Skittles and race in the workplace

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Skittles. Too loud music. Hands up. An auto accident. A toy gun.

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 17.

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 behavior.

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 bullied.

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.

Blog Author Bio

Ancella Livers is senior faculty member and executive coach at the Center for Creative Leadership. The author and leadership development professional has worked with thousands of managers and executives.

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