Invisibility Cloak

Today I sent a message to my friend, not verbatim but it went something along the lines of: “ My feelings about the company are pretty neutral now. I just can’t imagine being a developer for so long.”

Then the head of partnerships left the office, saying bye and happy Easter to everyone that he knew, but me. Normally, this would not surprise me, I don’t think he said bye or enjoy Easter to the analysts on the other side of the room- he doesn’t really work or interact with them, but this is different.

I was in the office one morning and he was the only one else there. This was about my third month in the company. I had had a bad start, wasn’t taken around or introduced to anyone, so for many months there were a lot of awkward stares and none greetings between every person that could see I clearly worked there, but did not know who I was. So after a point, I decided to throw my shy coat off and wear my confident jacket. It was in this season of introducing myself to people after three months of awkwardness, that I found myself alone in the office with this gentleman. My inner confident self kept pushing me to go and introduce myself to him. I stood up, pretended to go and get some coffee and then turned around to walk straight to his desk. I don’t even know what I was scared of. Anyway, I went for it.

“Good Morning my name is Ola. I realised I have been working here for so long and I never introduced myself to you. I am working for this team doing that.” Then he said something along the lines of “Oh no, I should have been the one to introduce myself bla bla”. From then on, I thought we reached that level of acquaintances. So I did not feel odd responding to his general good morning as he came into the office.

However yesterday, as I was walking down the stairs, and he walking up, He stared straight at then past me. I don’t know maybe it is because my hair has changed from my long braids wig to an ombre bob. Or perhaps he was too deep in thought to notice. There was just no recognition on his face, and unfortunately my shy coat was back on, so I did not say Hello Sir! The 2 second non-recognition struck me as odd, but I just shrugged my shoulders and carried on to where I was going.

So today when he excluded me from his general greeting, I felt a bit somehow. It was confirmation that all my going for introduction and feeling proud that I got up to be known, was for nothing. Perhaps I am too sensitive for the culture at this place. Perhaps I am being ridiculous. Perhaps he did not see me behind the large monitor- I am so short. I do not know, all I know is that I do not like the way it feels — whether or not the non-recognition is imagined. I felt this invisibility really intensely last month, but after some time, just learnt to ignore it. So I do not know why today I seemed to notice things.

Like when my boss left for the day and couldn’t even say a ‘bye’, a ‘see ya’ or even a small nod to be like — I am leaving. I don’t know. Am I being too sensitive? It is not by force to say bye is it? I would be fine with that story line if he just walked out without saying anything to anyone, but that is not what happens, at least it didn’t happen like that today. He indicated to one or two people that he was leaving. And this is not some head of a random department. This is the person to whom I report directly. How does he leave for a long weekend (and longer holiday) and not even say a word? Is he scared to talk to me? Or afraid that I will bite him? Has he forgotten I am there? I don’t know. I wish I could rewind the scene but in this rerun, place my two other colleagues next to me. Would he still have left without saying bye? His behaviour stands out to me because the guy who sits opposite to me, though not on my team, said his emphatic good byes and even told me that he won’t be in the office for a week or two. I don’t even know when my boss is going on holiday except I overhear it from another conversation. Surely I am not imagining the fact that something is amiss.

Or maybe it is the Yoruba girl in me, expecting a greeting for every minor event.

This evening I realised that my feelings at this company are not neutral and it goes beyond my not wanting to be a developer. It is in the very fact that they seem to have put an invisibility cloak over my head, even though I never indicated an interest in wearing one. It is so strange to me and I am not sure how much of it has to do with the unfriendly and unwelcoming culture at this place or whether it is something about my person.

I hate the fact that I question myself. I wonder if I am being overly sensitive, like I do not have a right to feel unnoticed. I hate that I almost always notice some form of silent microaggression. I hate that I don’t even know if I can call it that. There seems to be an American version, one that I don’t think I have personally experienced, or maybe just never noticed. However here, it is so silent, that I am unsure of what to call it. I just know that it makes me feel bad.

Then I watched Hidden Figures, and then I was like wow, I can, for the first time in my existence as a black women, identify with a 1960s black character in America. There were so many moments in the movie where I was like “Oh my Chwest! This is me in the office”. I think my friend started to get annoyed after the fifth “I so identify with this” outburst. After that movie, on some level I realised that I was not really imagining things, but I also learnt that if I wanted to be seen, the only way I could take off the friggin coat was through sheer excellence and nothing less.

It is a bit sad that I feel this way. I mean I should want to be excellent because of excellence in itself, not because I want people to stop acting like I am not there. It made me angry and sad for a while, I developed another set of eyes, one that was alert to the lack of colour in my surroundings. I think I got stuck in the part of the pot that hadn’t quite melted with the other groups of people that are supposed to be here in London.

The funniest part of this all is that I got this job because the head of HR was impressed by my delivery of a presentation on gender diversity. When we were working on it, I noticed in my research that most English/European companies mean diversity of age or gender or sexuality, when they speak about diversity. I don’t think ethnic diversity has ever really crossed their minds. I was going to emphasize diversity of colour and culture when we were working on it, but for some reason, I let it slide. I think I was being lazy or something (shame on me). However, after having experienced this side of things, it is a mistake I will never make again. Just because I would hate for another unsuspecting black girl to go through the same thing. Now I understand why it is not just about equality for women. All women are not equal in these parts, and it is something that I have now learnt from experience, not a blog post from someone else.

Everyone wants to work in an environment in which they feel welcome and a part of the team. You spend most of your time in the office, it practically is your second family (maybe even first for some), so it is not only about the work or the challenge or even the money. The culture makes a huge difference and having been in offices where I have laughed till I have cried, made good friends that I still keep in touch with years after, the difference is too much not to notice.

It is true that I do not enjoy being a developer. To be honest I find it quite boring. However I probably would’ve built the skill anyway if I had had a better experience with the working environment -doesn’t hurt to be able to say you are a Big Data Engineer in this day and age. To be sure no one has been mean to me outright, and that is why I feel worse and go back and forth between being upset and wondering if my mental reaction is for nothing. It is for this very reason, these weeks of doubting myself and my right to be noticed and acknowledged beyond the code that I write, that I ask myself what the hell I am still doing here …