It’s the time of year again where Christmas fanatics lose their minds over peppermint accented everything, Mariah Carey’s All I want for Christmas, Black Friday shopping and forced interactions over workplace potlucks. The time when everyone is focused on doing good deeds for others, philanthropy, and sharing in the holiday spirit. And let us not forget, it’s also the time where our corporate overlords have also began hosting their mandatory company wide holiday parties. You know the ones. Where Brenda in accounting gets too drunk, and shows everyone her not so new boob job, Anthony rolls out all the holiday pictures he took with his perfect family, the office pervert is using everyone’s lowered inhibitions to shoot the same shots he’s been shooting all year hoping to get different results, and all the executives magically disappear after putting in 15-minutes of face time. It’s holiday party season, and I was not excluded from this year’s festivities, as much as I wish I had been.
This year was my first time going to a holiday party at my new job and while I had never physically been at one before, I walked into this one feeling like I had been to a million. I had been hearing epic tales of the shenanigans that go down at these events since my first day back in December 2017.Let’s see, there was the one about how one of my superiors got too drunk and projectile vomited in a lady’s purse. Oh! And the one where a co-worker got so drunk and disappeared from the party. He woke up at home in bed in a shirt full of vomit, my personal favorite story but, I still was not prepared for what was about to take place. Wait, I’m getting ahead of myself. Before I take you on my journey of navigating the holiday party, I feel I need to paint the picture, you know, set the scene if you will, of what went down before I even got there.
In the property management field, a lot of my job function center’s around customer service and client retention. So, it should come as no surprise when I tell you that besides having to go to the holiday party for the company I also needed to facilitate tenant appreciation events for the 10 properties I help manage. Since our company holiday party was this past Thursday, I’ll tell you about the event we hosted that day.
To begin with, I didn’t really want to go to this property’s event because I had worked my second job the night before and had only gotten about 5 hours of sleep before I had to put on my bright eyed and bushy tailed persona. Since my anxiety put an end to my caffeine crutch I was functioning on sheer will power and determined to put this day to bed so I could physically do the same later that night. As you can imagine, it was a hard sell to get me to go. We left our main office at around 11:30 am for our two hours of dedicated tenant face time, thank goodness the commute was only ten minutes from our destination. We arrived shortly after the catering company had started to serve.
Mere seconds after I walked into the party I was greeted by an older black woman who was in awe of my hair. In the politest way, she complimented me on my short style and launched into a plethora of questions about how I maintain it, the products I use, how much time it takes to achieve the look every morning and on, and on, and on. In the middle of us sharing black girl joy and pride in our hair I noticed the lady in line behind her looked as if she was itching to be a part of our conversation. She was making eye contact, nodding in agreement with statements I had made about basic hair maintenance and seemed thoroughly invested in the conversation the black woman and I were having. So much so it looked like it pained her that as a white woman she had nothing to add to the conversation other than a polite smile and an eagerness to be included. This moment brought me joy because in the field I am in and with the company I work for there are few black people that I interact with on a face to face daily basis, so it is usually me who is experiencing what this white woman was feeling and for once in my work day I felt like I belonged in the cool club. The black lady and I wrapped up our conversation when she was called next to place her order and I moved on in slightly better spirits from the interaction I had just had. I went to stand with the rest of our team at the end of the serving line where we greeted the rest of our tenants.
All was going well, I had snapped a few pictures of the team to use in a company wide email I planned to send later in the day, made small talk with the catering company representatives and shared a few laughs with the tenants before my feet decided it was time for a break. The lobby had thinned out considerably as most of the people had already broken away from their computer screens to come and socialize with us before returning to their workstations and after three hours standing in my heels, I welcomed the respite. I found a bench and took a seat to check my missed messages and send a few quick selfies to my girl friends before my coworker spotted me sitting off by myself. After declining his offer to partake in the desserts the catering company had provided, he asked me to come and join the rest of the team in a gossiping session. Not really interested in the gossiping part but understanding his subtle way of letting me know my presence was needed I joined him and the rest of the team at a nearby table.
Not ten minutes after I had sat down my boss came over to offer me the opportunity to head back to the office. At first I thought she was offering because she knew how tired I was until she threw in, ” I know you don’t like fraternizing with us and you’re just going to go get lunch by yourself anyway” with a snide tone as if to suggest that I hadn’t and don’t take part in forced social interactions in a jovial mood. Appalled, but not in the mood to beg for the opportunity to stay somewhere I really didn’t want to be, I let the comment slide and headed back to the office.
Later in the day my coworker came in to see if I had found a dress for the Christmas party later that night. I hadn’t. I had known this event was coming up for a while and in true fashion I had done nothing to prepare. I think a small part of me was hoping a situation would present itself in the last minute to give me a reason not to go. That didn’t happen. So there I sat scrolling through Google looking for outfit inspiration. While showing him a few options I had in mind he asked,”So, are you going to wear a wig tonight?”
