Tuesday, November 18, 2008
This chapter addresses the "attitude" problem, also known as coming to work black. Since that sounds so negative, I have to explain it.
First of all, part of the problem with telling people that they have an attitude problem is that it is a subjective call. What you call attitude, I call righteous indignation. What you call attitude, I might call frustration. What you call attitude, I might call personality.
[Nonetheless,] every time your boss sticks that label on you, it's not necessarily wrong. Some people do have generally funky attitudes. You know them. So do I. They have a smart-ass answer for everything, or they are unnecessarily argumentative, or they have one relationship problem after another without appearing to learn any lessons.
When attitude becomes an issue for a black person in the workplace, however, is when a black employee does not feel that his employer is doing right by him and he suspects it is because he is black, or at least suspects that it is based on some reason that is not fair. Before that employee gets to the point of filing a complaint, he usually develops an "attitude" to carry him through this rough work environment.
A lot of the perceived attitude problem isn't about the black employee at all; it's about the person who is doing the perceiving. Truth is, whites are not always very good at reading the moods or facial expressions of black people. It never ceases to amaze me that the frame of reference many white Americans have for black comes from watching Good Times or The Jeffersons on television.
Blacks, on the other hand, can't afford to enter the work force with the same level of ignorance about white America that whites can have for every other minority group.
In the past year alone, I've had to explain to my white coworkers, at different times, who Lauren [sic] Hill, Luther Vandross, and P. Diddy were. Can you imagine me going to work and having to say that I had never heard of Gwyneth Paltrow, Garth Brooks, or Richard Simmons? They would look at me with disbelief, amazed at how I managed to make it to a professional career in such cultural ignorance. They would say Gwyneth and Richard were "mainstream," and how could I pick up a newspaper or magazine or watch television without hearing of them? Didn't I see Shakespeare in Love, or Garth's NBC Special, or Richard's Oldies but Goodies tape on the shopping network?
Yet, I've encountered white coworkers my age who have never heard of Jet magazine, don't know that Luther's Never Too Much is a classic, and don't remember P. Diddy from when he was sampling as Puff Daddy.
I once saw a grown woman on Who Wants to Be a Millionaire blank on the question, "Who is the 'Queen of Soul'?" I remember asking how any game show contestant over the age of 30 could not know that Aretha Franklin is the queen of soul. I'll admit, a lot of white folks probably scratched their head at that one, too.
The level of ignorance allowed by whites in the workplace is one of the reasons why a lot of black employees have an attitude problem. Not every black person believes that every white person is ignorant, but blacks can be resentful that this ignorance can be so open and blatant.
When the majority of the people you work with don't know the names of the top pop culture figures with your skin color (unless the person has gone completely mainstream), it takes its toll on you. For most blacks this is an example of how whites don't have any interest in knowing anything about blacks unless it directly benefits them.
Despite all our good reasons for indulging in a bad attitude in the workplace, we can never let that attitude crush us. . . . No matter how hard it is, no matter how many reasons you have not to, never go to work with a demeanor that expresses anything short of "I'm glad to be here and you should be damn glad to have me." With that attitude, you can roll through whatever comes up.
Michelle T. Johnson is a writer, public speaker, diversity consultant, and legal analyst and mediator. She received her juris doctorate in 1995 from the University of Missouri-Columbia School of Law, and in addition to Working While Black (2004), she's also the author of Black Out: The African-American Guide to Successfully Stepping Outside of the Corporate Career Job Box (2007). Michelle Johnson writes an online column for the business section of the Kansas City Star called "Dear Diversity Diva," and she lives in Kansas City, with her dogs Hilbert and Henry.