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In my 20-plus years in corporate America, there has never been a time that my race was an afterthought. I have always been a Black person before any title, and the office space never let me forget that. When there would be discussions about race, I or other African Americans were often viewed as the experts on everything Black. On more than one occasion, if the police drove by with sirens while I was having lunch with colleagues, someone would joke that the cops were “coming to get me.” Nearly all my white co-workers thought it was funny, letting out a laugh. Only my Asian colleague looked at me and “didn’t get it.” Receptionists often questioned my credentials, such as my badge, position, and work status. While working at a telecommunications provider in Kansas City, Missouri, a white supervisor felt the only way he could communicate with me was to try his hand at slang. It felt like a bad Dave Chappelle skit. At one technology firm, the environment where I was one of the few Black tech support representatives became so untenable I was happy when I was laid off.
Looking back on those jobs, I wonder: How many racist scenarios, comments, and situations would I have avoided enduring if I didn’t need to come into the office?
That psychological toll is why many African American employees are opting out of going into the office and embracing remote work.
The average Black employee can share tales of daily racial incidents. Some we can refer to as microaggressions—subtle, often unintentional forms of prejudice: the “compliment” of “You speak so well” when giving a presentation, the surprise when you are competent at your job, the assumption that you are a “diversity hire,” the requests to touch your hair. The other type of racism we experience is explicit: accusations of theft if someone’s property was to come up missing, security stopping you on campus because they don’t believe you work there, the racist jokes, the opposition to any type of DEI training or workshops. Many of us are the only African American on the team or in the office. This is what being Black in corporate America is—and it can affect your mental health.
Black workers already take on a disproportionate amount of stress at work. We work disproportionately in high stress, low-wage jobs and are overrepresented in jobs at highest risk of vanishing because of workplace automation.
All of that stress is made worse by racism, which has a tremendous impact on the mental and physical health of the Black community. “If you have to face racial microaggressions day in and day out, and you know you will have to face this, it puts you in a state of highest alert. Psychologically we call this hypervigilance. You are always on edge, and being on edge creates anxiety,” says Angela Neal-Barnett, director of Kent State’s Program for Research on Anxiety Disorders Among African Americans. “When dealing with racism daily, some people feel powerless, helpless, and think it is never going to change. When you have to tolerate racism to keep a roof over your family’s head and don’t see any end in sight, that can lead you to feeling hopeless, which contributes to depression.” One 2011 study found that Black Americans’ psychological responses to perceived racism are very similar to common responses to trauma, such as somatization, which is psychological distress expressed as physical pain; interpersonal sensitivity; and anxiety.
There is also a physical health component to racial aggression. In an episode of a podcast from the Better Life Lab and Slate, Adia Harvey Wingfield, a professor of sociology at Washington University in St. Louis, and author of Flatlining: Race, Work and Health Care in the New Economy, spoke of the work of Harvard scholar David Williams, whose public health research documented the physiological toll that workplace racism takes on people of color. “It contributes to hypertension, to challenges sleeping [and eating],” Wingfield said. “It’s not good for your health to be in an environment … where you are consistently experiencing or anticipating racial harassment and bias.”
Wingfield also cites research by Vincent Roscigno, author of The Face of Discrimination. As Wingfield summed up in the podcast: “When Black workers don’t follow rules, they get punished. When white workers don’t follow the rules, nothing happens.” In my own experience working in tech, I have seen white co-workers come in late, take long lunch breaks, and perform subpar work without repercussions. My Black colleagues and I shared a perception that we had to be almost perfect not to succeed, but just to survive in corporate America. That meant working extra hours when not asked or completing a task earlier than it was due. Even with that, there was a persistent feeling that we could lose our jobs at any time.
In the pandemic, many of us have had the opportunity to work from home for the first time. This ability to do your job in the comfort of your home has given people more time with their families, has eliminated the need for a commute, has saved corporations money on office space, and has in some ways given workers the space to focus on the work, and not office politics. A July 2021 poll by the World Economic Forum found that out of the 12,500 employees in 29 countries around the world, the majority wanted work from home to be permanent. Thirty percent stated they would find another job if they had to return to the office. Future Forum, a firm specializing in employee engagement, produced a report on remote work and found 38 percent of Black men and 33 percent of Black women would prefer a fully “flexible schedule,” compared with 26 percent of white men and 25 percent of white women. Boris Moyston, founder and senior managing partner of Relentless Venture Partners, told me, “While there is something to be said about socializing and brainstorming with people, it’s not worth it when you’re facing workplace harassment and racism.”
Now, as companies try to bring employees back to the office, lots of us are just refusing to go.
Many Black employees are turning entrepreneurs and starting their own firms. In Wingfield’s own research, she found that when Black workers are in spaces that are more independent, their workplace stress is reduced. And it could even be more profitable, as workplace inequalities come with a major cost. One report from the San Francisco Federal Reserve Bank found that if our country could eliminate racial and gender inequalities at work, we could create an extra $2.6 trillion in value, which is close to 14 percent of GDP in a single year. An impossible goal? Perhaps—but still one worth working toward.
When I think of all the racial microaggressions I’ve faced at work, I wonder if much of that could be avoided if I or other African Americans founded their own startups. But, as easy as that may sound, Black tech startups lack the capital. In a report by Crunchbase, Black and Latinx founders received only 2.4 percent of the total VC funding raised by startups in the United States.
As a Black man, my mental health is a priority. I have to guard and protect myself from experiencing and witnessing racism every day. I am currently working remotely, and I can say for certain my mood and demeanor have improved. Not having to decide if I should address a racist comment or action as much has made my day easier. I do not foresee myself ever returning to an office. I don’t want to be the only African American on the floor or authority on “everything Black.”
You may wonder: Is this basically giving up? Is it throwing in the towel when it comes to working for change as an African American in the office?
“Giving up” is a lot to a 43-year-old Black man that has faced racism since he could walk. I believe it is unfair for anyone to accuse or criticize any Black person who wants to remove themselves from the day-to-day racist acts, discrimination, and environments that we experience. As Nikole Hannah-Jones of the New York Times’ 1619 Project, who repeatedly faced roadblocks while pursuing tenure at the University of North Carolina–Chapel Hill, said: “At some point when you have proven yourself and fought your way into institutions that were not built for you, when you’ve proven you can compete and excel at the highest level, you have to decide that you are done forcing yourself in.” That is how I feel at this moment. Could Black people who opt not to come into the office possibly be penalized? Our careers stifled? Our opportunities dashed? Yeah, maybe, but to be honest with you, so what? I am tired of fighting a battle in corporate America that I see no end to.
Remote work isn’t a magic bullet for African Americans. During our conversation, Samella Watson, founder of Sebiya, a travel company based in Miami, noted, “The racism still shows up in the emails and how people respond or don’t respond to you.” Still, if WFH allows a small reduction of racial workplace incidents, I will take it, and my mental health will benefit from it.
State of Mind is a partnership of Slate and Arizona State University that offers a practical look at our mental health system—and how to make it better.