Stop doing these 5 things to your new black employees
I know you think it’s harmless, but it’s usually offensive
When I saw an email alert pop up from my boss, I read it with curious eyes. The subject was all about Victor*, a newspaper intern who she wanted me to mentor. I had no idea why I was chosen to be his mentor, especially considering I had only been working for this newspaper for maybe a year or so. But my boss thought I’d be “perfect” for him. I shrugged and responded, “Sure.”
Rule 1: While having a mentor who can relate to his mentee makes sense, consider more than just race before pairing people up.
When I saw the intern walk up to the glass door, I knew exactly why I was the “perfect” mentor for him and why my boss thought we’d “be a good fit.” Victor is African-American, a little over 6'0, slim build and handsome in a brainy kind of way. I talked to Victor briefly and realized that we had zip zero in common other than both enjoying journalism and a love for writing. He hated rap music, especially ratchet rap. I toggle between listening to Yasiin Bey and Drake, but some days Crime Mob’s “Knuck If You Buck” and Migos “Fight Night” could be my alarm clock songs. He’s not athletic nor particularly coordinated. Meanwhile I live and breathe WERQ dance routines. His idea of entertainment is watching reality TV shows like “Whodunnit?” while I’d rather shake my fist at my TV and Tweet-complain about the “Black Ink” and “Love & Hip Hop” series.
But in all fairness, I liked him a lot — on a platonic level. He was church mouse quiet around pretty much everyone but me. Still though, he was quite intelligent and charming. However, that “perfect” part about me being a mentor made me wonder what exactly made me more qualified to be his mentor than the rest of our (surprise surprise) all-white news team.
Rule 2: Stop bringing up random black celebrities to try to bond with your black employees. Even worse, don’t brainstorm on who we resemble the most.
The intern ended up being hired as a full-time employee months later. I’d moved from the features news desk to the national/world news desk when he returned. As soon as I saw him, he walked over and greeted me with a big hug. I was happy to see him be part of our team. But initially I wondered how he would work out in such a small team when he couldn’t be as quiet as he was before. (Several employees had already asked me, “Does he ever talk?”) By default, our small news team had to communicate more — including one guy (white, early 20s and male) in particular who loved to talk about race and equality.
It took no time at all for Mr. Equality to make an ass of himself. He thought it’d be a good idea to send an email to our team — bosses included — about how he and Victor were going to be a tag team. And the image he used to describe the two of them was a “Training Day” image of himself as Ethan Hawke and Victor as Denzel Washington during the car scene. Because of course the black guy must be Denzel, amiright?
Not only did Victor look nothing like Denzel, but the team decided to have a whole email chain conversation discussing why he didn’t. To be honest, Mr. Equality is actually more handsome than Ethan Hawke. But if he took a Black History Test and compared his results to Beavis and Butthead, Daria’s frenemies would beat him with flying colors. This is not a guy who picks up on social cues easily. And Victor’s stone-cold silence to this email gave Mr. Equality all the answer he needed to stop sending those kinds of group emails out.
Rule 3: Stop assuming all of your black employees will date each other. Like all other groups, our personalities do factor into work relationships, whether professional or personal.
I can’t say that sometimes pairing people up who have physical features in common never works. When I worked for a popular bookstore, I immediately zoomed in on the only other African-American male employee, who was extremely handsome. Although I was a bit annoyed by several other non-black employees telling me, “You two should date,” the problem was I already wanted to date him. Still though, I protested their assumption.
The problem was he was paying just as much attention to me as I was him. Although we thought we were secretly dating, my habit of laughing too loud at unfunny jokes and him always feeling the need to touch me when I walked by blew our cover within weeks.
On the other hand, I have worked with many African-American men who I have no interest in dating. It’s not an “automatic” thing. Generally speaking, unless you actually know two people well, don’t insist that they should date from looks alone.
Rule 4: No, we don’t all know each other. And quiet as it’s kept, we’re not all going to be best friends.
I have a love-hate belief in this rule because I really would like to see us all get along. In my own experience, especially at an adult education textbook company I worked for, it was such a relief to see a floor full of sistas gushing over their favorite authors, having lunch outings, going out for birthday lunches and even inviting me to their bookclub. I recall hanging out in a mailroom, casually flirting with a couple of male clerks — who always wore the most amazing cologne. A bunch of us teamed up to throw a Black History Party, which I thought was a great idea considering the company was predominantly white. And seeing some of my favorite non-POC co-workers contribute and participate in the party was even better.
But with all this unity came the one black guy who was pissed off that the Black History Party included so much soul food. His response was to bring hummus, and send out an irate email to me and a co-party planner about stereotypes. Skin-folk does not always mean friend-folk. Oddly enough, he was super quiet when another (white, female) co-worker mentioned that she thought “Black History Month was excessive. Like, why do you need a whole month to celebrate that?” Now those are two people who definitely should have dated.
Rule 5: Do not assume we’re going to bond because you did your first “black” thing or hired someone who’s black.
This happened to me more in college than in the workplace. Every time you do something new and different, it doesn’t need to be a grand announcement for anyone who is black and within hearing distance. My college suitemate reminded me three times that she tried collard greens and loved them. Another girl in college would always tell me how much she loved dating black men and wanted to know what I thought of new rap songs. And at least twice in the workplace within the past two years, someone has come up to me to tell me I’ll “just love” the new employee they hired.
There is a way to bring up all of these topics without making it awkward. If we’re already on the topic of food, your ode to collard greens makes sense. If I’m talking about who I like on campus, you can tell me all about your new boyfriend — without trying to gain brownie points because he’s black. (Matter of fact, unless it directly relates to a story you’re going to tell me about him, I honestly don’t need to know that he’s black at all.) If we hear a song in the distance or one on the loudspeaker, and I bob my head to it, this is as good of a time as any to bring up music. And if I ask if “anyone got around to hiring a new ______________ in the ______________ department,” feel free to tell me how great the new candidate is. But unless you know something specifically about this person that’ll make me “just love” her, I don’t need the sales pitch. (And frankly, I couldn’t stand one of the two new hires. The other one? Yeah, I did indeed think she was amazing — but she quit less than a few months after she was hired. Bummer.)
- Not his real name