As a black woman, I have been trained to be hyperaware of my skin colour and of people’s reactions to it. I grew up in the American South, a region synonymous with racism and black oppression. As the daughter of black parents from Birmingham, Alabama, race, segregation and the recent history and treatment of black people was a common topic of conversation.
On the morning I would start my first job after completing my bachelor’s degree, my father met me at the kitchen table for last-minute advice.
“You’ll probably be the only black person there,” he warned. “Don’t let them bully you. Don’t let them make you feel inferior. You go in, prove your worth and come home.”
Prove your worth. As if my completion of a bachelor’s degree was not evidence of my worth! It reminded me of another bit of advice my father always gave me: “It won’t be enough for you to just achieve the bare minimum. You have to do more!”
“When you walk into that room, you’ll have two strikes against you from the get-go: you’re black and you’re a woman. Before you even start, you’ll already be ten steps behind,” he’d warn.
His advice proved invaluable; the situations he prepped me for cropped up in nearly every place of employment where I worked. I got used to fighting for my space at the table. I grew accustomed to trying to figure out if I’d earned the opportunities afforded to me or if promoting an ethnic minority to a prominent position was a strategic move to cast the company in a positive light.
Fed up with corporate life, the unconscious bias and the microaggressions of being a plus-size, black female in a skinny male and pale world, I went into business for myself. Entrepreneurship felt safe — I wouldn’t have to worry about vanity promotions or being passed over altogether for not fitting the culture of the company. Or, truthfully, for not being melanin deficient.
As my business grew, a weight was lifted from my shoulder. For once, I could focus on doing the work and not the politics of race in the workplace. Years into my entrepreneurial journey, I became less hyperaware. I stopped parsing emails for hidden microaggressions. I didn’t analyse comments made in meetings for racial slights. With a steady flow of black and minority ethnic clients on my books, my guard was down and I failed to recognise the overt racism right in front of me.
Modern society promotes a fallible argument: black people cannot be racist. Society peddles this inaccuracy in movies like 2014’s Dear White People. In an 1991 interview for Playboy magazine, Spike Lee said, “Black people can’t be racist.” In 1987, the year of my birth, an article entitled “The Fallacy of Reverse Racism” was published in which the author wrote, “Blacks cannot be ‘racists.’ They are not in a position to oppress anyone — certainly not the majority white population of the U.S.”
Trained to see racism as a thing done to me by white perpetrators, I never considered Reverse Racism a possibility. Besides, popular culture and professors had all decried it as not being possible. I felt safe bringing black and brown clients into my business. I’d imagine our shared experiences of racial injustice would provide camaraderie at best. As such, I was legitimately caught off guard when I began to experience the same discriminations and microaggressions that I had done at the hands of my white colleagues in the corporate sector.
The client/service provider relationship is a dynamic in which the actions of one participant can be oppressive to the other. The relationship is a microcosm of society. Someone refusing your work or questioning your experience, value and worth based on your skin colour is just as damaging and jarring when it occurs in the halls and boardrooms of corporate offices as when it occurs on virtual conference calls.
Entrepreneurs of colour need to be aware of the possibility to experience racism within their own business. We must understand that if an action or comment would be deemed racist if delivered at the hand of a white individual, then that same action or comment is racist when delivered at the hand of any individual, no matter how covert; no matter how blatant. No matter if it is wrapped in the pretense of humour or if it is spat with the vile tinge of hatred.