Seen Yet Unseen (Working While Black)

How Black people's individuality is often ignored

Hello friends,

A conversation on LinkedIn led to this article, which highlights a common experience for Black office workers.

Seen Yet Unseen

Ask any Black person who's worked in a white majority country, and they'll probably have experienced what I'm about to describe at least once. It's happened to me dozens of times.

I've talked before about the loneliness of being the only Black employee. That can be rough, but there's another hurtful thing that happens when you're NOT the only one.

At its simplest, it looks like a case of mistaken identity, where a white colleague addresses you by the name of the other - or another - Black employee in the office. And maybe if it happened once, you'd buy it.

But if it happens multiple times and it's people you work with every day, then it begins to look like they can't be bothered to tell you apart. There's underlying racism in seeing all Black people as a homogeneous and interchangeable group. Plus - take it from someone who's been on the receiving end - it just doesn't feel good.

As a tall, dark-skinned Black woman, if you consistently mistake me - or misname me - for a shorter, lighter skinned Black colleague, it's going to hurt me. Sure, some people look alike, but if mine is a face you're seeing every week, and sometimes every day, there's no excuse.

And, let's be clear, even if the other Black person in the group is also tall and dark-skinned, she's unlikely to look like me. I think I'd know by now if I had an identical twin, so chances are that if people really looked beyond the immediacy of skin color, they'd find that many of our features are different.

Another iteration of this is the white person who is convinced you must be related to the only other Black person they know. And when you deny it, they refuse to take your word for it. Again, this has happened to me several times.

Yes, I say, mentally rolling my eyes, I'm sure I'm not related to some random Black person you know. If you start to unpack it, you'll usually find that this other Black person is from a different country, has a different accent, and may even have a different skin tone. In other words, we look nothing alike and there's no possibility we could be related.

The sting in the tail of this particular experience is that Black people - and Black women - are often the last to be believed and trusted in any given situation. I can't begin to imagine what my enslaved ancestors went through, but the legacy of disbelief, distrust, and disempowerment is like a skewer through the heart. Please, start believing Black people, and especially Black women.

This doesn't just happen in the office, of course. The media is full of examples of instances where a story about one Black person featured the image of another. Again, the two people don't usually look alike to anyone who takes the time to look properly. And the hasty apology and fixing of the error does nothing to diminish the outrage and hurt Black people feel when this happens yet again.

Of course, there's a sinister side to this "identity crisis", particularly if you are a Black person living in the US. Being "mistaken" for someone who's committed a crime could literally get you killed. We already have plenty of examples of cases where the person who ended up dead didn't look like - or match the particulars of - the person the police were actually looking for.

Look, I can be pretty bad at names and faces. I've mistaken one person for another plenty of times, especially famous actors who take similar kinds of roles. But the differences are:

1) I don't make the same mistake repeatedly. If someone says, no, that's not who I am, I will apologize and go out of my way to avoid doing that to them again. Repeating the error is just rude.

2) If someone says they're not related to someone I know, I don't ask if they're sure. I assume they know who they are, or who they're related to, and apologize for my mistake.

3) I don't automatically disbelieve what the other person is telling me or refuse to see that person as an individual.

For many Black people, it's like your white colleagues see you when they want to point out how different or alien you are, but then they don't see you because they think all Black people look alike. Take from me, Black people in this position feel disrespected, disempowered and, if it's happened often enough, angry (though of course they can't show it because that plays into another stereotype that seriously hurts their chances of remaining employed).

So, as one of the "good white folks", to steal Marley K's term, what can you do?

  1. If you're working in an office with multiple Black, Indigenous, and People of Color colleagues, get to know them as individuals.

  2. Learn to distinguish them from one another, and help your less “woke” white colleagues to do the same.

  3. Let your Black colleagues feel seen and valued as individuals, because that makes it harder for outdated racist attitudes to flourish in your workspace.

Make the unseen seen, and help end racism in your workplace.

As always, thanks for reading and for supporting this newsletter. I look forward to your comments.


© Sharon Hurley Hall, 2020. All Rights Reserved.

Cover photo courtesy of Canva.

I am an anti-racism writer, a professional B2B writer and blogger, and co-host of The Introvert Sisters podcast. Learn more about why I started this newsletter and how you can support it.

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