Working While Black: The Black Person's Guide to Success in the White Workplaceby Michelle T. Johnson
This guide offers practical suggestions for black Americans to develop mental awareness, a psychological game plan, and an increased level of business savvy in order to negotiate the minefield of the white work world. Included are commonsense scenarios and real-life solutions that will help every black American evaluate his or her optionsfrom getting hired
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This guide offers practical suggestions for black Americans to develop mental awareness, a psychological game plan, and an increased level of business savvy in order to negotiate the minefield of the white work world. Included are commonsense scenarios and real-life solutions that will help every black American evaluate his or her optionsfrom getting hired to getting fired, from adjusting one's attitude to suing an employer. Tips are offered on how African Americans can fit their styles, mindsets, and history into the workplace, and insight is provided into how best to deal with situations, problems, and issues unique to being black in a white working world. This new edition has been updated to account for changes in social networking, the Obama effect, the economic downturn, and recent court decisions.
"This book examines in an insightful way a delicate and difficult issuethe triumph and tragedies of black upward mobility. Don't miss it!" Cornel West, author, Race Matters
"Johnson has plenty of good advice." Library Journal
"Breaks down work relationships in terms that almost every employed person can relate to." Jacksonville Free Press
"I believe all employers should read Working While Black so they might learn how to work more effectively with African American employees. This book provides a powerful insight in the ways that African Americans must continually adjust in the workplace. If employers used that knowledge and responded in a meaningful way, the workplace would be much more productive and healthier for all employees.” Kirk P. Perucca, president and CEO, Project Equality, Inc.
"With a refreshing blend of humor . . . and frankness, Johnson delivers no-nonsense advice." Minority MBA
“[This] should be required reading for every black person entering the work place.” Keith H. Williamson, president, Pitney Bowes Global Credit Services
Breaks down work relationships in terms that almost every employed person can relate to.
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Working While Black
The Black Person's Guide to Success in the White Workplace
By Michelle T. Johnson
Chicago Review Press IncorporatedCopyright © 2011 Michelle T. Johnson
All rights reserved.
THE 15 PERCENT DIFFERENCE
* * *
Life is hard for blacks before they get their first job. Whether we went to a private school or a public school or an all-black school or a mostly white school, if we've dealt with whites in any capacity, being different and having different experiences isn't new to us. Today's average sixteen-year-old black may deal with it less than his grandparents did when they were young, but less than is not the same as not at all.
I think many whites, including (ironically) even liberal whites, don't get that even though our experiences as black people can be 85 percent the same as white people, some days that 15 percent difference is the only difference we feel. Technically much of this book will apply to any worker regardless of race, but that 15 percent difference for blacks is going to put just a little bit of a spin on the rest of our day.
For example, applying for a job is applying for a job — no matter what your color or race, you need to fill out an application or submit a resume and go through some formalized process to actually get the job offer. But at some point, there are those 15 percent issues that put just a little twist on our experience. For example, if the receptionist who takes your application has had bad experiences with blacks, your resume may end up at the bottom of the pile, meaning you never even get the interview. Therefore, that 15 percent can be the difference between you getting through the door or not or the difference between you being happy or miserable once you get through that door.
This book aims to do a couple of things. One is to address the 85 percent commonality, and two is to give you helpful advice, tips, and perspective for when that 15 percent pops up. I know that many times just knowing that I'm not alone is enough to get me through an experience or put perspective on a puzzling situation.
* * *
When I was in law school, many of the other blacks I met there wanted to go into civil rights law because they wanted to make a difference in the lives of black people. While civil rights law is a great area, I personally feel that black people make a difference wherever we are and whatever we do. We pay taxes. We have wills and estates when we die. We get divorced. We have car accidents. We buy and sell companies. In other words, as blacks we have the power to influence the whole world. One black person changes the dynamic just by being in the room; so yes, while it is important to be at the forefront of civil rights, all these other areas of the law need us, too. One of the reasons our people marched for civil rights and put their bodies, lives, and livelihoods at risk was so that no door would be closed to us. One of my favorite quotes from Martin Luther King Jr. speaks to this issue:
If you are called to be a street sweeper, sweep streets even as Michelangelo painted, or Beethoven composed music, or Shakespeare wrote poetry. Sweep streets so well that all the hosts of heaven and earth will pause to say, "Here lived a great street sweeper who did his job well."
