Photos: filadendron/Zero Creatives/Getty Images
There’s nothing wrong with a little special treatment from time to time. Not having to do chores on your birthday as a kid. Your uncle sneaking you $10 under the table because you’re his favorite nephew. Getting a few extra sauces at the Chick-fil-A counter, no charge. (Sure, everyone gets that, it feels so damn personal!) Those little moments feel good. However, as I’ve grown older, I’ve become privy to a more irksome brand of special treatment. Like getting sought out for “opportunities” to be Thee Token Black Employee for your newly woke White-ass company. And in the words of Chief Keef, that’s that shit I don’t like.
If there’s one thing I’ve learned, it’s that for the most part, having a job is strictly transactional. You might have a few cases where passion for the work takes precedence, or you find co-workers who might later give your wedding toast, but at the end of the day, The Big Company has one thing in mind: What else can this hire do for me? And for their handful of POC employees, sometimes that bonus work is becoming walking, talking PR for a brand pivot.
Annoyingly, my workplace falls into this unfortunate group. In the aftermath of Black solidarity square callout season, they made me an offer I had no choice but to refuse. The employee-assembled racial equity group sent an open email to our entire staff, setting expectations and airing out grievances as a united front. And to be honest, your humble narrator was shook. I was one of many folks who signed the letter, but I didn’t know if I was really being brave, risky, or just plain stupid for putting my name on the line.
We’re not a little trophy collection of coloreds, dusted and ready to show off at opportune moments, only to be returned to the shelf once the company has gobbled up all the public goodwill it can get.
Once the letter left the outbox, replies came rolling in. Within minutes, I was getting notifications from some of my White peers with nothing but positive vibes. They were grateful for the email, acknowledged how much root work had to be done, and stressed how ready they were to roll up their sleeves and get to it. One of my supervisors even reached out. “I know that probably took a lot of courage for you all to send out as a collective,” he wrote, “and I’d like to relieve any type of stress or worry that you probably felt.”
I was pleasantly surprised — until folks started reaching out to me individually to be part of a few exciting new marketing projects. “Hey, would you mind recording yourself and reading this line on your screen? It’s about resistance. It would just be like a quick three minutes.” Fam. You think you’re slick trying to rope me into part two of NAACP’s cringeworthy black-and-white video, where White celebs delivered somber, guilt-soaked monologues “taking responsibility” for their privilege. And now I’m supposed to be the proud Black face of your moral rebranding campaign?
They can keep all that. Leave me and my POC peers out of it. (What, they thought the racial equity committee wasn’t going to conference about the fact that we all got the same copy-and-paste request?) We’re not a little trophy collection of coloreds, dusted and ready to show off at opportune moments, only to be returned to the shelf once the company has gobbled up all the public goodwill it can get. Imagine that.
While Black staffers were stressing, resetting, organizing, and strategizing, the best thing the company’s leadership could do after months of self-reflection was present us with “opportunities” to be the poster child for a company that had never considered our POVs before. And not even shiny, customized token experiences, at that!
Leadership trying to feature me and other folks of color now is a head-scratcher, especially since, in the past, they haven’t put much effort into centering us at all. I get the reasoning behind why they’re trying to do it, but it makes painfully clear that they understand we feel some type of way, yet they aren’t grasping why. We say Black Lives Matter. We say Abolish the Police. They say, we hear you: Here’s a mural and a street that’s named after you guys. Why don’t — no, why won’t — these people understand that this is not what we’re looking for?
It’s really not that complex of an idea to comprehend. We’re not asking for three minutes of camera time for a performative-ass PR spin. We’re not asking for handouts or professional favors to pacify us. We’re not asking for “special” opportunities that don’t pad our pockets or résumés — gigs that would’ve never manifested if the company weren’t called out in the first place (and will likely disappear once things calm down). We are demanding that these company heads use the ears God gave them to really listen to the specific problems their BIPOC workforce is pointing out, then try to fix them. That’s it. In the long run, that’s the only work that will actually be rewarding for all parties.