking, “Everybody else just gets to come do this show, have fun, enjoy their summer and not have to worry about shit like this.” But me, being the only Black person in this cast, something like that comes up and that takes so much mental and physical energy to work myself up just to express that I’m uncomfortable in a single moment. Why is this happening to me? Does everybody else understand the magnitude?  For them it’s just a two second bit in a play and we move on from there. To me, it takes a lot of emotional endurance.

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If you’re going to balance a scale, you got to add more to one side. You have to give more energy. You have to realize, wow, I hired a talented young person, they’re the only person of color here. I need to realize that and I need to think about how I address them, actively try not to single them out or make them feel uncomfortable and I just need to do the best I can for this person.

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