Notice that King didn't say if you're called to be a doctor, lawyer, or chemical engineer. King said a street sweeper because he knew that it was a humble job but one that still required heart to do it well. I'd like to think that one of King's points was that the struggle for equality was not just for black Americans to get the best jobs in our society but rather for each of us to get any job or opportunity in our society that was best suited to our individual dream.
Maybe that's why it is easier to be a black civil rights attorney than a black tax attorney in a large, white law firm, or maybe it's easier to be a teacher in an inner-city school district rather than the headmaster at a hoity-toity East Coast school. But each person has the right to deal with that 15 percent difference however he or she chooses. Maybe the black tax attorney gets her rocks off from calculating tax exemptions for the wealthy. Maybe the black headmaster loves a more extravagant lifestyle than a public school salary can offer. Therefore, when these 15 percent issues come up, it may all be worth it. It should be, because none of us can avoid it anyway.
Let me repeat: none of us can avoid it anyway. No matter what path you choose, if another person can look at you and tell you're black, that will mold your experience with that person from that point forward. Notice I didn't say it will negatively mold it, just that it will.
Do You Instinctively Aim to Survive, Strive, or Thrive?
My observation, from thirty years of working, eight years of practicing employment law, and several years of being a diversity expert, remains that black folks have roughly one of three instinctive agendas in the workplace. And this delineation is true whether we're talking minimum wage, blue-collar, just plain-ol'-shirt-on-your-back-when-you-go-to-work-in-the-morning-collar, or white-collar professional.
Working while black requires you to have a mental awareness, a psychological game plan, so to speak. You've got to know if you're in it just to survive, if you're in it to strive to get ahead, or if you're in it to thrive, be your natural brown self, and make the white folks move to your rhythm instead of constantly having to adapt to theirs.
There is no particular mentality that is best for every black person. Every job change, every career choice, and maybe even every change in supervision might force you to make a drastic shift in whether you're in the game to survive, to strive, or to thrive; however, no matter what your initial motivation or instinct, you can always choose to be a driver, creating your own destiny.
I've created these categories based on my experiences in the working world. For me, there is no value judgment attached to being in the workplace as a survivor, a striver, or a thriver. We've all been visitors to each place at some point in our working careers. Some people settle into the lifelong comfort zone of being survivors. Some people were ambitious from the first step they took as toddlers, so they will be diehard strivers. Other people come out of the womb pushing their mama's limits, and those thrivers spend the rest of their lives doing the same to everyone else as well.
A survivor is there for the paycheck and lives his or her work life like a duck floating on smooth waters. Someone who is trying to survive wants to stay under the radar. His goal is to not draw attention to himself or do anything other than work, collect the paycheck, and get out the door when the clock strikes whenever. Survivors do not like negative attention. They do not like positive attention. They don't like any attention and are indifferent to the desire to distinguish themselves.
There is a black woman I've known all of my adult life. She's been my mentor, my boss, my guide, my lookout, my savior, and always my friend. Years before I knew I would become a lawyer or write a book (or even believed I could do either), she was the original person to teach me by example how to be a survivor, a striver, and the ultimate thriver. Now she's in her late fifties, and she has one of the best descriptions I can think of for what it is to be in the workplace on the survivor agenda. As she puts it now, "You get to the point where you're just in it for the health insurance."
Being a survivor as a black person in the workplace can mean different things to different people at different points in their lives. It's the person who knows this particular boss can't stand her and is looking for any excuse to eliminate her job. It's the person who is working the only job he can find that pays more than five dollars an hour because he has a family to support. It's the person who has put his thirty years in and knows he's gone as far as he is going to get in an organization before retirement hits.
