An Uncomfortable Convo Between A Black Person And A White Coworker

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Setting: Some office, somewhere, with office shit and shit everywhere.

Background: After spending much of the previous evening watching and reading about Baltimore, random Black guy ("Deron") goes to work. Since Deron is a Pittsburgher, all of his coworkers are White. While at work, Deron actually wants to…work. Or talk about work. Or perhaps talk about DeAndre Jordan. Or Applebee's. Or deer with cleft palates. Or anything other than race or Baltimore or Freddie Gray. One, because he wants to take a break from thinking about that stuff. But also, he really likes his coworkers. Especially Bob, who always has pretzels and miniature Reese Cups at his desk. And he doesn't want to have a conversation about these things with one of them and risk having those relationships change.

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Fast-forward to 11:30am. The day is going swimmingly. Deron just completed a draft of a report for whatever the hell he does at his job, and he's feeling accomplished. So he goes to the break room to eat a bagel and watch twerk videos on his iPhone. While there, he sees Katie. Deron doesn't know Katie very well, but he generally likes her. She's nice, and she drives a Ford Mustang, which is all Deron needs to generally like a coworker. Because Deron has realistic expectations. And then it happens:

Katie: "It's such a shame what's happening in Baltimore."

Deron, in his head: "Fuuuuuuuuuuuuuuck! Couldn't you tell that my lack of eye contact just now meant that I don't want to talk to you or anyone else about this???????????? Fuccccccccck, Katie! Fuck, fuck!"

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Deron, aloud: "Yeah?"

Katie: "I mean, I get why people are angry. But what's the point of destroying your own community? That's just not right."

Now, Deron has three options.

1. Say something vanilla like "Yeah, it's crazy" and leave the break room. By doing this, you make it clear you don't want to continue the conversation.

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2. Get angry at Katie for being obtuse. If done correctly, Katie will leave feeling really bad. If done incorrectly, you might get fired. (And perhaps even arrested.)

3. Take a breath, and have an actual sober and nuanced conversation with her about Baltimore and racism and police brutality and structural inequality and all those things you really don't want to talk about at work.

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Each choice has obvious positives and negatives. Choosing the first option would allow you to go on with your day and keep a (relatively) clear mind. But, if every Black person refused to discuss uncomfortable racial/social topics with White people, how would the type of conversations about these topics that need to happen happen?

The second option might be the most cathartic, but you need a job, so…

In a perfect world (and by "a perfect world" I mean "an episode of Boy Meets World") the third option is the most optimal. You take the opportunity to have an open and meaningful conversation about race with a person whose thoughts, feelings, and experiences with this topic are different from yours. But…what if you just don't want to? What if those conversations are just too heavy for you to have when you don't want to have them? Or, better yet, what if you want to…but you're not equipped to? Because not every Black person is able to accurately articulate/explain what's happening there.

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Anyway, what would you do?

Damon Young is the editor-in-chief of VSB, a contributing opinion writer for The New York Times, and the author of What Doesn't Kill You Makes You Blacker (Ecco/HarperCollins)

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DISCUSSION

Slightly off-topic: Is anyone else seriously uncomfortable watching the media fawn over the mother in Baltimore who abused, I mean beat her son in public? The subtext seems to be that Black mothers in general are horrible mothers so lets celebrate this mother so we can call out Black mothers without really doing so..