Workplace discrimination is often subtle but very real, says financial educator and author Alvin Hall. The majority of society may not always see it but minority groups experience it on a daily bias.
Alvin Hall: Many people think that as you rise through the ranks and become successful and you start earning money—as an African American—that all of this prejudiced interaction goes away, that it doesn’t exist.
But you can walk into a building and a guard in a building, because of the way you look, the way you’re dressed decides he or she is going to put you in your place. They’re going to show you who has the power here.
So when that happens you have a whole different dynamic that you have to deal with. And I can tell you from experience that when this happens to you, other white people around you don’t see it. They just don’t see it. But you can tell by the tone of voice, the way they delay dealing with you, all of these subtle things tell you what’s going on, and then you have to find a way, if this is a place you come to repeatedly, to adjust. But the major thing I tell everyone is that you have to get this out of your soul before you go home because you can’t take this type of anger into your house, because it sits there, it festers, and that anger becomes more undermining long term. Because eventually you’re going to walk into a building and somebody’s going to do that to you, and you’re not going to be able to handle it, you’re going to lose your temper.
Today I feel that if you live in a big urban area you can basically have whatever identity you want, because people will at least not (in general) attack you, yell at you, call you names. That does happen, but you can go through a whole day, maybe a whole week without that happening.
When I was growing up I was lucky if I could get through a day not being reminded in a pejorative way that I was black, that I am black. It was tough.
You develop a series of walls when that happens, and you learn to sort of adjust those walls. Some of them are more flexible than others, and some are pretty solid.
And you adjust those walls depending upon how you think people are perceiving you. I can tell you that I can walk down the street now sometimes, in New York, especially in London, and I don’t even think about the fact I’m black. It just doesn’t enter my mind. I’m just walking down the street.
And then at other times I’ll go into a building having had a walk and the guard at that building will put his body right in front of me, and it’s an aggressive move because he has decided—just seeing me walk into the building!— that something is inappropriate or something he needs to challenge about that.
I think that a lot of people don’t experience that in their day to day lives still. I think it’s something that’s unique to people of color. I think a lot of it is unique to male people of color and particularly black men.
And the majority society thinks you’re being paranoid. I’m going to tell you a story.
I was working for a big corporation, regularly coming to the building every week. There was a guard at the building. I had to sign in and provide him with my details every week. Now I am not a retiring flower; I engage, I talk. Every time I came to that building he would not look at me. And then when I walked away he would say, “Put the badge on your jacket!”
It wasn’t a request, it was a command. And I would put the badge right in the middle. And then sometimes if I was wearing a really nice suit I’d put it on my hand and hold my hand up like that and walk forward.
One day we had a little confrontation about this. I said listen, this is good, this getting me into the building. You see me every day.
He pretended he didn’t.
When I came back the next time it had gone all the way up to the people in the building, the company I was working for. And they requested that I change my ways and I said, “How long have you known me?”
And they didn’t answer that question.
I said, “Have you had problems with me coming in this building before?”
They said “No, but maybe something’s changed about you?”
That was coded language. It wasn’t the guard that was a problem. It was me. With that I didn’t say another word. I then changed the way I dressed when I came in and I made no eye contact with him whatsoever.
And eventually I decided to tell the human resources people about the situation. Nothing happened.
So the type of freedom that people think exists doesn’t exist for everybody today.
So whether you’re gay, transgender, or whatever, you’re going to run into some problems at some point. So I think that people think that these problems don’t occur. They think that it’s something that you’re being paranoid about but no, it happens subtly, every day, and you’re reminded that you are different.
So yes, some people can be more open, and I’ve encountered that. But some of the rest of us we get these little reminders and then you have to walk away from it, and hopefully as my parents said, don’t bring it back into your own house.