We Don’t Pay You To Think


picture from Trent Jackson’s twitter

Admittedly, I’m not trying to get karshed here, but I’d be remiss if I didn’t do a follow-up to Interesting Black Man for Hire. My first year flew by and a lot has happened since I was hired at my current job last October.

To be clear I want to start off by saying I am very happy at my current non-profit. I make good money and overall can’t complain. Although I will be using (negative) examples from my experiences in the last year, this is more a reflection of trying to stay gainfully employed as a black man in America in general.

First the facts:

I am a black male under 30 years old with a masters degree…a statistical anomaly in-itself (and a pretty impressive undergraduate resume if I do say so myself).

In an organization of close to 100, I am the only black male not in a position that explicitly has to do with race (ie. cultural programming, community organizer, etc.) or a position that involves a mop and bucket (and other manual labor). Overall there are less than 10 of us.

When we graduated, most of my fellow sex masters (including myself) wanted to work at non-profits that dealt with issues of sexuality/gender. There aren’t too many positions that fit that criteria to begin with and even the ones that do may not be in a city you want to live in. And in a recession where every position gets ~200 applications, employers can be picky and sort based on any identity status (ie. gender, race, age, zodiac sign).

But to be completely conceited for a moment, I am the best at what I do. My unique skill-set of journalism, research and technical skills (and cultural competency for those who care) make me a very valuable employee. I’ve never had an employer complain about my work after they’ve hired me. Where I alway have problems is personality conflicts.

Now while I’m technically not a type A personality, I have no problem asserting myself. If you were to use Dreyfus’ model of skill acquisition, I would definitely be a five. At every job I’ve had it takes me about three months to figure out how things operate and then I start wanting to make changes. I’m that kid that always asked “Why?” and am constantly looking to do a task more efficiently and effectively. This process involves questioning the established ways of doing things (read: tradition).

The reaction from my bosses have generally been the same:

Son, just do what you’re told. We don’t pay you to think.

While they don’t want to have to hold your hand forever (although some like to micromanage) many of my supervisors are very careful not to give me too much decision making power. Too much autonomy means you’re eventually going to think your opinion matters…and it doesn’t. The expectation is to get my tasks done in the time allotted and that’s it.

Power is a very interesting thing because it’s a rather nebulous concept, so it’s hard to dissect (like someone calling you “interesting” in a job interview). Power over a black man is specifically interesting because in the age of Obama no one wants to be labeled a racist. But that’s often exactly what it is.

And I would love to say it’s only white people I get shit from, but I’d be lying. I get just as much shade from other people of color. A Puerto Rican coworker made it a habit for nine months to keep calling me an intern even after explaining numerous times that I was staff. It’s a dog eat dog fight for the few decent jobs available and people have no problem getting their hands dirty to get what they want.

Nepotism is also a very funny thing because that’s exactly what keeps producing the inequalities in this country. I replaced a white women and why would anyone hire a black man that’s going to be “trouble” when you could just hire someone who looks like you, probably has more in common with you, etc. even though they might not be the most qualified person for the job?

Because of the lack of numbers, it’s easy for a black man to not be a “culture fit” before (overt) racism ever comes into the picture. Especially in the social sciences where you can always find a qualified white woman to fill the position.

I was in a meeting with roughly forty people a week ago where I was the only black man. It made me very uncomfortable and it’s something I’ll never get used to. Especially when issues of race come up for discussion.

I guess I’m just a little upset because I feel like I worked my ass off for the last ten years only to find myself dealing with problems based on the color of my skin (something I can’t control). And thank God I work at an LGBT organization or else my (homo)sexuality would also be an issue.

On a macro level we know this recession has disproportionally affected men of color (surprise!) but on a personal level it’s also upsetting because even in something like politics, to be a successful black man in American you have to be an entertainer. It’s 21st century minstrel and it’s not fun when you work hard to be taken seriously. Every day is a fight not to do anything that would get you labeled “the angry black man in the office.” Such is my life. And unfortunately I’m not alone.

…to be continued.

3 thoughts on “We Don’t Pay You To Think

  1. And here I thought the environment was better at non-profits. Thank God I work for myself now. The “angry black man” has subsided.

  2. Thank you for your inspiration and having this conversation outloud! And for the record, you are the best at what you do! (But you already knew that)

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