Once upon a time in a newsroom as white as the newly fallen snow, I stood out as the only black person there—woman or otherwise. I was it. It was me. Trying to rep for millions of black folks while my newsroom’s black population was less than 1 percent.
Back then, I was young. I wanted to do a good job. I was a natural people-pleaser, outgoing and friendly to a fault. I also stood out amongst my white peers whether I wanted to or not.
And when you stand out in this particular way, you really only have a few options.
- Try to blend into the background and hope they leave you alone to do your work in peace (even though you can’t ... because “black.”)
- Lean into your blackness, completely, and see where that gets you. (Sometimes fired. Sometimes not!)
- Put on your tap dancing shoes, best top hat n’ cane and Michigan J. Frog your way through that shit.
I chose option 3 (with a bit of option 2) when I was in my 20s. It was how I survived. Mostly because I’ve never been a blender; can’t blend in to save my life. Even when I’ve tried, I’ve failed. And as a once hardcore ENFP, I just stood out. For good and for bad. And I was going to stand out in my lily white newsroom as I was:
- A black woman
- A full-figured black woman ... I literally take up more space so you have to look at me!
- Naturally loud
- Outgoing and friendly as fuck
It also didn’t hurt that I liked attention. To a certain extent. I liked that everyone knew who I was and could remember my name relatively easily as there were LITERALLY zero other black people for anyone to confuse me with. Ever. But in my efforts to charm the fuck out of my new bosses and co-workers—which I did rather quickly and successfully—something strange happened.
I started wearing a mask.
Not a literal mask, mind you. But the figurative one from the classic poem about the most tragic kind of code-switching by poet Paul Laurence Dunbar, “We Wear the Mask.”
We wear the mask that grins and lies,
It hides our cheeks and shades our eyes,—
This debt we pay to human guile;
With torn and bleeding hearts we smile,
And mouth with myriad subtleties.
I was that black person. The one putting on a show, every day, for my coworkers. Always being happy. Always being social. Always being there to listen to them and their problems. Always down for lunch or after work drinks. Soon, before I knew it, I had the dubious distinction of being one of the most popular people in the newsroom, a sort of “Office Oprah,” where white people liked to come to me and tell me their deepest secrets and feelings. Sometimes it was fun! I got all the good gossip first and I was always on the periphery of some mess, but rarely did the mess come back on me. But I was also that chick who was the black BFF to the white heroine in the rom-com when I wanted to be the star of my own movie, dammit.
This meant I endured many South Park token-esque situations where my coworkers would try to fix me up with the literal one other black man they knew. Regardless of age, occupation, education or looks. This also meant enduring dumb comments, like when my “friends” would try to be “down” and say some “black shit” to me like they were trying on a shirt or a new pair of pants to see if it fit. (It didn’t.) Sometimes I spoke up and corrected them. Especially if the n-word came flying out (usually in the form of rap lyrics.) But many other times? I just kept drinking and ignored it.
After all, I was born and raised in captivity in North St. Louis County, Mo. I was used to a much more visceral and overt kind of racism. Teachers who “lost” your projects and tried to give you F’s on days you were actually out sick. Microaggressions were new to me. I was used to flat out aggressive aggressions, like being told my eyes were “gross” because they were so dark they were almost black. Or literally being called a “nigger” by folks driving past us on the highway.
St. Louis is wild. But I digress.
But being “Office Oprah” almost felt like love, which is why I was so torn about it. It was great being popular and well-liked. But inside I was a mess. I was undiagnosed with bipolar disorder, still quite young and figuring out my place in life, plus struggling with a profound sadness. I was severely depressed. But I couldn’t let my smile fade, I couldn’t drop the charade as I felt my career, my happiness, depended on it. So I just leaned into the grin harder and harder, until eventually—thanks to anxiety—my brain broke.
Funny thing about stress. If you don’t go somewhere and sit your ass down, your body will betray you. You will develop colds that linger for weeks and feel like a grain of sand is in your eye when nothing is there. You will lose weight. You will gain weight. You will find that just leaving your home takes all the effort of a space shuttle launch. Your little, sad, fucked up coping mechanisms will not work—which consist of “drinking more,” “burying your head in the sand,” and “shirking your obligations.”
After about three years of being “Office Oprah,” I retired from coddling my white coworkers’ feelings and needs because I was out of my mind and depressed as hell. I was so sick, I had to be hospitalized, and that’s when the shit got really real with my colleagues because I wasn’t able to cater to their needs anymore. I truly was starring in my own version of Girl, Interrupted, and my life was on the line. To the credit of the folks I worked with, no one expected me to tap dance for them. Or at least, not anymore. In the three years we’d worked together, those who were ignoramuses not worth remembering faded into the background, but for the most part, my bosses and coworkers rallied around me, essentially saving my life.
And with the help of some true friends, I stopped doing what I had been doing (which was being one-part therapist and one-part messy gossip), once I realized how harmful it was to not just them, but me. Sure, there was that two-year span where instead of a beaming smile and lots of hellos, my friends, coworkers and bosses got a series of grunts. But I didn’t give up. I stuck with it for as long as I could.
Now fully grown, even though I’m still capable of “putting on a show,” I’ve largely retired my top hat and cane. If I feel happy and chatty, I’m happy and chatty. If I don’t feel that way, I don’t force it. I turn up when I need to turn up, and when it’s time to turn down, I’m comatose.
I also just started working with and primarily for black people.
It’s not a perfect life, but it’s a pretty damn good one.