Even though I grew up in a period of great political and social upheaval, little of it filtered through me. I have no recollection of racism or racial incidents from elementary school through college. Forced integration had happened. I attended an integrated elementary and high school. Black and white students studied together, participated in the same school clubs, attended the same prom, and dated interracially. I graduated from high school and went to college in Richmond, Virginia, which was very close to where I grew up. As far as I knew to be personally true, the civil rights movement had ended racism and inequality.
Was I so ensconced in my protective world that I was oblivious to racism? Was I race-neutral?
Fast forward through college, the stage is set for my entry into Corporate America. It was the mid-80s. I was connected with a career placement agency. They conducted the pre-employment testing, identified potential job leads, and arranged the interview. I landed a job after interviewing with two companies. I was excited about starting my career. I presumed all it took to be successful was hard work, professionalism, and loyalty to one’s employer. I was ready and eager to climb the corporate ladder.
I still remember my first weeks on the job with my new employer. People were cordial, but distant. I assumed it was because I was the new employee in the office, and I should not expect immediate friendships. I was surprised to be the only black employee out of 40-plus employees. Again, this was the mid-80s. When I first heard the “n” word, I thought it was a mistake or that I had misheard, and just shrugged it off. However, as weeks turned into months, I heard the offensive word again and again. My first thought: Well, I know who I am and the word is not being directed to me. Reality check! Pretending a hateful word does not matter is not the correct response. Negative words can enter the soul and if not addressed, will fester and become a sore which will eventually become infected. I was being infected with hatred, thoughts of inferiority, and rejection.
I mentioned the issue to my father and can still recall his words that hard work was all that was required for a successful stable life, and to press through this difficult time, and see God work. I understood the part of his advice about working hard, but I wanted him to get mad, put his fists in the air and be protective of his baby girl. Although my father was in control of his emotions, I was simmering with anger.
One day, a co-worker started telling racist jokes. Even though he was looking directly at another co-worker telling the joke, he was fully aware of my presence. Up to this point, I had always been very friendly, but I was ready for a physical confrontation. Everything within me wanted to fight. All my interracial enlightenment was gone. I could not believe this man was being so hateful.
At that moment, I realized that not everyone had been raised like me, I didn’t care about the color of someone else’s skin, but apparently others did.
That afternoon I snapped. Fortunately, as I attempted to push the male co-worker out of our building, another co-worker intervened and no one was hurt. The issue was reported to the manager. A full investigation was conducted. My employer sent human resource representatives from our home office in Atlanta. Several employees voluntarily left the company. The manager was shocked at the situation and disappointed that I had not immediately reported the issue to him. He apologized profusely and I thought we were going to move .
Unfortunately, I was wrong.
One day, I was asked if I had any children. I was not expecting this to be a race-based question, and I gleefully responded that although I wasn’t married I looked forward to having a family in the future. The co-worker said, “Oh, I know black women are not always married when they have children.”
Another time, I was in the office of another co-worker and we saw two nuns strolling down the sidewalk, one in a black robe and one in a white robe. The co-worker asked me which one I thought was the head nun. Again, not thinking this was a race-based question (why was I so naïve to just walk into these ?), I said the nun in the white robe. The co-worker said, “You need to remember who is more important.” I was shocked how ingrained racism was in the heart of some people.
Later, a new manager was assigned to the office. He immediately hung a picture of Robert E. Lee and Stonewall Jackson on the wall outside of my office. I wondered if he was sending me a subtle message that he agreed with the history of slavery. The racial tension was festering inside again. I mentally prepared myself for obstacles if I wanted to succeed in my career. The new manager directed all his attention and time grooming a young male co-worker for management. He barely acknowledged my presence, almost treating me as if I were invisible. My work environment was becoming more and more hostile.
At this point I believed it was time to change employers. Surprisingly, my immediate supervisor, whom I respected and liked, asked me to stay. He said the truth would be revealed. I had the talent, drive, and willingness to work hard and he wanted me to succeed. I trusted him. I agreed to remain with the company, concentrating my attention on additional areas of study and producing a quality work product.
What is in a picture?
Two important events happened that changed my work place.
First, the manager realized the employee that he had identified for management was not a good candidate. Slowly, he turned his attention to me. Second, he became a follower of Christ. There was such a change in his personality I thought he was a fake. I arrived at work one morning and the portraits of Lee and Jackson had been taken down and hanging on the wall instead was a picture of a beautiful waterfall.
One day, we were both standing near the picture when my manager started comparing the beautiful picture to his conversion and baptism. He confessed that Christians do not always represent Jesus well. He asked me to tell him if he did anything offensive. I was not convinced he had changed. However, the picture was used as a catalyst to break the ice between the two of us. What was in that picture to bring us to a common place? For some reason, there were many conversations in the hallway, next to the picture. There, we openly talked about the Bible and the life of Jesus.
The other important event happened in my heart. One of my co-workers, who is a dear friend to this day, became a follower of Jesus. I began to see changes in her life and began to question my own faith. In the meantime, another friend invited me to a Christian concert. That night I gave my life to Christ.
My co-worker became my spiritual mentor in the office where I had experienced deep racial hurts. God gave me the gift of forgiveness. I was able to forgive my manager and the prior co-workers. I felt a sense of freedom. The windows of heaven opened and opportunities blew in.
Although I could not see it at the time, God had a plan. Today my mindset is completely different. These experiences were painful when I went through them, but I have been anchored and strengthened by them.
I know my experience is not unique. Even today, there is still a massive racial divide in America. I don’t believe it will be eradicated by more laws. The real problem is a heart condition and it will take the true followers of Christ to heal the wound.