People have more in common than we like to admit. We can find arrogance, machismo, kindness, passion, rage, envy, and other emotions in any group of people—regardless of racial identity.
Unfortunately, in the workplace, there’s a tendency to label and stereotype people in ways that intrude upon their right to be fairly evaluated and to be treated respectfully. It seems to be easier for many people to place labels on others, particularly minorities, based—not so much on that person’s behavior—but, more on what perspectives the labeler is bringing to the table. So, often, what comes to the table is never seen through the prism of American slavery and racism, even though the history of enslavement and emancipation in America has lead to many of the stereotypes being used and perpetuated today.
During slavery, Whites controlled every aspect of the life of the African slave. We worked at the crack of the whip and by threat of a rifle. We were subjected to daily rapes. We had our captors’ religion imposed upon us (even to the point where slaves believed the Bible justified their enslavement and that they should only expect freedom in the afterlife). And, we endured other tortures of the mind, body, and soul—too numerous to list here. All of these premeditated tortures were aimed at maintaining control over the slave population in order to continue the free labor trade on whose blood, sweat, and tears this country was built.
Even after emancipation, there was still an expectation, a code of behavior, that African Americans were expected to show to Whites. Free or not, this is simply the behavior that many Whites preferred and demanded of the country’s former slaves. Whites had, after all, had their way with African Americans throughout slavery and didn’t easily forget their ownership role. Free or not, a nigger was not going to be a White man’s equal. A
ni-ger was going to know his place.
History has shown that many African American men, women, and children found themselves at the end of a hanging rope for disobeying—not necessarily Federal, State or local laws—but, for not abiding by undocumented standards of conduct. Some of these unwritten expectations and preferences included that African Americans:
· had to defer to the wishes of a White person (no matter how unfair or illegal those wishes might be);
· couldn’t behave in a “prideful” manner because Whites couldn’t stand the sight and sound of an “uppity” nigger;
· were supposed to act and be treated as subservient to White;
· had no actual rights when dealing with Whites (written law amounted to a paper tiger for African Americans);
· couldn’t “talk back” to a White person;
· had to avert their eyes when passing by or speaking to a White person;
· had to step out of the way of a White person who was passing by; and
· could not look upon/stare at White women.
Many African Americans obviously saw this unwritten code as unfair, immoral, and illegal, but the code was also a route to safety. Dealing with Whites was still a fear-invoking proposition, but following the rules meant you were a little less likely to be the priority Negro in town who had to be dealt with. Not breaking these unofficial rules was a way to avoid the hanging rope of lynch mobs, although the lynch mob never required much provocation when it decided to pick a Black person for “punishment.”
I believe that many African Americans still walk through life guided by these unwritten rules and expectations. We have done to ourselves exactly what Massa would have hoped—many of us passed on a slave mentality to our children.
I’ve worked with far too many African Americans who absolutely will not question a White person regarding any matter, small or large. Why? Because many Blacks would rather lay down in a bed full of rats then to tell a White person they are being unclear, that an approach may be against guidelines or completely unethical, or that there is a better way to get something done.
As African Americans, we’ve learned, throughout our careers, exactly what “our place” is on project teams at work. And, we know damn well what we can say that will offend a White person and possibly lead to problems on the job.
The fact of the matter is that some of us work on jobs where we are still relegated to working in the fields. We are the administrative force, we are junior staff or we are the low to mid-level managers. Many of us have been completely neutered. We are not involved in the early stages of planning projects, we are not asked for our ideas or to make contributions on project designs, we are normally not asked what we would like to do or what we would like to learn, we are not asked our opinion on how things are going on projects, etc. In short, we are perceived and have often accepted a role as labor only. Our voice is irrelevant. Yes, some of us are still forced to work in the field. And, some of us revel in that status.
Some African Americans know their place and will serve as an invisible society that can be utilized or ignored as seen fit—just as the invisible society in the lower 9th ward suffered silently before Hurricane Katrina hit.
A quiet and unashamedly well-assimilated African American will not ask for what he has earned, will not require equitable workplace conditions, will not demand equal pay, will often not ask for or fight for a promotion, and will sufficiently kiss the ass of the White staff they work with.
Stop for a minute and visualize the early images of African Americans in film, movies, and as described in books. We had characters in black face, Mammy, Sambo and the images of the so-called pickininny. African Americans were always shown providing eye-bulging smiles to our unseen Massa.
These images didn’t just reinforce and serve as a learning experience on racism for Whites. These images reinforced racism for many African Americans as well. These images reinforced African American status in society—images of stupidity, ugliness, laziness, servitude, and living a second or third class existence to those in White or “mainstream” society.
So, what does this all mean? Haven’t figured it out yet? Stay tuned for part two of this post…