A striver likes the radar screen. She wants to be on it, but only if it's a good thing. If she's lucky, she aims to run the radar screen one day, even if no black employee in the history of her workplace has ever done it before. The black striver wants acclaim, promotions, and success. She wants to play the game because she believes she can win. She doesn't mind hearing about glass ceilings because, in her mind, glass can be broken. She sees to the top and doesn't care if she bumps her head or gets scraped on the climb.
A striver is one who believes that the system works and believes that benefits come by following the system. Look at newly minted black college graduates — that is probably where you are going to see the prototype of a striver. Strivers believe that an education, a plan, and pure, raw ambition will make the difference. These folks strive forward, strive to the top, strive to get a huge slice of what their parents may not necessarily have had a shot at.
The thriver is the black person who not only dances to his or her own beat but also creates his or her own rhythm. Thrivers don't care about the radar screen because they figure it was invented to track other people anyway, not them. Thrivers are the ones who are going to dress the way they want and talk the way they want; it is not an option for them to get in by trying to fit in.
Thrivers are easy to spot. The thriver is the black person who puts the white folks either a little or a lot on edge. White bosses assume (sometimes mistakenly, sometimes not) that if any black employee might file a complaint or sue them, it will be the thriver. Of course, bosses don't refer to them as thrivers — more likely they're called "troublemakers" or "the mouthy ones" or "the ones with an attitude problem." A thriver may just be the person referred to by name with an accompanying eye roll. Success for the thriver isn't necessarily the goal the way it is for a striver, although some are quite successful. Some are loud. Others are offbeat. The truly lucky ones work at places where they are not perceived as loud or different or ghetto or crazy or troublemakers or any of the other negative labels that often get attached to blacks who operate by their own internal agendas.
My woman friend whom I mentioned earlier as an example of someone in the survivor mode as she cruises toward the next stage of her life was an unabashed thriver when I first met her fifteen years ago. She was the person who taught me how to have a "F — k You Fund" at all times so that if your employer ever tripped too hard, you could say "F — k you," quit without a job, and have a three-month cushion to find a job where you won't get disrespected. I can't say I've always had a fund that size, but I did inherit the attitude.
The Proof Is in the Pudding
Being black in America isn't simple, and going to work every day as a black person is not for the fainthearted. A few years ago, I made up a saying. It is a silly, nonsensical expression that I liked, and it's stuck with a few friends: "The proof is in the pudding, not the pudding mix." That was my standard way of saying look to someone's results, not just what she says about how she is going to get the results. Being black in America isn't simple, but it is simple to constantly evaluate your circumstances to make sure you're achieving what you want. That's the pudding — coming up with a work experience that makes you feel happy and successful. Unless you are rich, work for yourself, or are a homemaker, you have to work for someone else. Let's face it, even if you work for yourself or you work for other blacks, you still need to figure out how to deal with whites in the work context, whether you're dealing with customers, clients, vendors, employees, the government — you name it. The proof is in the pudding, not the pudding mix.
This book doesn't provide fill-in-the-blank answers. (I wish I had those kinds of answers because I could have used them myself over the years.) This book attempts to ask good questions, outline common-sense scenarios, and provide real-life solutions. My division between blacks on whether they are in it to survive, strive, or thrive is by no means definitive. It's just a shorthand way of explaining the different approaches that black employees take when managing the workplace jungle.
