THE ONLY BLACK GUY IN THE OFFICE

Don’t Ask Me to Turn On My Camera for Work Calls

Working from home isn’t an invite into my personal space

EEven the most buttoned-up corporate companies have a Slack channel where things can get a bit ratchet. You know these 2020 chat rooms when you see them: They’re often dubbed something like #random or #funny, and are home to foolery like Cardi B tweets and discussions about the weirdos on Tiger King. Back in February, folks would hop into my org’s #chit-chat channel and trade memes about the coronavirus — not quite anticipating that it’d grow into a pandemic that has upended every aspect of life in countries around the world.

Of course one of the first major American cities hit hard by Covid-19 was Seattle, where I work and live, so things are pretty much shut down out here. Fortunately, my team is able to work remotely — though that’s been an adjustment, to say the least.

The perks of working from home are cliché at this point: There’s zero commute time, casual Friday has been replaced by wearing sweats seven days a week if you want, and you can take a quick 20 minutes to exercise or de-stress with video games during workday lulls.

But there are some weird aspects, too. For one, my anxieties about expectations in this remote circumstance. If I haven’t responded to an email or Slack in an “appropriate” amount of time, is that being tracked? Will there be a passive-aggressive email sent to the whole team about responsiveness? I’ve been on top of things, but it just feels like the stakes are higher, and I can imagine myself starting to overcompensate.

It took a few days to find a rhythm and flow for being productive, and figure out how to keep work and leisure separate within one space. I’ve had to keep my laptop out of the bedroom altogether — things got to the point where I’d wake up, roll over, shoot off some morning check-in emails, and then go right back to sleep for another 30 minutes. And without a change of location after the close of the business day, it became easy to keep working well into the evening.

It’s all about boundaries, and that extends to the ways I connect with my co-workers, too. A running gag in the #chit-chat channel is people showing off their morning outfits. One guy sent a photo of himself wearing a robe and holding a coffee mug. A supervisor, joking about how long it’s been since he’s shaved, posted a photo of himself in a caveman outfit he probably copped from a party story three Halloweens ago. It’s funny and good for team morale, because everyone’s feeling different emotions right now. I wear silly shit around the crib to entertain myself, too. You just won’t see it on Slack — that’s too personal for me.

Same goes for Zoom. For my multiple weekly meetings, we have the option of doing video or audio calls. I stick with audio. I could be wearing a Chewbacca mask for all my co-workers know, but they’ll only see my smiling headshot profile picture when I’m sharing updates on the call.

I can imagine folks on the calls seeing this painting of a Black woman that’s hanging in my room and thinking, “Oh, wow, he’s really… cultural.”

As one of only a few people of color at my job, I’m intentional about the corporate-friendly persona that I present when I step into the office. I’m just not interested in putting on that same front while I’m within my own personal space — at least not visually. Sure, I’ll gladly FaceTime with the homies outside of work, but these Zoom calls can feel like going live on Instagram. Like you’re being watched, you just don’t know by whom.

Plus, I’m conscious of my colleagues seeing my home. The few times I’ve gone on video calls, I’ve kept my background nondescript: just a white wall. It’s not that I have anything to hide. I’m just not ready to invite my co-workers to see the other sides of my personality — my DJ equipment, Jeezy vinyls, and the lush, snaking plants. It’s a privacy thing. There are a few other folks of color at my job who will sometimes go audio-only, too. I wonder if they feel the same way.

Of course, I could be overthinking things. I just know where my attention goes during these boring calls once they exceed 30 minutes. You just start looking between frames and noticing shit, from family life (the toddler toys in the cut) to the subtle flex (that marble kitchen countertop). I assume other people do the same. I can imagine folks on the calls seeing this painting of a Black woman that’s hanging in my room and thinking, “Oh, wow, he’s really… cultural.”

It just goes back to the idea that I’m here to give my insights and get my deliverables done — not potentially feed preconceived notions or subconscious biases my co-workers may have. Just because I’m bringing work into my home doesn’t mean I need to bring my home life to work.

Do you know him? Is it you? The trials and tribulations of a Black man navigating corporate life.

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