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Surprise, I’m Qualified! Working While Black
True stories of how white employers underestimate Black employees’ education and ability
Welcome to the latest edition of the newsletter. Some of you may have seen this one before. Truly, being Black in the workplace isn’t always easy. I hope you find it enlightening.
For Black people, one of the unwelcome realities of living and working in countries where you’re in the minority is that some white people lower their expectations about your education, capability and achievements.
My first experience of this wasn’t in a work setting, though it did relate to a skill I would later use in a professional capacity.
When I lived in France, I shared a flat with a girl from the Midwest. We had both done BAs in languages, but she could hardly string a sentence together. It blew her mind that a girl from the English-speaking Caribbean could speak French more fluently than she could. And it was even more mind-blowing when I detailed just how rigorous my education in foreign languages had been.
Of course, she wasn’t the only one to doubt my ability. When I returned to the Caribbean, I applied for a travel rep job with a major Canadian airline. My interviewer, who was white, didn’t believe I could really speak French. (What would be the point of claiming it if I couldn’t, I wonder?)
Anyway, I started speaking and she had to beg me to shut up, because my French was more fluent than hers. I didn’t get the job, though, which is just as well, as they wanted to police my hair. I talked about that in I’m Tired (Of Racism), which you can find here.
Fast forward a few years, and I was in the UK, taking part in a job skills course. As I’ve mentioned elsewhere, the white trainer thought I was stupid because I didn’t comment on what was going on in the course.
The truth was that I had nothing to say, as the content wasn’t new to me, and I didn’t want to ruin it for everyone else. There was a test at the end of the day, and when my results came in, my language skills exceeded expectations. He admitted that he’d expected me to fail, which was an eye-opener for me.
As a Black woman, I can’t be too quiet (because people think there’s nothing in my head). But I can’t be too loud (because then I’m stereotyped as aggressive or angry). How exactly am I supposed to navigate that balance?
Getting back to more recent events, here’s another example. One of my relatives in the US was having some water cooler chat about education with her white colleagues. When she mentioned her qualifications, this was the response: “You have a Masters?!”
Her white colleagues were visibly shocked, dismayed, and almost affronted. How dare this Black woman be more educated than they were? When she shared the story on social media, dozens of her friends came forward with similar stories. It’s as if a Black woman with a postgrad degree shakes their world view. (Not sure how they would cope with the fact that I have two.)
Even before I did my postgrad studies, I worked in an office in the UK where most people were young and had taken the job straight out of high school. For those people, the fact that I had a degree was also surprising, as most of them didn’t. I remember having a conversation with my head of department and wondering if I’d always have to listen attentively to people who were far less knowledgeable about the world than I was. Newsflash: I had to do it for a long, long time.
If low expectations represent one unwelcome reality, a second unwelcome reality is that even though, as a Black professional, you may have the qualifications and experience for a role, there’s no guarantee you won’t be overlooked in favor of someone less experienced but with a “face that fits” — usually a white face. I told the story of one such experience in Interviewing While Black.
And that applies to be considered for promotions, too. You’d think that having produced good work in the past would give you an edge, but that doesn’t always work for Black people.
One of my relatives applied for a promotion within her department after successfully handling a rebranding exercise that got the attention of the CEO. But her immediate boss felt threatened by her and actively took steps to diminish her. In the end, the promotion went to someone far less qualified who was adept at looking like he was working without actually doing much.
Finally, here’s a third unwelcome reality: if you’re Black and work in an office where you’re in the minority, you’ll often go through your entire working life frustrated at being overlooked, bossed around by those less competent than you, and dealing with racist microaggressions daily.
The irony is that Black people know they often have to be twice or three times as good to merit the same consideration as their white colleagues, so they tend to prioritize education and may often be the most educated and capable people in the room.
Ready to do better? Here are a few suggestions:
If you’re hiring people, be aware of your own implicit biases and make sure you look at a good range of resumes.
Be aware of discounting the opinions of Black employees or, even worse, asking them to be the arbiter of everything that relates to diversity
Do the work — read books, watch programs, listen to podcasts, talk to Black people and broaden your expectations of what a Black person is or should be.
Thanks for reading. If you find my articles interesting or enlightening, please consider supporting this newsletter with a paid subscription. Until next time, Sharon
© Sharon Hurley Hall, September 2020. Cover photo courtesy of Canva.
Have you read my book? Learn more about colorism in Exploring Shadeism.