From the ages of 22 to 24, I was a teacher. I taught professional communication at a high school in an affluent, mainly white suburb of Houston. The school had over 3,500 students, and about 6% of them were Black, and of the over 200 teachers, only about five of us were Black (excluding coaches and security guards).
At the time, Texas required all students to take one semester of communication at any point from 8th through 12th grade, and regardless of the grade makeup of my classes, there were never more than two Black kids. So each year, I would make it a point to speak privately to my Black students, telling them how important communication was for their professional success.
I’m 28 now, and though I don’t teach anymore, I’ve been recently called to reflect on how I’ve internalized and upheld the white supremacy in our societal systems. Sentiments of white superiority hide in plain sight. They’re evident only when we take the time to chisel them out from where they’re nestled in our foundations.
Many Black folks, myself included, were taught to adopt professional whiteness if we wanted to succeed in the professional world. This meant we had to speak, look, dress and act in a way that aligned ourselves more toward whiteness. The fact that this is understood yet seldom discussed is internalized white supremacy. And not only did I abide by it, but I taught it to my Black communication students. I thought I was giving them the tools to success when, in reality, all I was offering were steps on how to conform to a racist system.
So here’s a letter I wrote to my former Black students:
“I’ve been recently called to reflect on how I’ve internalized and upheld the white supremacy in our societal systems.”
Dear Former Black Students,
I’m reaching out because I fucked up as your teacher. Right now, we’re fighting for a new world; the creation of a new system that doesn’t have racism woven into its DNA.
Everyone can be complicit in perpetuating our white supremacy culture. Non-Black people can be complicit because they may not realize how deeply rooted racism is and they may not realize their actions that contribute to the perpetuation of our unequal treatment. Black people can also be complicit because, although we likely see the deep-seated racism, we also may internalize it. We may see this as the way things must be, accepting it and doing what we can to find ways around it.
Instead, we all must work to remove it: from ourselves and from the system that surrounds us. And in order to make an external change, we have to make an internal change. We must look inward to see where we’ve fallen victim to upholding white superiority beliefs — non-Black and Black people alike.
That’s really why I’m reaching out to you. I’ve been examining how I’ve upheld white superiority, and a glaring example was our time together in my professional communication class.
Racism is allowed to run rampant under the guise of professionalism. It’s something we, as Black folks, inherently understand. But I thought I knew the tricks to get around it. The tactics to evade the pitfalls and move undetected through a racist system. And I thought it my duty to pass these tips on to you.
I taught you what I was taught: Communication is a method for survival. I emphasized it to you, that it’s imperative for us, as Black people, to be able to communicate effectively. My argument was that if they can understand us, they will have no choice but to see our humanity. And if we communicate in the predetermined “proper” way, then they’ll have no choice but to view us as equals. But as we all know, I was wrong.
“Racism is killing us. It kills us not only literally as bodies are lying in the streets but also in more subtle ways. It kills our spirit and our drive; it kills our job prospects and professional aspirations.”
Racism is killing us. It kills us not only literally as bodies are lying in the streets but also in more subtle ways. It kills our spirit and our drive; it kills our job prospects and professional aspirations. It prevents us from getting hired, it prevents us from advancing and it prevents us from growing our skills. And all the professional communication skills in the world won’t help because it’s not based on what we do or say — it’s based on the color of our skin.
Racism is killing us, and communication will not save us.
Even though I understood this at the time, I still thought it my duty to teach you how to beguile your way through a professional world steeped in racism so you could be successful. I was teaching you how to get by, but we should have been brainstorming ways to get free. Black folks will think we’ve found a way around the system while continuing to play by the system’s rules. It’s what we’ve done for generations, and that’s exactly what the system needs us to do for it to continue undisrupted. That’s what I was doing to you, and I’m sorry.
I told you that job applicants with white-sounding names are 50% more likely to be contacted for job interviews than those with Black-sounding names. I lamented the racist practice, but instead of talking about how the practice was unacceptable and impressing the necessity for hiring managers to assess their own racist sentiments, I gave you tips. I told you to not let them take the job away from you because of your name. I gave you examples of people who will use initials on their résumé to get a foot in the door. I made it your problem to solve. And I’m sorry.
I understand now that if an interviewer passes over your résumé because of your name, it’s because they’re racist. And if the interviewer is allowed to be an unencumbered racist, it’s because the company allows racism within its walls. Having either implicit or explicit racist views about names doesn’t exist in a vacuum. Even though you got the job, the hiring manager could still continue to discriminate against other Black applicants. Plus, the racism likely wouldn’t end in the hiring process.