A white male friend of mine recently talked about a mutual friend of ours who is a white woman and disabled. She has been in a wheelchair her entire adult life. My male friend commented that in terms of life difficulties, it is probably harder for our friend than for those faced with racial discrimination because her limitations are physical. I pointed out that in some ways it's probably the opposite, because ultimately, as difficult as her situation is, no one is going to argue with her about whether she can go up stairs or through a door. Her disability is a physical fact, so she doesn't have to explain or doubt herself. Ultimately, no one blames her for being upset if she can't enter a building or use a bathroom. When you're talking limitations relating to race, you never know what's really going on (unless a person uses the n-word, which is something even the stupidest white person knows not to do in public anymore). Sometimes you can feel resistance, insensitivity, or futility, but you can't see it or prove it. The existence of a physical limitation doesn't have to be explained. When a person is blind, for example, and walks into another person accidentally, no one speculates whether the person is just clumsy or has a defective cane. But if black people say they received bad service at a restaurant because of their race, some white people usually rush in to offer their own bad experiences at the same restaurant or speculate that maybe the server might have been having a bad day. My point is not that it is better to be physically disabled than black (and I won't touch on the difficulties of being both), but that to be black in working white America is to have your experiences constantly negated and challenged by whites who can't, or don't want to, understand. Part of this understanding is to remember that if the average black person is wrong some of the time when he says race is an issue, then that means some of the time he's right. If there is anything more stressful to a black person than sensing something is about race when you can't really know for sure, it's having a white person act like you're blameworthy to even consider whether race is an issue.
If you're a reasonable person, you know that just because you feel something is off does not necessarily mean that it is about race. But sometimes you just don't know. Again, that 15 percent factor constantly creeps up.
Most of the time, you never really know. Hopefully, what you get from reading this book is the comfort of knowing that it is OK to not always know. And on those occasions when you wonder, questions are good, because the path to finding out what you need to know can be as useful as the answer you come up with.
The advice-giving books (also known as "self-help" and "how-to") still leap off the shelves. We all want to know the exact steps to take to make our lives better. I know I've bought several dozen in my life on how to lose weight, gain a relationship, obtain a job, unload a bad habit, and more. I'm a particular fan of the "Complete Idiot" and "For Dummies" guides. A relative of mine used to tease me for buying those books, saying he refused to buy a book that said he was an idiot. I explained that he missed the point. The purpose of a good self-help book is to take you back to yourself and the beginning of your knowledge about something. It's not that any of us is an idiot or stupid about anything. Essentially, we're all to some degree ignorant, innocent, or naive about some aspect of our lives.
A baby struggles to breathe on day one and then gets that skill down pat. Then walking becomes the skill to master, then riding a bike. At some point the baby, now an adult, learns to drive a car. In other words, life is a series of lessons to find ways to propel ourselves forward.
Again, the bottom line does end up being about not allowing yourself to be a victim even when others try to engage in victimizing behavior. That's why while almost all blacks may instinctively operate from the gut level of being survivors, strivers, or thrivers, ultimately, what we should all aim to be are drivers — drivers of our lives, our career paths, and our destinies. Whether you run a forklift or you run the financial division of a Fortune 500 company, you want to be the driving force behind how you got where you are, the nature of your experiences while you are there, and whether you want to continue to stay or move forward to something else.
The thing to remember is that all black employees deal with that 15 percent difference, and it can be some comfort to know you're not alone. The key is how you choose to deal with it.
Excerpted from Working While Black by Michelle T. Johnson. Copyright © 2011 Michelle T. Johnson. Excerpted by permission of Chicago Review Press Incorporated.
All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
Excerpts are provided by Dial-A-Book Inc. solely for the personal use of visitors to this web site.
What People are saying about this
This book provides a powerful insight in the ways that African Americans must continually adjust in the workplace. If employers used that knowledge and responded in a meaningful way, the workplace would be much more productive and healthier for all employees. (Kirk P. Perucca, president and CEO, Project Equality, Inc.)
President, Pitney Bowes Global Credit Services
author, Race Matters
Meet the Author
Michelle T. Johnson is a former employment attorney, public speaker, diversity consultant, and mediator. She is the author of Black Out and the “Dear Diversity Diva” column in the Kansas City Star. She has worked as a journalist for the Austin American-Statesman, the Louisville Courier-Journal, and the Philadelphia Daily News.
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