For Black people, navigating professional spaces where White folks dominate the work culture is like navigating obstacle courses where the price of failure can be your career and livelihood. Of the many roadblocks to success — like enduring every possible racial micro-aggression, not sharing cultural references, and generally proving your competence and value to people who doubt it at the onset — the blurring of professional and personal lines definitely ranks among the shittiest.
In these white-dominated cultures — likely every place you’ve had a professional job — there’s an expectation that you’ll morph into some boundary-less person and allow your personal business to become fodder for a gossip mill under the guise of “bonding” and “relating”. The jig, though, is that they’re not going to tell you they expect this. Saying what they mean and meaning what they say is not a thing they have to do. Why say what you mean when you can just smile and do under-handed shit behind the scenes to compel people to do what you want them to do anyway. [As an aside, in my experience, when Miss Anns dominate the culture these phenomena are far more pronounced and even more unbearable.]
In White culture, it’s not enough to go to work, be marginally interested in how a coworker spent their weekend, and do your damn job. White work culture requires that you take it several steps further. You have to tell colleagues about the guy you hooked up with last night, how your credit cards are all maxed out, and that your mother is on crack again for the 18th time. Personal business? What is that? In white culture, your personal life IS business. Not sharing is a surefire way to be labeled “angry”, “anti-social”, and my fave — “not a team player”. Maybe white people don’t get that this notion of telling all your damn business to to folks goes against our values, particularly in African-American culture (maybe they still wouldn’t care).
Black people learned early not to be telling house business to outsiders. This concept is ingrained in our culture and it’s intended to protect us (whether that’s always the actual outcome or not). For example, Black mothers needing housing assistance couldn’t get aid if they had financial support from a man. So even though a man might have been living in the home and provided much-needed additional support, a child learned not to go blabbing that fact to people who might be in a position to use that knowledge to harm their family. Maybe your father hit the numbers and won a nice chunk of change. You couldn’t advertise that unless you wanted a gunman to run up in your house. Maybe you were from a well-off family, but had to downplay your family’s success around Whites because if you were too damn uppity, well maybe they’d have to bring you down a notch.
We also learn early that we have to be especially cautious about what we say around White people in general — and when I was coming up the social workers, teachers, police, doctors, were mostly white — because they had the power to ruin your life. They could take your mother’s aid. They could put your father in jail. They could snatch you away from your family. They could take your job. [Newsflash: they still can.]
So no, we’re not going into work to tell them about the baby daddy who doesn’t pay child support, the alcoholic wife, or the large sum of money we just came into. Doing that is only going to fodder for gossip machines, reinforce White’s stereotypical ideas about black folks’ lives, or have them in their feelings because we’re doing so damned well — maybe even better than them — despite the odds.
Make no mistake about it: they want this business because they intend to use it. We’re not imagining it. There’s a lot of power in knowing someone’s intimacies. It leaves them vulnerable in a way that people shouldn’t have to be in the workplace, certainly not people who are already disadvantaged. Yet, not divulging your intimate business makes you unapproachable, unfriendly, or whatever un-thing they want to make you out to be. Yet another vulnerability.
A better solution, and maybe the best solution is for Black people to continue building organizations with a decidedly Black culture. Of course Black culture isn’t anything in isolation, and our cultures will have their own challenges. I still have to imagine that any elements of Blackness that drive workplace cultures have to be better than what we’re subjected to now.
Obviously this is easy to say, it’s a lot harder to pull off, and it’s not an original idea. Even if we could kick this solution into high-gear, there won’t be enough Black organizations to provide hospitable workspaces for all of us for quite some time. So, for now, I guess we have to keep sitting through diversity trainings at work and hope that it sinks it for those who need it (it won’t).