OP-ED: How to Build Community Being "The Only One"
For MiMConnect 1.2.19
Embarking on a new endeavor is no easy feat especially when it comes to starting a new job. The penultimate moment before it begins seems to last forever which leaves room for potential doubts and fears. A couple questions pass through the mind such as: “Am I really prepared for this?” “Is there upward mobility?” However for Black people and people of color, there lies an additional layer of concern, “Will I be the only one who looks like me?” In most cases, the answer to that is yes. This likelihood increases more when working in senior level positions. So, how do we navigate through this and cultivate community?
I believe the first step is gleaning an understanding of the workplace. Aside from operations and protocols, how do people interact with one another? There is a culture in every workplace environment which varies between the disciplines. In our observations, it’s important to note the presence of cliques, the language used and to what interests do people commonly connect. By no means does that mean fake the funk either. Part B to the first step is to be yourself through and through. Being Black or a person of color means simply existing as we are can cause nonblack coworkers discomfort. Nonetheless, that is not a burden for us to carry.
Engage with peers and find out to whom we gravitate the most. As we gradually open up about ourselves, it also allows for us to receive details about who they are and their beliefs. This doesn’t mean pander to them though; some people we will not mesh well with and there’s nothing wrong with that either. What’s best for us to do to ensure our own comfort and build rapport is to give energy to what is working. I believe it’s essential to show our coworkers how to treat us. This means correcting them if they mispronounce our names or if they attempt to code switch and use AAVE as a means to “relate”. Setting these boundaries displays what we will or won’t tolerate and those who do respect them become a part of our workplace community.
Finding time to meet up outside of work is another easy way to cultivate community and see our coworkers in a different, more relaxed light. There’s still a face we put on at work and it’s important to understand the way people move when that mask is removed. We shouldn’t feel discouraged if we discover we don’t enjoy certain people outside of work. Some relationships should remain in the workplace and we can adjust accordingly.
Lastly, the most crucial point I believe we should keep in mind is there are moments when we’ll feel alone. Regardless of the community we’ve worked to develop, some aspects of our lives will not translate. Communicating how we feel is still imperative but we must also remember that our experiences aren’t similar in some instances, more so as a Black woman or woman of color. We are at the precarious intersection of racism and sexism usually occurring in tandem. White women may understand what it means to be “the only one” in terms of gender but it’s much less likely to occur across racial lines for them.
It’s up to us as Black people and people of color to be who we are, and proudly. When we show ourselves, how we should be treated and reciprocate the positivity we receive, we are able to nurture a community at work. No more are the days of being miserable at work when it plays a major role in how we live and shapes a part of our identity. We deserve to enjoy the work we do and with whom we work.