“I was teaching you how to get by, but we should have been brainstorming ways to get free. Black folks will think we’ve found a way around the system while continuing to play by the system’s rules.”
I told you that it’s OK to use slang and jargon with your homies but to not bring it in the workplace — not in the interview nor at the office. I dubbed it as inappropriate and unprofessional, touting that the best way to speak in an office setting was with clear, formal speech and good grammar. Dialect bears no weight on intelligence or capabilities. I understood this, yet I pushed y’all to speak and act in a more white-aligned way.
I told you how I code-switched in interviews and at work because I knew I had to. I saw code-switching as a necessity to make it in white, corporate America. But I had yet to realize that code-switching is just a response to racism. It’s an overt way for us to align ourselves with whiteness so negative attributes aren’t associated with us. I recalled the one time I didn’t code-switch when speaking with a superior and how I was called into my immediate supervisor’s office to be scolded because the superior didn’t like the way I spoke to her.
When I told you this, we should have unpacked how ingrained racism is in the professional world. Instead, I told you to take it as a lesson for why it’s imperative to code-switch.
I’m sorry I was blind to the ways I had learned to adapt to racism. I understand now that grammar is a system of arbitrary rules, and your use ― or misuse ― of these random rules bears no weight on your intelligence or, more important, your worth. It’s the white supremacy inherent within professionalism culture that places white dialect above all others. If folks assume things about you because of the way you speak instead of listening to the words you say, that’s their bias. You don’t have to modify your behavior to mitigate anyone’s racism.
“I’m sorry I was blind to the ways I had learned to adapt to racism. I understand now that grammar is a system of arbitrary rules, and your use -- or misuse -- of these random rules bears no weight on your intelligence or, more important, your worth.”
I told you that we have to be twice as good just to get half the credit. I didn’t talk about how it was wrong and what we could do to change it. I spoke it as a fact and discussed what that required of us. I let you know that people make assumptions about us as soon as they see the color of our skin. To counteract that when interviewing, we had to be better than good; we had to be the best.
By saying this I was effectively making systemic racism your problem to overcome within the span of an hourlong conversation. I was implying you had to dispel any racial biases the interviewer might have, communicate better and be twice as charming as all the other applicants just to be in the running.
Do not feel you must manipulate who you are in order to be more appealing to a white, corporate audience. Remember that if they attribute negative attributes to you, unless you’re actively working to dispel them, it’s because of the racism inside of them and it bears no weight on your worth. If they do not choose you for a position because of their racial bias, be thankful that you were not brought into a racist environment and move on.
Also, do not be afraid to turn down job interviews or job offers. Be selective with your place of work. It’s where you’ll spend a significant amount of time, and how you’re treated there can have a huge impact on your mental health. If at any time during the hiring process you feel you have to be someone you’re not because of presumed racial biases, don’t take the job.
I saw these as rules — fixtures of our society. The system was broken, and there was no way to mend it. I was ceding — saying racism was not something that we could actively fight but rather what we must accept as truth. Therefore, it was our job to find individual ways to get ahead. But that’s not true — none of it is.
“I now understand that the system is not broken. It’s operating just as it was intended to. Racism is systemic: It’s built within every facet of our system, including the professional world.”
I now understand that the system is not broken. It’s operating just as it was intended to. Racism is systemic: It’s built within every facet of our system, including the professional world. For generations, we have needed to contort ourselves to try to be accepted by “professional” America. We’ve beguiled our way past race-related obstacles, just trying to get a taste of individual gain.
If we want to see change — real change, not just individual successes — we have to stop playing by their rules. As Audre Lorde said, “the master’s tools will never dismantle the master’s house. They may allow us to temporarily beat him at his own game, but they will never enable us to bring about genuine change.”
We must adopt new methods. We must create a new narrative. We must disrupt and challenge. And we do all this merely by being unafraid to be ourselves. Never feel as though you have to modify your behavior to counteract racial bias. You get to just exist as you are. Just your existence is resistance.
I’m sorry I taught you the status quo was unchangeable. I’m sorry I made it our burden to adapt. I’m sorry I merely taught you how to get by in a racist world because, in the paraphrased words of Mareba, “We’re not trying to get by. We’re trying to get free.”
I’m fighting for you, I’m rooting for you, and I’m sending you lots and lots of love.
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