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Will the Real Corporate House Negro Please Stand Up?

04 Apr 2006

It's about 10:30pm, it's the middle of the week, and once again I'm staying late at the office. I have this important conference call with my boss and his boss over in Dallas, Texas in the morning. I have to make sure I'm ready and all the numbers make sense. As anyone working in the financial services industry can attest, the better you make the VPs look, the better you look yourself. Wonder what my boss is doing right now in his posh Rosedale residence. Maybe he's tucked in his daughter to bed a few hours ago and enjoying some alone time with his lovely wife as I'm here gazing down at the bright lights reflecting off the CN Tower right outside my office window. No matter what, we have to impress those Texans tomorrow.

Hey, I'm not complaining, I'm a young Black hot-shot still climbing the corporate ladder. I'll be relaxing at home soon too when some other schmuck is stuck crunching numbers into endless Excel spreadsheets late at night. I'm paying my dues and the rewards will be sweet.

I'm still gazing at the CN Tower outside when, at the corner of my eye I see George. George is the St-Lucian night shift cleaner doing his rounds across the offices. Usually, he doesn't talk to anyone. Or should I say, no one talks to him. But him and I, we're cool. We crack a few jokes. Last year, when he first started working here, I was working late as well. He cautiously attempted to catch my attention while cleaning a colleague's desk. I'll never forget how happily surprised he was that I not only gave him the time of day but that I even took the time to have a few words. He said: "You wouldn't believe how many Black "suits" like you would just ignore me while working in so many offices downtown. Some brothers have no sense of home. They forget where they come from."

But just in case I were to forget where I came from, and who I was, a seemingly minor but significant "Crash" moment was waiting for me downstairs in the office building lobby. I go by the security desk to sign out and there's a new young security guard there. His blue eyes shining, he gives me this big wide smile and hands me the cleaners sign-out book. I''m thinking to myself: "Doesn't he notice that I'm wearing a jacket and dress shirt?" I try to keep my cool and advise him that I work on the 19th floor in accounting and that I'm checking out after a long day of work. I need to sign-out from the office workers log-book. The other senior security guard who knows me very well, and had just come back from his coffee break, roughly takes the cleaners' sign-out book from the obviously embarrassed red-faced newbie and hands me the other book.

For every Black man working in corporate North America, there are countless such stories. Some people deal with it differently than others. And to make the matter even more complicated, the way in which you decide to handle it, will be scrutinized by other Black people at the office. You know how it is, we've all done it ourselves. "So what's the deal with Patrick in HR? What's he going to do about this office's obvious racial bias with internal promotions?"

I've come under some questioning myself by a group of Black workers in my company's customer service area. As in many other companies in corporate Toronto who pride themselves in their "diversity efforts", while the bulk of the non-white workforce can be found in the front-line customer service roles, the more you move up the corporate ladder, the whiter it becomes.


How Black is too Black in the boardroom?

Counting good friends among the customer service staff, we often go to lunch together. I hear them complaining all the time about condescending White supervisors and how they see no chance of advancing because they choose to "stay Black" and refuse to "sell out." "I ain't going for no coffee with them to talk about no Desperate Housewives." Often, I can''t help but think about what they say about me when I''m not around. Sometimes, when they are really frustrated, some of it comes out in my presence when they ask why I'm only one of three blacks in the accounting department.

They have explanations like "I make them feel more comfortable." I have numerously taken offence to that and let them know about it.


Even within my own department, there are the rare Black folks who give me the look when I sit at "the Black table" in the cafeteria. They tell me we''ll never get anywhere by segregating our own selves like that. "They watch that" as I am told. Well maybe, people should start watching their own actions and realize that no matter where you sit in the corporate tower, a "Crash" moment is just around the corner.

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