Skittles and race in the workplace
Tuesday, October 7, 2014
Posted by: Barbara Francella
By Ancella B. Livers
Skittles. Too loud music. Hands up. An auto accident. A toy
All are prompts that remind me of the needless death of
young black men over the last three years.
Trayvon Martin was eating Skittles when he was shot. He was
Jordan Davis was gunned down because his killer deemed the
music in his car to be too loud. He was 17.
Michael Brown died with his hands up. His body lay in the
street on display for hours. He was 18.
Jonathan Ferrell was shot while seeking help after being in
an auto accident. He was 24.
John Crawford was shot while carrying a toy gun in an open
carry state. He was 22.
But of course, I don’t really need prompts to help me
remember these deaths. I am haunted by them without reminders. I am haunted by
young lives that ended for no reason. Haunted by the fear and anger that causes
such violence and terrified by a society that is not equally horrified by such
A lurking fear
The question many of you may be asking is, "Why am I writing about black men’s death
in a blog dedicated to the experience of corporate multicultural women?” I write because this is part of that experience,
my experience. I come to the office each day and interact with my colleagues,
joke with them and never, ever mention the tight knot of dread that is nestled in my gut. The lurking fear that never
fully manifests and never fully goes away.
My husband and I have two sons. They’re both college
graduates. One is 30 with a quirky sense of humor and a love for odd board
games that’s almost unholy. He is a peaceful, honest man and was a peaceful,
honest boy. I remember when he was
about 13 and we were in a drug store. I’d gone down an aisle by myself looking
for something and he came to me. He was shaking. He’d put his hands in his
pockets and discovered he was carrying a small set of speakers he’d been
listening to in the car. He was terrified that someone in the store would think
he’d stolen them. Terrified of consequences that didn’t allow for innocent
misunderstandings because even then, he’d realized that innocence would not save
him. I sent him out of the store and back to the car where he could release the
dread that grabbed him so completely.
I carry that memory with me. It is a scar that won’t quite
go away even after many years. And now and then, in moments so quiet that
thoughts, unbidden, slide behind my eyes, I recall his
fear, palpable and pressing, and I cry for him.
Like our older son, our younger son is tall. His humor is more
sardonic than his brother’s; it’s
never hurtful, but is filled with a keen understanding of the world’s foibles.
At 26, he has shoulder-length dreadlocks, a hairstyle that suits him and yet
may brand him as a troublemaker. In truth, though, the only time he’s gotten in
trouble was in middle school, when he stood up for a friend who was being
Our sons are not perfect. Yet their imperfections are in the
ways of all humans. Their flaws are the slight discordant actions and behaviors
that make us the individuals that we are. They are not perfect, and they are
not criminals. They are not to be feared. And, yet, every day — every moment of
every day — there is a tight knot of dread I carry with me. Mostly, I’ve
learned to ignore it. I hide it when I’m at work. My colleagues don’t have to
be concerned that the hidden worries of my life will invade our interactions.
They don’t have to navigate the shoals of my racial identity. They don’t even
have to know that my anxiety is not just about my sons. It’s also about my
nephew and grand-nephews. My simmering disquiet is also about young men that I
don’t know and realities that I, alone, can’t change.
However, while my colleagues may not know that I live with
the fear of a call that I pray will never come. And while they don’t know that my
husband and I have had "the talk” with our sons about how to behave with the
police if they should ever be stopped. It is important for you to know that
this is part of the experience that I, a professional multicultural woman, am having.
I know that I am not alone. I know there are other mothers,
sisters, aunts and friends out there who carry such fears about their brown
sons, their gay ones, their Muslim and Jewish ones. But there are few places
for us to share these worries and fears.
Certainly, office protocol does not allow us to acknowledge
the raw wounds that being different can thrust upon us. Instead, we come quietly
to work. We do our jobs. We try to excel and we stuff many of the ugly
realities of our lives deep down into our psyche so they don’t interfere with work.
Yet, just this one time, I want you to also know that as I do what I am
expected to do in my daily life, the tiny knot of dread never goes away. And,
as I accomplish my job’s tasks, there are times when my soul weeps.
As senior faculty for the Center for Creative Leadership,
Ancella Bickley Livers works with Fortune 500 companies, government agencies
and nonprofit organizations to design and deliver leadership solutions. She has
interacted with thousands of managers and executives over the past 18 years,
fine-tuning her expertise on diversity issues, particularly those focusing on
African Americans and women.
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