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The Duality of Blackness in the Workplace

Updated: May 30, 2023

4 Unanswerable questions Black folks ponder at work…(and coaching questions to help you navigate)!

Let's start this off right shall we...I am one of many Black folks in the workforce, I speak for myself and those that can relate to the contents of this article, I do not, nor will I ever, attempt to be a voice of all in my community...respect our experiences, while holding space for the nuances that exist amongst us.


I’m a bit of a deep thinker, some would call me an overthinker at times, and it is this level of deep thought that compelled me to write this piece. It all started when a conversation with a great friend of mine, sent me down the rabbit hole of thought around some struggles I’ve had as a Black person navigating the workplace. Noticing a theme, I decided to categorize these struggles, and came up with 4 main questions that all seemed to have no clear answer.

Were they being offensive?

Was I too black?

Is this really constructive feedback?

Will I look like “The Angry Black person?”


Being the inquisitive enneagram 8 that I am, I dug deeper. I wasn’t comfortable leaving the thought there, and the coach in me wondered “what do I do as a Black person to get my needs met in the face of racially-charged uncertainty?” In the next few paragraphs, I will walk you through my thoughts, and share some coaching questions that may help someone pondering these same questions reach a resolve.


Were they being offensive?

This head-scratcher will have me wondering if my feelings are hurt because I’m too sensitive, or was there an actual offense. It can have me contemplating whether or not to lash out in response to how I feel or to remain silent and talk about it amongst my black girlfriend group (aka The Black Council). It’s tough, because it feels like an internal struggle between my integrity and my internalized oppression. “Was this indeed offensive, and because I was conditioned to believe that I shouldn’t cause a scene and give White folks something to talk about, now I am afraid to speak up for myself?” What is it? Its unanswerable!


So, in comes the coaching moment…it’s important to remember that your feelings are valid; if you felt offended, explore what made you feel that way. All elements of it; was it the tone, the person, and/or the words? Name the feeling, did you feel disregarded, disrespected, or etc. When you’ve processed those thoughts, here are a couple of coaching questions you can ask yourself to help you identify your next step.

What should I do to feel content with myself in this situation?

What’s the best way to carry this out?


Is this really constructive feedback?

This question is rarely ever a standalone question, often it is paired with the question of “was this offensive?” It shown up in those moments when I know feedback is coming, and I’m struggling with the person delivering it (for varying reasons); or when the feedback itself has a racist or bias feel. In those moments accepting the feedback for practice improvement becomes quite difficult. How in the world am I supposed to know if this was offered constructively? Unanswerable question!

All hope is not lost though, let’s explore how best to navigate this question.

Separating your feelings from the feedback and just examining the facts may be most helpful in identifying if this is feedback that can actually improve your performance on the job. Ask yourself…

What evidence is there to support this feedback?

How will accepting the feedback improve my work performance?

If, after examining the facts, this feedback does not seem to apply, what am I going to do about it?

What else, if anything, can I give myself to feel content with my decision surrounding the feedback I’ve received?


Was I too black?

Oh man, this one would show up the most. This question pops up as soon as I find myself sharing my favorite food or music choice during an introduction icebreaker. It shows up when I’m overly excited and want to agree with a Black colleague of mine, or laugh at a joke that I found to be hilariously funny. It used to pop up when I found myself unable to relate to childhood experiences connected to affluence or two parent households. It especially showed up when getting dressed in the mornings and wondering how people would perceive the way my clothes fit, or the color and prints I’ve selected for the day. Was I too black? I don’t know, yet another unanswerable question…

Moment of coaching, it’s time to examine what it means to be too Black in your opinion. Ask yourself…

In this context, what is “Black?”

What makes something too black? What if the situation at hand was “too Black,” what does that say about you in the workplace?

How does that impact your ability to carry out the work?


Will I look like “The Angry Black Person?

I don’t have enough time in my day to talk about the moments where this has been a question for me. It arrives in the moments where a White person will ask me “why don’t you smile…,” I find myself wondering “do I not look safe and presentable enough for you?” To smile or not to smile...I am left wondering if my resting face makes me look like “The Angry Black Person?” Another time, among many, that this question comes

What, if anything, needs to be done for you to feel content with this situation?

up for me is when I’ve observed or experienced covert racism, and am left with this urge in the pit of your stomach, pushing me to call it out. If I do, will I look like “The Angry Black person?” Those darn unanswerable questions.


How would I coach my clients through this?

In moments such as these, the duality between using our voice for change and protecting our reputation on the job meet head on. We know that confrontation is uncomfortable, yet we wonder if the cost of comfort is worth it. Ask yourself…

What does “The Angry Black Person” look like to me?

In this moment, what do I feel/think about myself?

How does my view of “The Angry Black Person” conflict with my thought/feelings about myself in this moment? What do I need to do to feel content in this moment?

What do I need to remember to find peace in my decision?


Bonus section:

There is an origin story for everything, that’s best explored in moments of calm contemplation. Here are 2 exploratory questions that provide an opportunity to take a deeper dive into the origins and impacts of all 4 unanswerable questions…

Where might my present thoughts on this question stem from? (ex. something you’ve been taught, read, or experienced in the past)

How does this reflect the way that I see myself as both a human and as a Black person? (I see myself as less than, so I’m likely to let things slide; I see myself as worthy of respect, so I’m likely to share how things impact me)


Closing

This was written for Black people who’ve experienced frustrations surrounding their Blackness in the workplace. This article speaks to some of the questions that rest in the spaces between our clear identification of racist/bias experiences and the gray areas that leave us wondering if our encounters are a result of racism/bias. This article speaks to, without directly naming, the challenges Black people face with racial anxiety, ethno-centricity, and stereotype threats (NYC Health: Race to Justice toolkit) just to name a few. This article is a reflection of the unspoken silent struggles Black people face around decision making and maintaining dignity as we show up each day…Black in the workplace.

Lastly, whether you identify as Black or not, awareness can always lead to improvements if we ask ourselves this one vital question…How can I do my part to create a brave, open, and productive workplace?

Denise Relf is the owner/principal consultant of Never Stop Growing Coaching & Consulting (NSG); a coaching practice founded on the premise of transforming the way you see yourself to expand what’s possible. If you or your team would like to learn more about NSG’s approach to creating an anti-bias/anti-racist workplace use the link below to schedule your complementary consultation session.

In the meantime, never stop growing!

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