Years ago, in my first office job, the internet startup company I worked for was run by mostly White, mostly heterosexual men. It wasn’t Silicon Valley, but it was definitely Silicon Valley. And as you might imagine, being the only Black person on staff was… an experience. They wanted everyone to bring all of their ideas to the table. Except in my case, I wasn’t really at the table — I was in a too-short chair near its far end.
I was working in sales at the time, but I always liked marketing, so during weekly cross-departmental meetings I’d pitch really insightful ideas for the marketing team to consider. The ideas often landed, but it wasn’t an isolated occurrence to say something in a meeting, then hear someone else be praised later for the same idea. Ugh.
Meetings aside, the office had that bro-ey feel that startup culture so often gets satirized for: foosball table; old-school arcade machines; a weird ongoing game where people would hide Taco Bell sauce packets in each other’s desks. (Don’t ask, I never figured it out.) On Fridays, people would do beer-thirty happy hours and compare their March Madness brackets or whatever. I’m not a basketball guy, so I didn’t take part, but I couldn’t help but notice that a lot of the people who were most involved in the reindeer games were climbing to the top. The boys’ club was in full effect.
There’s an ongoing pattern that me and my buddies keep finding, and love to compare notes about: Supervisors at these places want their Black employees to have fun, but not really. It’s lip service. If you actually have fun, then everyone’s in trouble — but if you keep your head down and do your work, then people get nervous, and someone will say, “We just want to check in to make sure everything’s okay, that you’re not mad or whatever.” That I’m not mad. Never mind the actual day-to-day shit that accumulates in a thousand tiny ways — as long as I don’t look like Surly Black Guy Considering a Lawsuit, they don’t have to think about the ways their culture works and doesn’t. Don’t worry about me, I’m fucking fine; just trying to tune out what Susan and Chad are talking about and get my work done.
If I’d have been a little bit chummier, a little more invested in the office Super Bowl pool, maybe even a little Whiter, would my odds of survival have been higher? Impossible to say. But not impossible to imagine.
My main focus was to meet my deliverables, clock out, and go home. I wasn’t interested in drinking the Jägermeister-flavored Kool-Aid by joining in with the afterwork bar nights. I have stuff that I like to do outside of work, like see my friends. Or DJ parties. Or, well, anything other than Flip Cup. But because I wasn’t eager to join the reindeer games, my co-workers took it as a slight: He doesn’t want anything to do with us.
Which wasn’t (completely) true. I just wished they’d focus more on my work than the stuff that has nothing to do with my job, or why I was hired.
Yet being a Black person in the predominantly White startup scene also grants you access to a wealth of information, gossip, and truth. It allows you to weave through these weird cracks and get an opportunity — you just have to deal with all the bullshit that comes along with it and keep your mouth shut.
Take the annual “offsite event.” Every year, we’d all take the day off and do something recreational on the company’s dime. Kickball, bowling, a baseball game, things like that. There’s a party bus, beer, the whole nine. After one year’s festivities, me and a co-worker who I became good friends with — also a person of color — got invited to an after-party situation that some of the “cool” selected employees were attending. Somehow, I made the cut. Is this how affirmative action works? I thought.
As a Black person in a predominantly White space, there’s this expectation that we’re supposed to be both court jester and ambassador of mythic cool. We’re supposed to bring the fun and the vibes, make sure everyone is having a good time. That’s not listed in my job description, but I might as well be affable and try to bond with these folks I’m around for 40 hours each week.
So we’re all hanging out. There’s a lot of drinking. Drugs. I’m not partaking in the heavy stuff, but sure, I’ll have a beer. Next thing I know, I look up and see one of the marketing bros snort a line of cocaine, right in plain view. Before I can grab my jacket and break out, the group motions to me to step outside for a smoke and to shoot the shit some more.
Once we’re out front, the marketing bro pulls me to the side: “Yeah, bro, really appreciate those insights that you said in the meeting last week.” Did the blow jog his memory?
“Uh, thanks,” I replied.
“We’re actually about to get rid of this one guy,” he continues. “I think you might be good for his spot.”
It was a strange, totally backwards process — openly discussing someone who was about to be canned, as he low-key recruited me for the role, all while coked out of his mind. As it turns out, I got the job a month later. But there are so many things that happen behind the curtain in these circles. Weird ins and outs that you learn along the way.
One night of hobnobbing didn’t keep my job standing safe in the long run. When one of our largest clients decided against renewing a contract, the company laid off several employees — your humble narrator included, shiny promotion and all. If I’d have been a little bit chummier, a little more invested in the office NBA Finals pool, maybe even a little Whiter, would my odds of survival have been higher? Impossible to say. But not impossible to imagine.
Sure, there were a lot of benefits with that job. But it felt like I was expected to work hard, while being regularly overlooked, and still be Mr. Bojangles, the funny, always-up-for-anything Cool Black Colleague. (That’s not the same thing as a friend.) I’d rather just be boring.
I can have fun outside of the office — with my people. And if a co-worker becomes an actual friend, all good. But when I’m at work? Expect me to be locked in, getting shit done. Even if it’s at the far end of the table.