When a Black Girl and Her Mexican Friend Meet to Discuss Office Politics
Updated: May 1, 2020
Hi, I am Kayla, a blog contributor for Forefront. I am about to share an uncensored interview with my friend, Enrique, about his career path in the legal field and nonprofits. Let me know what you think!
Kayla: How did you get interested in being a legal advocate?
Enrique: I’ve always wanted to work in the legal field because I want to advocate for people who are underrepresented and underserved. When you grow up around poverty, insufficient resources, and exploitation, you tend to realize how much inequity exists. Like, I grew up translating for my parents and helping them fill out applications for public benefits. I was a kid and I never realized how vulnerable we were. I was basically doing my job now back then at like age 7. People could take advantage of us and we wouldn’t even know it. Once I hit a certain age, I knew I could finally help my parents adequately and I promised myself I would help other people in the same situation.
Kayla: So, do you think employers hire people like us because they really want to or just to look good?
Enrique: Diversity in the workplace and all of its name variations has become a trend in many employer’s hiring practices. Whether they genuinely want to hire people of color or use it as a campaign for marketing value, my identity naturally becomes part of the selection process.
Kayla: Yeah, I see what you mean. It’s hard to know the reason but either way your identity comes into play.
Enrique: Right, and as a person of color, you can’t help but notice the racial composition of the staff. The racial composition of your organization can influence how fast you can adapt and perform. This, of course, can vary relative to the nature of the work and the work setting. But I never realized how white the non-profit workforce really was. Many nonprofits have mission statements that help people in need and designate themselves as welcoming spaces for their clients, who can typically be people of color. I’ve realized that when a workforce is so predominantly white the question then becomes not only “how can you adapt to the work?” but also “how do you adapt or acclimate to whiteness?” You know what I mean?
Kayla: Yeah. When I started working/interning, I felt so grown and proud. Finally, I was looking and acting like a real woman…and I was making my own money. Just knowing I could do anything I wanted with my paycheck, just boosted my confidence. Then I realized that even though I was a little bit older and a little bit wiser, going to work was just like my experience going to a predominantly white institution. Some things never change. But I wasn’t too caught off guard. I had been in predominately white spaces since 7th grade. I’ve had to become a master in code-switching.
Enrique: Yessssssss. Kind of like a movie called Sorry to Bother You. Haven’t seen the movie but saw the trailer. One hilarious scene is when Cassius, the main character, uses his “white voice” to perform well in the job and then there’s a montage of his supervisor giving him a high five for making sales. I related a bit to this scene because I also do a lot of code-switching. Mostly because I noticed that my white clients trust my advice more when I sound as white as I can. That scene was hella relatable.
Kayla: For me, it’s not just the “white voice.” The biggest issue for me is my hair. Black hair in a natural state is very much “out there” for some white people. An afro is seen as rebellion. Which I guess it kind of is. It’s rejecting European ideals of beauty. When I did the Big Chop in 2016, my feeling of liberation from harmful chemicals was replaced with “How am I going to wear this to work?” No one said anything about my hair except noticing a difference and thank God no one petted me like a dog. But compliments from white co-workers made me tense because I felt I was being called out. In a country where you can get suspended or rejected for a job for wearing braids, every natural hairstyle I had on the weekends had me sweating through my work clothes on Monday.
Enrique: Damn that’s so true and real. I mean I haven’t had to police my hair but I was talking to a former colleague who told me that they had to reconsider their lunch choices cause the food was too ethnic. Everybody at the office either ate a salad or a sandwich or some small frozen lunch. I don’t know why but I cooled it on my Mexican rice and beans.
Kayla: Do you feel you are held to a different standard at work? Especially when I was working in an office with mostly white employees, I felt anxious about the “self-fulfilling prophecy.” I’d put pressure on myself not to fail or not to leave a negative impact on my co-workers or supervisor because I’m a black woman. If I’m late, I think of how they must be thinking “well, of course, the black girl is late again.”
Enrique: Yeah it sucks how limiting that can be. I can’t help but feel as if I’m being measured by different standards. I’ve heard lots of people of color express similar feelings about impostor syndrome and the constant need for people of color to excel beyond their white colleagues to reach the same level of approval and recognition for their work.
Kayla: It’s such a difference now that I work somewhere that the majority of the people are black and even the CEO is black.
Enrique: Yeah that’s gotta be a big change. To be honest, I want to see more non-profit professionals of color.
Kayla: Me too. It makes a difference. Especially when you work under someone who looks like you or your co-worker has your background.
Enrique: Oh, that’s for damn sure. So, I interned for Mil Mujeres, an organization dedicated to serving immigrant women by applying for U-Visas and VAWA. I had three Latina supervisors; two were from Mexico and one from Colombia. I really enjoyed working with them and my time there really speaks to that because I ended up interning with them (unpaid) for about a year even though my internship was supposed to only last for 3 months. They were a small non- profit but I could tell they took a genuine interest in helping me build professional skills. I felt mentored and above all support. They provided letters of recommendation to my university, who gave me an additional scholarship, and served as references for my Legal Advocate position. They still gave me a professional recommendation 3 years later! I feel like when you work with people of similar background as you, they do try to help you out or who knows maybe I have just been lucky enough to receive such great support.
Kayla: You never know you need something till you need it. When I was working in predominately white offices, and even when I was studying at a predominantly white institutions, the first thing I did was look for someone who looked like me. Being able to make eye contact with the one other black woman in the room was like making eye contact with a long, lost sister. It helps when the coworker has been there longer than me and I can learn from them on how to adapt to the culture of the office. It’s even better when this person is your superior or actually manages you. You can see the possibilities of your own growth and have added support.
Enrique: How do you feel about when companies try diversity initiatives internally? Like encouraging more people of color to be hired or in leadership roles?
Kayla: I think companies are focused on handling one initiative to benefit one identity at a time. Like I’ve worked at places where “gender equality” was a focus. Or “racial equality” was a focus. But these two focuses were not merged together. Being black and being a woman that puts me in a tough spot.
Kayla: So, what advice would you give other millennials of colors and now Gen-zs who are entering the workforce?
Enrique: Millennials of color typically have to face massive student debt and compete for low paid entry-level positions like most millennials I suppose. However, the stakes are much higher for millennials of color because we have historically faced a lack of socioeconomic mobility. We do not have many assets or resources to fall back on. The only piece of advice that I can offer is “keep yourself busy.” As a person of color, the pressure can feel intense and it can feel like you are a couple of steps behind. Especially for those students of color who cannot afford to go straight to a master’s program or any postgraduate program. In the non-profit world, there are always opportunities even if you do not land a salary-paying job. You can take advantage of volunteer or unpaid work, which I understand is torture but can pay off. In the private sector, it might be harder but I think students should apply the same intense pursuit for opportunities.