The Weight of White Guilt in the Workplace Is Too Damn Heavy
Illustration: Richard Chance

The Weight of White Guilt in the Workplace Is Too Damn Heavy

My coworkers — bless their hearts — are making a tough time even worse

When I received the Zoom meeting invite, I knew something was amiss. All it took was a quick glance at the attendee list, which only included me, a few department heads, HR, and the other two Black employees at the company. Oh, and Nat, our (Black) intern. The agenda: Working Toward a Better Tomorrow. I just knew things were about to get weird.

The timing of said meeting made its motivation obvious: It was scheduled the week after the inhumane killing of George Floyd by a Minneapolis police officer, just one of a string of state-sanctioned murders that include Breonna Taylor and Ahmaud Arbery this year and countless others in the decades prior. In the aftermath of that news — and the subsequent Black Lives Matter protests that have been popping up in cities around the world — I’ve noticed that my well-intentioned colleagues seemed to be tiptoeing around me in a way that’s palpable even virtually. There was a thoughtful, companywide email that had been sent, but up until this point, none of that awkwardness had formally landed on my iCal.

The whole call felt like being doused with a Gatorade cooler full of White guilt for a championship I didn’t know we’d won.

When I logged into the call — camera off, as usual — it was exactly what I’d expected: feigned concern over what us Black employees must be facing emotionally “in these trying times” and an open forum for us to discuss our feelings that felt straight out of a kindergarten classroom. In a Stretch Armstrong-like reach for solidarity, our CEO insisted that he’s really sorry and he totally gets what we’re going through—after all, he lived with a Black suitemate for three months during his days back at Cornell. The whole call felt like being doused with a Gatorade cooler full of White guilt for a championship I didn’t know we’d won.

Processing the aforementioned tragic deaths and continued police battering of peaceful protesters is already draining without dealing with the White guilt of my co-workers, many of whom seem to believe that I now hate them. Get over yourself, Chad. I’m just trying to get my shit done so I can clock the fuck out and fire up Animal Crossing to find some motherfucking zen!

Okay, yeah, maybe I’m a little angry, but it’s mostly due to the emotional labor I’ve been forced to carry throughout this past week. Folks have been regularly asking me how I’m doing, “you know, with everything going on.” It seems genuine enough, but it also puts me in the lose-lose position of having to either minimize my true feelings for the sake of professionalism or launch into the kind of vent session that I pay my therapist $125 per hour to help me process every week.

One guy called me crying literal White tears. He just couldn't believe how our great nation has declined, which in itself is a reflection of his privilege to be willfully ignorant of America’s long, dark history of overt racism. I gave him a confused thanks for the call, and he followed it up with “if there’s anything you need, let me know.” The thing is, I could count on one hand the IRL conversations I’ve had with this dude who shall remain nameless. So the sudden desire to make himself so available to me felt odd. It’s almost like he’s… centering himself to… absolve his previous apathy toward the plight of people of color. (“People of color” being his term.) He failed to realize that I’ve been going through this shit, so I’ve already got support networks. I’m good.

Thankfully, not everyone has bumbled their way through this. My manager has been vocal and insistent that I take time for breaks, self-care, and to unwind as much as I need, which feels really supportive. I was proud of the person who called out the CEO for the company’s weak-ass, tardy public statement that waded into all-lives-matter territory. “Oh, you’re not even gonna say ‘Black’ in your press release?” she wrote on Slack. “Really?” Best believe I dropped a skin-tone thumbs up reaction on that shit. They eventually issued a new and improved statement in what felt like an insignificant win. One coworker had Ben & Jerry’s delivered to me in a kind gesture; another Venmoed me $35, as he assumed I was going through a hard time. It was weird — is that the cash value he assigned to my pain and suffering? — but hey, I’m never gonna reject free money, aka 2020 reparations.

I’m just not into the performance — the half-assed apologies, “I see you” messages, or tactfully deployed emojis that only serve to help the sender feel as if they’ve done their part. I guess now Black lives finally matter, thanks to these racially ambiguous prayer hands! I don’t need you to reach out to say how much you’re showing up, just for you to go back to your regular M.O. once this movement is no longer trending. Let your actions speak. Contribute to overthrowing this racist-ass system. If I don’t know you like that, there’s no need to hit me up individually; reach out to all of us with public support. Other than that, we can resume business as usual.

I hope that these seemingly well-meaning folks are doing their best to educate themselves and help to fight for the cause, whether via donating to social justice organizations, advocating for Black people, or hitting the streets and protesting. Push for diversity in the workplace and more Black promotions into leadership positions. Using that privilege for good is what makes you not racist, not dropping a black box on Instagram (all the while grumbling about how the protest-prompted citywide curfew is keeping you from those sourdough pretzels you like from Costco).

It’s clear that a shift is happening in America; people are fed up and demanding change. And I hope that goes further than just the criminal justice system and also manifests in professional spaces, too. Will the momentum grow stronger or fizzle out? Only time will tell. Until then, feel free to drop a Virgil in my Venmo.