"Official Professionals": Young, Black & Apparently "Unqualified"
I walked out of my office and noticed my co-worker speaking to an older white woman. My co-worker is an older white woman, herself. But she, of course, knows me. We work together. My co-worker said, “Hugh, have you met Lisa? She works with the Chamber of Commerce…” We exchanged pleasantries, and I realized the onus was on me to do a more in-depth introduction.
“I began working here in July,” I said. “I work in this office, and I advise our business students on career and professional development.” I should mention that everyone that works in my office does the same thing. The only thing that differs is what our students study. Mine study business. There’s a person, respectively, dedicated to engineering, health professions, etc. etc.
Lisa said, “Oh, that’s neat.”
“You know, that’s so cool. So often students have trouble connecting...and what you do is awesome...because you know…”
She put her hand on my co-worker’s shoulder and cracked a smile.
“...students might have have a hard time connecting with the official professionals.”
Now, let’s get all of the bullshit out of the way.
1. It was casual Friday. I had on jeans and a button-down, tucked in with a belt. My shoes were Chuck Taylor’s. So, I get the you weren’t dressed like an employee, defense.
2. I look young. I’m 26, but almost daily, I’m mistaken for one of the students that I advise. So, I get the you look like a student, excuse.
The fact of the matter remains that without inquiring about or assessing my credentials, and even after me being introduced as an equal by someone that she knows and trusts, this woman either subconsciously assumed, or actively refused to believe that I was capable of being a full-time professional in charge of advising students.
Maybe she assumed I was a student worker or a graduate assistant. I’d hate to bring race into it, but I am the only person of color on professional staff in my office, so maybe she found the idea frivolous that a young person of color could have so much responsibility in such an office.
I don’t really care.
I’ve faced micro-aggressions and workplace discrimination in many ways during the span of my short career. As have many young professionals of color that I know. I’ve been confronted in the middle of a team meeting and told, “Afros are not professional hairstyles.” I wear a university name badge at events, introduce myself thoroughly and cogently, and exchange business cards. I’m still asked, “if I work here. Full time?” I’ve been coerced take the lead on projects with partners that have a black point of contact. I’ve been disproportionately scheduled for evening and weekend work events because I’m “young and don’t have a family.” None of this is okay.
But that’s the way it is.
Millennials catch hell from Baby Boomers and Gen X’ers currently in the workforce, for a bunch of reasons. They’re lazy. They don’t communicate well. They think too much about their place within the company and how the work makes them feel, instead of what it takes to get the job done. They’re entitled. I get all that. I don’t agree with it all, but I get it. Yet and still:
The American workforce will become a much more inclusive and productive system once Baby Boomers retire out. This is of course a generalization, but I believe I can make a case for it. Their disregard for diversity in candidates and refusal to view and respect employees as holistic people just isn’t going to mesh with the rising professionals in the long run. Right now, the power dynamic is keeping Millennials from making too big of a splash about it.
It really sucks having the world look at young people of color and simply refuse to believe that we are greatness. We have so much to fight against, but we must remember that we also have so much with which to fight. Our radiance cannot be dulled by the ignorant or close-minded. Sometimes it can feel like you have everything to prove, but only you know your true potential. Focus on what is within. Reach your own peaks and rest in the valleys. Anything you can dream, you can do, and that’s already better than what anyone could expect from you. Outdo yourself and amaze the world.