The question made me feel weird. Sure, as the chameleon that I am, I had thought about wearing a wig. If I happened to find an outfit I thought would look better with a wig, I would consider wearing one but who was this white guy to ask me outright what I was planning to do with my hair. I ended up dismissing the comment and not reacting to it by rationalizing it away. I told myself that he was asking as a gay man interested in my style choices, or asking me as an attempt to relate to me, not as a white man who was letting me know in coded language he didn’t think my natural hair was a professional choice for the event.
I found some ideas of dresses I could wear that would agree with my body type, help me stand out in the crowd, as if I’d need any more help being a curvy black woman at a predominantly white party, and would match the overall vibe I was trying to give off. I could hear the team was all in my boss’s office so I went to be social. The comment that had been made earlier in my day was still playing on repeat in my head so I wanted to be sure I was being seen as a team player. The topic at hand was the Christmas party and as my boss is a woman, I asked her what she was planning to wear to try to gauge what the attire was for the evening. After a few minutes of her excitedly telling me about the dress she’d found, and descriptions of her shoes and accessories, she asked me the same question. I responded, and was immediately asked afterward if I would be wearing a wig, again.
Now, I’m really feeling a certain kind of way because, what are the odds right? In this instance, I’m not able to rationalize the comment away the same as I had with my male coworker because my boss has made comments about my appearance before. She’s made comments about her preference for my eyebrows, style choices, use of make-up etc. as if I am some kind of doll who’s appearance she gets to have input on. While I couldn’t rationalize her comment away, I also am well versed in the consequences of damaging the delicate constitution that is a white woman’s feelings. After all, this is the same woman who wrote me up at the beginning of the year because I was not being her friend and laughing at all of her jokes. I did the only thing I could do in this moment. I replied nicely that I had no intention of wearing a wig, even though I had been seriously considering it within myself, and left her office.
Offended, I left the office early to find a dress for the night, and still fuming at the blatant disrespect I endure almost daily in my workplace. But that’s working while black in America, right? I got to my favorite discount clothing store, Ross, and found a banging navy blue and gold Tommy Hilfiger sweater dress that accentuated my curves, hid the parts of my self I am self conscious about, and brought out my best features. One of them being my hair. I rushed home. My wife and I got dressed and we headed out for what was sure to be a memorable night.
We got to the party fashionably late and the atmosphere was banging. The restaurant B&B Butcher’s was way nicer than its pictures gave it credit for. After using the complimentary valet service to find parking in Downtown Houston, a feat that would have taken us at least half an hour to accomplish, we headed inside the romantically lit intimate space. We were immediately greeted by two smiling hostesses who graciously showed us where to go. The party was being held on the second floor so we took the elevator up to avoid me falling on the hardwood floor in my slick new Steve Madden’s. The elevator doors opened and we were thrust into….The whitening.
The quaint room was filled wall to wall with white people. You would think this wouldn’t have come as a shock seeing as a lot of these people I have been going to meetings and functions with all year, but there were a lot more people here that I had never met before and did not know they worked at the company. As most black people do, I instantly set out to find the few black people I’d met before. It was my way of seeking a safe space to allow myself time to acclimate to the environment I was in. Basically I needed time to figure out exactly what was happening and map out my approach to navigating this predominantly white space.
I came across my boss and coworker first who seem thrilled to see me and my wife, which for a moment kind of threw me for a loop. Sure, we are mostly cool with each other in the office mostly by obligation on my part, but this greeting seemed different. She briefly introduced me to a few people who stood at a table with her before we moved on to find my black colleagues. Finally we came across the accounting table where I found the two ladies I hang out with at every event. After a few brief introductions, and few pictures and exchanging war stories about finding our outfits we settled into a state of comfortable observance of our white counterparts. That’s when I noticed the discomfort on my wife’ face. She seemed to have been trying to shrink away into the floor as if she would have loved to have been in the actual sunken place before having to be present at this party.
I had been uncomfortable from the moment I walked off the elevator and noticed that there were a lot more people than I had anticipated. I work in this industry and so I am often the only black face in the room. I’ve learned to adapt but my wife, she was not having it. Everything about her body language suggested she was truly in fear of what may go down at the event. She only stood with her back against a wall as if to be sure she couldn’t be attacked from behind, she refused all alcohol, and even isolated herself to a corner of the room close to an exit. It was in watching her like this that brought home what so many articles I’ve read have spoken about.
Where I have learned to choke down and ignore, she was openly vulnerably and genuinely nervous about being around so many people who did not look like her. It did not help the situation as son as she was able to find a place where she felt safe, she was approach by an older white woman who’s first comments to her were about her hair.
Why is that always the go to? Haven’t we covered this several times? Hell didn’t India Arie record a whole song about not being her hair?
Where my white counterparts were able to simply go to a company holiday party and enjoy the open bar and free steak dinner without care or worry my wife and I were both ever aware of how many black people were in the room with us and their locations in case something popped off. We were having guarded conversations in high pitched non-threatening voices to not to alarm anyone. Remaining conscious of how we move, smile, and react. It reminded me of the party scene in Get Out.
Navigating white spaces as a black woman is no easy feat and there is no training for it. As black people we are always on guard in public spaces because something as simple as our skin color raises so many insecurities in other people.
Until next time…
Don’t judge me, you don’t know my life!!!