Safe Virtual Workplaces are Essential for Black Workers
Working from home can be taxing on Black professionals. In addition to proving our worth, going virtual poses issues related to how others perceive and react to our Blackness through the screen.
I have saved money, time, and energy by telecommuting and it is satisfying to submit deliverables from the comfort of home. Despite being in my own space, I have felt unsafe working online. It started after I was victim of online racial discrimination by a co-worker. I have not felt safe since then.
Black teleworkers like me feel liberated, and more energized by working from home due to COVID-19. We are finding ways to navigate a virtual workplace, but the burden of anti-Blackness and institutional racism hasn’t dissolved into the digital ether. There's work that our employers must do to fix it.
At the start of a Microsoft Teams meeting with about 10 colleagues from varying units within my organization, one of them, a white woman, commented on my avatar photo. It was a headshot taken by a friend of mine in NYC last summer. I'd describe it as a minimalist glamour shot--but still safe for work.
She said, "Wow, Ronnell! Your headshot is so nice! You look like a movie star--no, you look like a rapper!"
Then she proceeded to do what she might view as hip-hop dance moves: jabbing her hands and arms to an imaginary beat, accompanied by her take on beat-boxing.
I froze with a forced Cheshire grin on my face. The meeting froze for a split second.
Then it resumed without anyone calling her out. I instantly felt shame, I instantly felt alone, and I didn't want to cause a disruption. My mind reeled. I felt stuck replaying and deconstructing what she did, wondering what kind of response it warranted. Despite the molten emotion underneath the grin, I continued to participate thru the rest of the meeting.
Afterwards, I closed my laptop and sat still at my desk as the passing minutes brought rage. My exuberance to contribute to work evaporated. Often, Black professionals in corporate America play a game of second-guessing our own perceptions and gut feelings about experiences like these. They are never just jokes that landed wrong. I finally acknowledged that she racially stereotyped and discriminated against me because I am Black. The novelty of video conferences with colleagues vanished.
I felt unsafe. I felt violated and betrayed. I've been with my company six years, longer than most of the others on that call. I had recently completed a monumental project with the potential to help keep my organization afloat as our revenue took a nose dive. I was promoted to senior manager two years ago. I have multiple degrees and speak 2 languages. Despite all those accomplishments, a white woman based her perception of me on a tiny head shot, and felt free enough to visually and audibly express it to an audience of co-workers.
And after reporting it to the Human Resources department, I realized there was no legitimate vehicle that I could trust to transparently reprimand that white co-worker swiftly and appropriately. Even the reporting process left me feeling like I was being victim-blamed, or that my story was doubted. My company wasn't ready to make me feel safe because its policies were gray, and its systems were weak. And they have not taken into account the dimensions that virtual work adds to issues of discrimination and racism, or provided the necessary tools to report and track these issues. I know there are countless other stories like this out there. These are the conditions that we face as Black telecommuters.
Companies need to re-imagine anti-discrimination policies and complaint processes fit for a virtual workplace. Laptops and state of the art collaboration software does not intrinsically provide a safer workplace. Not even the digital realm can protect Black teleworkers like me from discrimination. Digital touch points and vulnerabilities have multiplied in this new environment when showing up to work means being visible on-screen and being available at all times; aspects that increase our susceptibility to discrimination.
Black telecommuters are undoubtedly churning out the work. We are dually quelling any doubts that we can be productive at home, and proving that we deserve to keep our jobs in the midst of economic turmoil, while also resisting an undertow of covert institutional racism.
Each time we turn on our webcams to engage with co-workers, we should feel safe. Each time we make a complaint to HR, we should feel confident that there is a process in place to address the issue. Just as we need a well-lit, and comfortable workstation from which to conduct business, we need a virtual workplace that is safe, and equipped with the tools to call out and confront racism and discrimination within our companies.