The Struggles of Being a Black Millennial in a Conservative White Workplace

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by Shae Collins

“Your resume is too black,” my cousin told me after reading it over.

It was three months into my job search and thus far, I hadn’t had very much success. I’d only gone on two of the 15 interviews I would eventually have before I settling into my first real job out of college.

I looked down at my resume. Nearly all the internships and organizations I’d worked with were black-owned or allowed me to express myself freely as a black woman. I’d written for a black newspaper in LA, acted as media coordinator for my historically black sorority, written for a feminist magazine about black issues, and penned several freelance articles on subjects related to black culture.
So I tried to “neutralize” my resume, removing as many references to race as I could.

I can’t say the change made the job hunt any easier. I still had another three months before I was hired to work for a company that had only one other black employee—who happened to work remotely on the other side of the country.

My current place of employment is a small company of no more than nine employees. The HR department is lax and microaggressions occur frequently.

Though I am usually quite outspoken when it comes to issues of race and culture, I took several people’s advice to choose my battles wisely when someone in the office says something off base. I usually ignore people’s racist jokes and comments. Sometimes, I have a chance to educate those who are willing to listen about certain less-controversial topics, such as reasons why you ask permission before touching a black person’s hair. But other times, I have to keep myself from going off on people, when they express their opinions on hot button issues like the Black Lives Matter protests and the murder of black people at the hands of the police. Considering that some of my colleagues are ridiculously conservative folks who believe all the racist nonsense that Fox News serves up, I know challenging their white and privileged ways of thinking will get us nowhere.

However, the latest antics had me on edge. A few weeks ago, the man who signs my checks started whining to an employee about how “it’s not fair” that white people can’t use the N-word, and commented that “those frat boys should not have been suspended,” most likely referring to Oklahoma University’s SAE fraternity chapter and their racist chant.

It took all of my willpower to not drop everything I was doing and walk out the door.

I had to talk myself down: Shae, this isn’t the worst thing he’s said. Shae, you just got promoted and you’ve almost survived here a year. Shae, you have bills to pay and your mother isn’t going to like it if you don’t help out with rent. Shae, you need this job. It’s not that big of a deal.
But the other half of me was thinking: How could you work for a man whose thoughts about race and class are similar to those of Bill O’Reilly? How could you write so much about race and culture, but not walk the walk in real life?

Another recent incident raised even more questions, when one of my cousins asked me to look over her resume—and I couldn’t get pass the first line. At birth, she was given a five-part Swahili name, which was written in full on her resume.

How could I tell her that she should change her name on the resume? It felt like a betrayal to explain she should choose the more “American-sounding” last name between the two she had, and to use only her first name, since one African first name might seem “less black” than three.

How could I repeat the sentiments of what potential employers might think as they glance at her resume and toss it in the reject pile before calling Heather, Katie, or—more likely—John for an interview instead?

The only answer I could come up with to all of these questions? Survival. And from talking to friends and mentors who’ve experienced similar situations, it is the answer we all have. It may not be the ideal answer, but it is the one that keeps food on the table.
So until I forge my own path, begin working for myself, or go back to working in black-owned or black-friendly environments, I will have to deal.

In the meantime, I’m thinking of ordering a mug that reads “White Tears,” to sip whenever someone feels the need to bitch about “reverse racism” in the office.

I’m like the many Black Millennials currently entering the workforce, who quickly find out what many of our predecessors already knew: Sometimes, just being yourself is too much for white folks to handle.

Photo: iStockPhoto

Shae Collins is a freelance writer and blogger at, a blog that aims a black feminist lens at all things involving race, gender, and pop culture. Follow her on Twitter @awomynsworth.

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