holding space

I started my first Fortune 500 internship in 2005 with Convergys Corporation in Jacksonville, Florida. The work had precisely nothing to do with my Information Technology degree program, I was making $5/hour less than my peers at the same company (a fortune to a college sophomore), and at no point in my life had I ever envisioned beginning a career in outsourced customer care.

Those small issues aside, it was a tremendous learning experience for me. I secured the internship through INROADS, a non-profit organization whose mission “is to develop and place talented underserved youth in business and industry, and prepare them for corporate and community leadership.” When I reflect on the lifelong friends I made, the professional development training I received, and the trajectory that those summer internships put me on, I feel extremely grateful for having been introduced to the program.

Among the more sobering lessons I learned that remains with me to this day is how black folks are perceived, regardless of how we’re dressed. I don’t recall who imparted the wisdom, but they implored me and my fellow interns to consider how jarring it might be for people who have never worked with many minorities to suddenly see and interact and work with dozens of bright-eyed, Type-A young people from completely different backgrounds.

This is especially true for large black males like me—I’m 6’3 and I’ve clearly never missed a meal. And so I developed an acute awareness of how my size and presence makes others feel in the workplace. But this doesn’t just apply when I’m wearing a suit and tie.

It applies when I’m in elevators and coming around corners. When I’m on the subway. When I’m walking up to the building where I live. When I’m driving through fancy neighborhoods. When I’m sharing a cab. When I’m on the subway. When I’m saying hello to a stranger on the sidewalk.

I make sure to scuff my shoes on the sidewalk or sing when I’m about to pass someone on the sidewalk at night. I make myself smaller when I’m in an enclosed space with women. I refrain from making sudden movements and eye contact if it’s dark outside and I pass someone. I’ll cross to the other wide of the street proactively…

Code switch verbally? I code switch physically. Subconsciously. I could list a hundred more things, but you get the joke.

We’re all carrying something, no matter what we look like or where we came from. And if I’m not constantly decentering the privileges afforded me as a tall straight black male—considering, for a moment, what it might be like to be someone else—then I’m not trying hard enough.

What might you be carrying? What adjustments do you make for others to be comfortable around you? What assumptions might I be making about your lens?

I’m fortunate to be surrounded by people who walk the talk of feminism and anti-racism, of queer-friendly politics and respect for diverse world views. Yet these examples remind me of how blind we can all be to our own biases. Even when we’re trying.

Abernathy is the leading online magazine for professional black men, and this is an excerpt from a recent newsletter. Subscribe for full and early access.

Willie Jackson is a Diversity, Equity and Inclusion (DEI) Consultant & Facilitator with ReadySet, a boutique consulting firm based in the San Francisco Bay Area. He is a frequent writer and speaker on the topics of workplace equity, global diversity, and inclusive leadership. Connect on LinkedIn or get in touch.

Next post:

Previous post: