The term, “Driving While Black,” is a colloquialism that is known the world over as a description of why some black people are pulled over although they are clearly doing nothing wrong – and quite possibly everything right. Their offense: being black. To folks who don’t qualify as perpetrators, the fact that one would make the assertion that this is the reason for being pulled over sounds both asinine, and like a load of excuses. But the fact is, it’s true. It isn’t true in every situation but, it is most certainly factual.
And sadly, this is a truth in other facets of “black life.” I have enjoyed a wonderful career in communications that spans from professional sports to state politics. I have been fortunate to have relationships with a variety of successful professionals from various walks of business life and they come in a diverse rainbow of skin tones, cultures, religions, political views, and socio-economic statuses. I am blessed to call them colleagues, friends, and mentors. But the higher I get on the business, and social ladders, the more I am beginning to realize that, “Working While Black,” is a real thing.
I was recently hired to head up the Communications and Policy department of a non profit, and felt very excited and simply blessed to have the opportunity. I have so many great relationships in the Los Angeles community, and felt this would be a superb opportunity to pour into the community of my birth. I interviewed three or four times, each with the CEO, who made no secret that she wanted a go getter who could hit the ground running. I was pumped! I was finally going to have the opportunity to build a department and mentor receptive staff.
But, it was a struggle from day one. From staff who didn’t want to be directed or given instruction, to the CEO who really didn’t want me to direct but rather, to be a symbol of her willingness to hire a black woman in an executive position. I was introduced to the Board of Directors as a representation of her ability to hire a high caliber black professional.
Sure, she was a liberal and felt comfortable around some black people, but she didn’t want me to really run the department. Instead she looked to my staff to do the directing (young white staff), and looked to me to take a back seat, shut up and do nothing. I was even called into a meeting where she told me to slow down, and threatened that if a certain staff member quit, no one would like me.
I guess one could see it as collecting a free check. But I didn’t see it that way. I am a professional who has years of experience to offer. I offered a bit to staff, but they wouldn’t take it, and instead, complained about me to the CEO. I wasn’t overstepping my bounds, I worked within my wheelhouse, said hello, was pleasant and produced quality work that yielded results. After phenomenal work, national political contacts (they had never been able to obtain), and superb policy efforts, I was fired the first day of the week leading up to my one month anniversary.
I was warned, however. Leading up to my firing, the CEO made various comments about my “aggressiveness” and my “encroaching” on other departments and people. The real issue here was my efficiency, and my ability to get things done on my own, without room for her to take credit.
In my viewpoint I was just being the go getter she hired. Yes, I’m assertive in securing media placements, because in the days of a 24-hour news cycle, and a president with twitter fingers eating up placement space, one has to be persistent, assertive, and relentless in getting what the agency needs. This agency’s communications department needed order, structure, and a freaking communications calendar!
I feel as though, if I were a white woman I would still be employed. As a white woman, my staff may not have liked me, but they wouldn’t have complained about me. And even if they did, the CEO wouldn’t have taken their complaints to heart. Instead, I would be viewed as a go getter, assertive (not aggressive), and a respected high caliber professional. Instead, I was bad mouthed to colleagues, board members, and anyone who would listen. She didn’t even have a plausible reason for firing me. When I asked why I was being fired, she claimed I “just wasn’t a good fit.” Now, I’m back on the unemployment line, hoping someone will see me for the experienced communications professional I am, and not as a “scary” educated black woman they are intimidated by.
I struggled writing this op-ed, as I realize that some may view this negatively but, it is the experience of many black people in the workplace today. And the higher you go, the harder it gets. There are no protesters marching on your behalf in corporate halls. Others may feel the way you do, but say nothing because they have bills to pay and responsibilities to take care of.
Working While Black is a reality. And if you are in a position of leadership, it can be a burden. The saying goes: “More money, more problems.” I guess it’s no money, more problems for me. Who could’ve guessed one could be fired for doing a great job? I guess it was the naivety that got me. Or perhaps it was the at will employment laws of California?
“But unlike telling the truth, speaking the truth means you must speak up and speak out. Even when you’re not being asked, and even when it’s uncomfortable or inconvenient.”
– Senator Kamala Harris, Howard University Commencement Speech, May 2017