Early in my career, I had gotten a job that I was really excited about. It was a gap in my career that I wanted to fill and I had filled it in with a reputable company that was going to be able— I thought— to give me the experience that I was looking for. Right away they sent me off to training at their corporate office in Chicago. It was the first time I had gone to Chicago and I was excited to be there, and I was going to be there for a whole week! This entry event was open to all the new employees who had been hired for particular positions over the last quarter. There were about 50 of us. Although I was only in Chicago for a week, I remember one thing particular about this event and it happened one afternoon.
After an all-day session at the corporate office, all of us were walking back to our hotel— all 50 of us— let’s make it clear that I was the only black person out of all 50! Everyone was excited to get to know each other and we started talking. The primary part of the conversation was about the TV show “Friends.” The people in the group went on and on about what happened in the last few episodes and what their favorite episode was, and what they thought was going to happen going forward. Even to this day I only know a handful of black people that have ever watched “Friends.” I was one of those black people who didn’t watch “Friends.” I had nothing to say. I tried early on in the conversation by asking if anybody had ever seen “Martin.” No one had; but they knew it was a black show, I guess. No one seemed to care to ask me any questions about it. So, I sat through the conversations about “Friends” waiting for an opportunity to find a topic that we could all connect on. We talked about the schools we had gone to, what we have majored in, and where we lived. Basically, just making conversation.
The next part of the conversation, as we were getting closer to the hotel, was about where and what we were going to do that evening. What bar and club were we going to go to that night? I didn’t know a lot about Chicago. But I did know something about the bars in the clubs that were in our area. The ones that were mentioned were the ones that were generally predominantly white. No one asked me if I had any suggestions. No one asked me if I would go. And that’s what I remember about that trip.
You might say that that’s just one incident. Yet, that experience repeated itself similarly dozens of times throughout my career. The loneliness of being “the only” sometimes just gets really difficult. But like I said, I’ve experienced it a number of times at trainings and conferences where people don’t really know each other, and within workplaces. Conversations about “common” high school experiences and songs and bands, and more sinister issues, such as when Trayvon Martin was killed —these were all equal opportunities to feel lonely.
About 6 weeks ago, many, many years after Chicago, I sat in on a Zoom call with 50 professional black women. All of them feeling some level of loneliness. Managers who didn’t know what to say to them would rather ask about how their dog was doing than to ask about them. Coworkers who just overlooked that any of this was really going on, just wanted to stick to the work script. Or the best one was the one black employee who had produced and led a TV show on diversity who then turned out to be the only person who had to work on the company’s newest holiday, Juneteenth. It was the only way that she was going to be able to get her show produced on diversity. Loneliness.
Lack of inclusion. This is one way that racism shows itself in our workplaces, isolating others and ourselves because of awkwardness, fear, etc. Lack of inclusion often shows itself as loneliness which we know is associated with a higher risk for depression, anxiety, and suicide. I invite organizational leadership to explore creating healthier workplaces.
Employee health may start with the benefits or wellbeing program. I believe it ends with us creating comfortable, inclusive, and productive workplaces that support employees and that will lead to better facilitating the company’s mission and outcomes.