In June 2016, I left my position as an associate at a law firm in New York City to join Secretary Hillary Clinton’s campaign for President of the United States.
If you walk through Hillary’s campaign HQ, it resembles what I imagine a Silicon Valley startup looks like: hundreds of people frenetically shuffling around, armies of interns and staffers each huddled in corners on their laptops, at cubicles, or plopped on giant bean bags. Nobody is wearing a suit and tie or heels. The uniform for the average staffer consists of jeans, t-shirts, polo shirts and flannel button ups.
Shortly after I started at the campaign, the Alton Sterling and Philando Castile shootings occurred. This type of violence has been going on my whole life, but those two shootings finally broke my ability to separate my professional life from my private emotions about the injustices suffered by Blacks based on our race.
As a consequence, the day after the Castile shooting, I decided to wear Black Lives Matter t-shirts every day for the remainder of the campaign.
In 1896, Paul Laurence Dunbar published the poem “We wear the Mask.” More than a century later, many of us have yet to expose the melanin in our faces in all aspects of our lives.
Somewhere along the journey from grade school to the workplace, many Black people learn that it is “best” for us to keep race-related politics outside of the office in an effort to ingratiate ourselves with our colleagues—to assimilate into the relevant professional culture. This logic is not unreasonable: racial disparities are difficult to discuss and in most places of employment it is prudent to minimize outside distractions. The problem with this approach, though, is that it only caters to the majority and it creates a work environment where minorities are forced to suppress a portion of themselves.
When a national tragedy occurs, for example, we suffer together. At work, you can feel a palpable shift in the atmosphere and the communal grief rumbles through the halls.
And while most reasonable people are empathetic in response to any loss of life, few employers make an effort to acknowledge that the killing of unarmed Black people by police officers may have a distinct and pointed effect on the Black members of their staffs.
Blacks cannot afford to avoid conversations on race in any forum.
So, if you are a Black person, when you go to work at a place in which you are in the minority, the day after yet another videotaped shooting of a Black person, you typically find yourself shouldering the emotional burden of the violence alone or only with your Black colleagues.
In the few days before my t-shirts arrived, I found myself looking around the office and wondering what the response might be to my t-shirt campaign. I was prepared to quit or be fired if it came to that. But then I began to notice the numerous—and conspicuous—symbols of LGBTQ pride around the office. One of the most prominent: a large rainbow flag that hangs over one of the cubicle areas near the front entrance.
That flag helped me realize that if members of the LGBTQ community were brave enough to show their pride, there was no reason for me to be afraid to wear my “flag” on my chest.
When I began wearing my Black Lives Matter t-shirts, the outward response from my team— especially my immediate supervisors—and other staffers at the campaign was overwhelmingly positive. If there were any negative feelings about my t-shirt campaign, I was not aware of them.
Actually, as a result of my t-shirt campaign, I’ve had discussions that I may not have had, and I’ve learned things that I may not have learned about myself and others. But most importantly, I found the courage to assert my Blackness in my professional life. Now, it is clear to me that we stay shackled in the status quo if we never discuss how different people are treated differently in America.
My hesitation about wearing the t-shirts seems ridiculous at this point, but before I started, I talked at length with a few friends who are associates at large law firms and I was warned about possible backlash. Each of them cautioned me about being “too controversial” or making myself “that Black guy” at work.
Now with this experience, it is mind boggling to me that a Black person could be hesitant about being known as a Black person who has strong opinions about police brutality against Black people. It’s worrisome that Black people in the United States, even those with law degrees, may may have any hesitation to signal their Blackness on issues of social importance out of fear that they may suffer retribution. This is even more troubling with regard to the criminal justice system and policing, as we simply want to tighten the blindfold over the eyes of Lady Justice so that she is truly color blind.
Some say that our country is more divided than ever before. But such an understanding ignores the struggles of previous generations, and dismisses our growth as a nation. I often wonder whether those who make this claim simply prefer the “great” old times when they were not forced to confront race-related issues.
During this emotional revolution, where more Americans are willing to openly embrace their sexuality or gender identity, both at home and at work, Blacks cannot afford to avoid conversations on race in any forum. We must discuss these issues with our friends and colleagues of all races.
I found the courage to assert my Blackness in my professional life.
I understand that it is easy for me to advocate being open about race-related issues in my current workplace—as I am employed as part of one of the most diverse campaign staffs in the history of presidential politics. Most employers are in the business of making money, not effecting social change. But there are some employers that value their place in society, they recognize that there are aspects of our society that need to be reformed and they attempt to create work environments that foster discussions related to the same.
Even if your employer isn’t concerned with effecting social change, your employer should take some interest in matters that affect you—and your community. It is easier said than done, but if your employer and colleagues do not express such an interest, you may want to find a new job.
As with any employer, we should expect that a candidate for President address what’s important to our community. It’s easy to say that our community matters—it’s harder to show it. Recently, Hillary sat down with a group of young Black men in Charlotte, North Carolina to discuss how the latest shootings affected them. Such meetings may be seen by some people as the work of a candidate campaigning for office; however, if you examine Hillary’s record and the campaign she has built, her commitment to diversity and to the Black community is clear. Time and again, Hillary has addressed the issues that matter to our community and even provided “that Black guy” with a voice in her campaign. Your vote, and your voice matters. Please make sure you and your loved ones are registered to vote. Please head to IWillVote.com right now.