Illness in the white workplace

I’m in the mailroom. To be more specific, my career currently resides in a mailroom at a talent agency. These four windowless walls are in a company that employs roughly ten people of color in a pool of eighty. There are times in the mailroom when I am the only woman- I am always the only black woman. And in these moments, I have to be very careful.

Being the only black woman, or even black person, in the room is nothing new to me. From the start of second grade through my college graduation I attended predominantly white and wealthy, private schools. I didn’t realize it at the time, but it was awful. Not the experience itself but what it did to me.

I’ve thought consciously about healing and liberation in recent years and hoped that I’d emerged from the tunnel- renewed. But in the past few days, as I’ve felt my psyche crash in on itself, I found that I am still very much in it. It being the darkness of feeling compelled to prove myself, my worth, my intelligence to white people, having accepted these institution’s codes. Codes that say you should “network” with people you have no interest in knowing because they have power in structures that you don’t even want to be a part of.

In the midst of my mind’s recent collapse, I found a moment to rest and consider what I was really doing in these spaces that seek to break me down, repeatedly.

There’s a moment that stands out to me when people ask what it’s like in the mailroom. It was me and four white men packed between three Xerox commercial printers waiting for an email to arrive with our next task. That’s how it works, you wait on emails from someone asking you to print something that you walk to their desk on thirty minute intervals. And when it gets there, they may or may not acknowledge your labor.

So we waited.

The Coronavirus has touched almost every person at my job. They’re not sick, but their bodies have been ravaged by anxiety, feeling that something is coming for them. I think because this is nothing new to me, having known for a long time that many ills are constantly pursuing me- racism, sexism, homophobia, etc.- I cannot take on another ghost, especially one that poses little to no material threat.

That was the conversation while we waited- Coronavirus. “Well you know people are just afraid because of what we did to the Native Americans. We fucking decimated them.” I truly do not know where that “we” came from. He also said with no shame that he hates homeless people. But I digress to write, these four white men could acknowledge the root of their fears, that they were afraid of some sickness doing to them what the great forefathers had done to indigenous peoples the world over.

As conversation progressed, I installed myself at the computer to stare at the screen and wait for an email. I turned my back on the conversation in hopes that I could just shut it out. That has often felt like my best recourse in these spaces- to shut out everything that I can. Every feeling, sound, and image in hopes that I might return to myself.

I couldn’t shut this one out. With my back turned, I began talking about my favorite news story of the past few years when a white missionary attempted to make contact with a remote village. “Oh yeah, didn’t they like, eat him or something?” They shot him down with arrows before he even reached the edge of the beach he walked on. They didn’t even want to touch him. I laughed maniacally, back still turned.

It doesn’t feel good having to set boundaries in this way, but it often seems like my only recourse. So I wondered why I keep doing this to myself- going to spaces that laud whiteness and violent, white men as an unquestionable standard that we should all aspire to. To be clear, when I say violent, I don’t mean that it’s necessarily a physical violence, although I’m sure it sometimes is. I mean emotionally violent, socially violent- constantly directing vituperative words at the people around them as if it’s productive or acceptable.

And knowing all of this, that to be in these institutions is to be around ugliness, bitterness, abuse, I keep choosing them based on a feeble promise that they will get me where I’d like to be. So I decided to divest. By this act, I get to abandon a practice that I’ve been advised to observe so many times.

“Don’t be afraid to show people your brilliance.” My first grade teacher said that to me after she thought I was stupid for getting bored in class and talking then falling asleep then getting the best test scores in my year. I’ve gotten a message to this effect for most of my life and as I hear it, it always has something to do with white people.

Just because they see you with your brown skin and natural hair and assume you have nothing to offer or that you’re dumb or mean or intimidating or or or doesn’t mean you shouldn’t go out of your way to prove that you’re not those things. Because you’ll need them one day.

I’ll need them. The people who decimated whole populations and brag about it centuries down the line. I just can’t accept that anymore. Because it will ultimately mean taking on their illness forever. No real affliction, but one that resides in their minds, telling them that one day something or someone will come for them as they once came for the world. I’m no longer afraid of sickness because I know how to heal.

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