Oh, man, this is gonna be expensive.
That thought raced through the mind of Lyndon Bell, an automotive writer, during a conversation with his colleagues about skiing in Aspen. But the expensive part wasn’t the skiing, or the cost of a trip to Colorado. It was the social cost of Bell, a black man, firing back at a white colleague who had joked that he didn’t think Aspen allowed black people in.
“Motherf---er, WHAT?!?” was Bell’s immediate, perhaps costly, reply.
Fortunately for him, Bell says the other people around the table apologized for that guy’s thoughtless words. But the sting of that racial encounter lingered, mostly because of the ripple effects confrontations like this can have.
“When I'm moving through the world, it's like I'm responsible for more than just me, and I'm making a point to be an example,” says Bell. “Then hopefully, that can open a door for another black person who's coming along behind me. I really couldn't help feeling I just cost somebody else an opportunity.”
That’s just one kind of pressure that can come up for people of color on the job: the pressure to be exemplary in every way, knowing that the fate of a person coming after them may depend, in part, on what they do in their work today.
“Minorities carry the burden of being seen as representing their race,” says Tufts University sociology professor Pawan Dhingra. “This is a constant complaint and concern.”
What would probably be easier on Bell would be to strike a balance between being his normal self, expressing himself honestly, and maintaining his professionalism. Sociologists call this lived hybridity.
“The question is not whether or not we try to act black or Asian-American or Latino at work,” Dhingra says. “The question is how. That's a lot of effort. I think Lyndon is mad at himself, unnecessarily so, but he's mad at himself because he didn't do it in a way that he was proud of.”
On the flip side, of course, there’s that co-worker: the white guy who thought he was cracking an appropriate joke to a black colleague. And that’s another kind of pressure that exists -- one that workers of all colors should resist when trying to build bridges with colleagues of different backgrounds. And when that happens, an angry response may be uncomfortable but understandable.