Tuesday, November 18, 2008

white quotation of the week (michelle t. johnson)

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.


  1. Started out strong then went completely down hill. I don't care if my coworkers know the top ten artists in ____ music genre. As long as they don't judge me for not knowing their top ten. Now if they people I work with start trying to touch my skin or hair, or assume I only listen to rap THEN we might have a problem.

  2. Yes, I've caught myself afterwards (as a white person) doing this. It's easy to forget that my "mainstream" cultural awarenesses and preferences aren't shared by everyone. And that, as with minority versions of history, the mainstream story fits me fine in a way, in terms of race, but not other people. Thanks for the reminder.

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  4. I know this TOO well.

    A while back, my coworkers and I went out for lunch. Two of them are big-time film buffs. I mean, they collect DVDs and can recite lines from their favorite movies at the drop of a dime.

    Aside from those two, my other 2 coworkers and I made up the other 3 at the lunch table. So those 2 were going on and on about some flick that I didn't know about. The male movie buff asks me "You don't know that movie?" I answer "No."

    He goes on to ask me if I'd seen 3 other movies that he's watched and I said either "No" or "I've heard of it."

    He looked perplexed. Then he asked me "So what do you watch? Soul Plane? *SMH*

    I asked "What do you mean Soul Plane? Why are you asking me about that movie?"

    "Cuz. I wanna know."

    "Why are you making an insinuation about my taste? Why does it even bother you that I haven't seen the movies that you've watched? I haven't watched what you watched, therefore, I watch movies like Soul Plane? I happen to have an appreciation for films...You know what? I'm not explaining myself to you. This is ridiculous."

    Then it got uncomfortable for a while before anyone broke the silence.

    My male coworker exhibited a classic example of White arrogance. On steroids. Is getting to know someone on an individual basis so hard to do?

    I expect very little from him. He revealed to me that his parents are bigots and took part in White (they're actually Italian) flight.

  5. Demanding Whites to read Jet...

    There was no such demand.

  6. MontiLee:
    Way to spell, Girlfriend.

  7. MontiLee, you seem to go a little too far in your analysis, as in you are acting as if she said Black people should do what White people do. She didn't say White people should read Jet and that Black shouldn't read newspaper with Shakespeare in love. She's saying if White people don't know about Luther Vandross (Iconic figure in the Black -or at least in the R&B- culture), then White people shouldn't expect Black people to know about Gywneth Paltrow. She's not saying White people should know about Black icons and that Black shouldn't have to know about White icons.

  8. As a white male, I read this post with interest, because it covers only part of the issue, in my opinion. I do know who all these people are and were, although I choose to ignore some on both the "black" and "white" lists because of my personal taste. However, I believe a person's cultural knowledge needs to be well-rounded, and I'd submit to you that someone stupid enough not to know of Aretha Franklin or Jet Magazine probably has no knowledge of Peggy Lee or knows that once upon a time people actually did read Playboy for the fiction and the articles (do you remember the heat Pres. Jimmy Carter took for his Playboy Interview?).

    I strongly feel that nobody should be let off the hook on this issue. This nation's lack of cultural literacy and sensitivity across the entire spectrum of color, class, etc., is pitiful. I don't need to LIKE everything, but I think I should try to KNOW it, if only to get along better in the world at large.

  9. There's a whole world outside of BET and Wendy Williams, believe it or not.

    Uuuhhhmmm BET does not represent black people, nor do black people use it as their sole source of information and entertainment.

    Also note that the number of white people who come up to me to ask me how I feel about P. Diddy or 50 cent is annoying, as they probably know more about them than I do, as I don't enjoy P. Diddy's or 50 cents music. I know it is shocking, since all I am supposed to do as a black person is read Jet and watch BET.

  10. I'm Michelle T. Johnson, the author of this book, and I just came across this conversation! Very weird reading what people write about what you've written. lol.

    I love the discussion but I had to chime in on two points.

    One is, the book is written for blacks. They're the target audience. Now I say that not be exclusionary but just to point out the obvious since I don't think a lot of men would be arguing points on a blog regarding a book written by a woman for other women about pelvic cramps.

    More importantly, everyone is missing the point if the only point taken away from the excerpt is that I'm saying that white people should understand black music and all other black cultural references. The POINT was that one of the reasons some blacks have an attitude at work (and there are other groups that have the same issue but as I said in the previous paragraph - look to the target audience of the book you're reading) is because of the assumption that white mainstream is THE mainstream. I think several of the posters did get that point but others seem to miss the point of an example. Instead of Jet or Luther Vandross or Aretha Franklin, I could have used the examples of Cornel West or the film "Mo' Better Blues" or the works of Gloria Naylor. The examples are not the point themselves, in other words.

    I was explaining that those assumptions can be frustrating because even when it involves the tiniest, most insignicant, most mundane and downright stupid things, what you know or don't know can form the basis for how others view your judgment, intelligence, awareness, and all the other subjective factors that contribute to your success at work. Therefore, you "not caring" what your co-workers know or think of what you know is irrelevant to my point - which is that some black folks go to work with a terminal case of being pissed off because they are expected to know and care about all things white and judged if they don't.

    "Working While Black" was published in 2004 and much of what I talked about in this excerpt was really underscored during this last Presidential campaign and then election where the "ways of black folk" were put on display in ways that probably caused many a frustrating and/or enlightening conversation in the workplace.

    Okay, that was fun!!!!!!!!!!


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