The Unique Frustration of Being Black and in Charge
Illustration: Richard A. Chance

The Unique Frustration of Being Black and in Charge

How am I supposed to run a team if my co-workers are scared of direct conversations?

Whether sitting in a conference room or on my couch, I’ve never been one to beat around the bush at work. As far as I’m concerned, you get a whole lot less gray hairs when you put everything on Front Street — what you expect, what you need, and what you don’t. Unfortunately, my co-workers haven’t quite caught on yet.

Virtually interacting with my co-workers has its perks (prayer hand emojis to the end of deskside drive-bys), but it’s also magnified their lack of straightforward communication skills. That’s bad enough when some of my non-Black cohorts take the long way around an issue — or around me — but it’s doubly frustrating when it comes to projects that we’re all involved in.

On my marketing team, we’ve got copywriters, graphic designers, and UX people all working on a big campaign with lots of moving parts; I assist with project managing it all. It’s an exercise in juggling. One minute, everything’s going through email, but the next, other instructions are being sent through Slack channels and via Google Hangouts. Key details are bound to get lost in the sauce.

I’m trying not to come off as angry or annoyed (which I might be!), but the professional in me wants to be solution-oriented and direct.

The best way to avoid things slipping through the cracks is to have a group check-in to see who needs support on what. Instead, two folks wind up having a conversation over here, some other folks are talking about the same thing over there, and I’m left out the group chat, unaware of the mix of grievances in my own department. I actually had to hear about it from one of my committee members, who also tipped me off that my supervisor was going to come around for a conversation later. I don’t know if they didn’t want to loop me in because they thought I’d be angry, but is the sidestepping worth it if it’ll get back to me from a third party? Did you solve the problem, or did you whip up more Marie Kondo mess? Guys, I promise I don’t bite, and I’m more than capable of taking criticism if it leads to better work.

I have to get ahead of my own mind when shit like that happens. Let me just check myself first and make sure I’m not taking something as a personal attack, instead of assuming they’re being so indirect because some White people break out in a rash at the thought of having a difficult conversation with a person of color. Look, it’s just as uncomfortable for us. I have zero poker face; I already know they can see how I respond to a disagreement. I’m trying not to come off as angry or annoyed (which I might be!), but the professional in me wants to be solution-oriented and direct.

As a Black person, trying to communicate across culture lines in the office is a constant battle of trying not to come off as whatever screw-faced, finger-wagging, table-shaking caricature they’ve conjured up in their minds. Especially when it comes to a heated discussion during a disagreement with a colleague (which usually isn’t even a real argument, since you’re just arguing the same point in different words with misguided enthusiasm). So you try to fix your face, take the bass out of your voice, and unclench your jaw — all to ensure your delivery isn’t interpreted as “combative, angry Black guy.”

And while you have to calibrate your feelings and sand the realness out of your tone, White supervisors and colleagues have the liberty and privilege to bungee jump to conclusions or have these separate conversations that box you out. If I don’t end an email with an exclamation point, then you bcc me out of the thread because I’m “testy”; when I snap at Caitlyn for talking to me like an intern even though she fumbled the ball on a project, I’m extra. (And if I were to actually put her on blast, it could probably lead to a demotion — or worse, an impromptu mandatory department-wide training on “The Proper Etiquette for Group Communication.”) Oh, the snowflakery!

Having grown up with siblings and cousins, I get it: When there’s a screwup, everybody has to get their ass whooped, not just the one person who really screwed up. But when those screwups happen because people are creating side roads to avoid confrontation, it’s a different kind of annoying.

What works best in these situations, I’ve learned, is to do the exact opposite of what my co-workers do. If they want to be cryptic and passive aggressively drop silly-ass breadcrumbs in an email thread, I use that as an opportunity to just ask the questions and get what I want. Speaking up is the only way to get shit done, so I’ll keep asking questions and looping in who I need to loop in “for visibility.” And if that means being that annoying dude ccing the stakeholders, then like Reggie said, I’ll be that.

If you want me to hunt someone down to get something done, let me know. I’ve gotten props just for setting up calls I don’t need to be in; I’ll chime in if I have any questions or if I’m asked one, but other than that, y’all do your thing. I did my job here: gather the troops and set up a meeting for this productive group conversation you’re having.

And will you look at that? Work gets done. Painless.