THE ONLY BLACK GUY IN THE OFFICE

In 2020, My Zoom Backgrounds Say Everything I’m Thinking

Virtual surroundings can communicate a lot without speaking a word.

After months of working from home, I’ve finally settled into a solid morning routine: Roll out of bed, do a quick email sweep to make sure no code-red crises arose at work while I was asleep, knock out the morning hygiene essentials, pour a big-ass bowl of cereal like Craig in Friday, and, if timing allows, take a quick 15 to meditate before logging on to work. But one morning earlier this year, I received a company-wide memo from senior leadership that threw off my whole a.m. regimen.

The note outlined new guidelines for Zoom video calls — which, like in so many other offices, have become our primary means of communication and collaboration with coworkers. Cameras on are not mandatory but strongly preferred for all meetings, it read.

My first reaction: Oh, hell nah. Is this a workplace or a third-grade classroom? The Slack group chat with the homies quickly got to buzzing. Just as I was about to join in on the choir of complaints about the new policy, though, I noticed an addendum to the rule:

We understand potential concerns about showing your living space via camera, which is why we encourage everyone to have fun with virtual backgrounds. Use your own discretion. As long as the images are appropriate and non-offensive, please feel free to be as creative as you’d like.

I’m on record as having claimed that turning on my computer’s camera for work meetings is an invasion of my personal space. And sure, I begrudgingly began removing that little sticky flap of paper from atop my laptop lens once I realized we’d be working from home until well into 2021. When barber shops finally reopened, I figured someone was gonna see my fade, even if it was just my bimonthly-haircut-having White coworkers.

The new “suggestion” (read: friendly demand) from the suits didn’t sit well with me, but I realized that the compromise gave me more power than I’d first thought. A loose virtual-background policy gave me a chance to express myself without saying anything at all.

Back in 2020 B.C., when many of us were still commuting to an office, I’d occasionally peel back the curtain on my OOO personality and show my true colors through my fits — silk-screen tees of the late Nipsey Hussle, Sade, and the Martin logo, just to name a few. (Breaking out one of these meant I’d occasionally have to give a primer on Black pop culture, but I didn’t mind it so much.) Now, I saw an opportunity to get the same mileage via Zoom backgrounds, with infinitely more options than my closet offers.

I anticipated some kind of note that I was taking things too far, but by that point, I didn’t give a damn about Zoom decorum.

These days, picking a virtual background to reflect my daily mood has become almost a new form of getting dressed — another item on my morning agenda. In a year that’s brought so much sorrow, it’s an opportunity to lighten the WFH mood. Case in point: One day, during a project update meeting, my coworker Andrew’s dog just starts losing her shit, excitedly barking to the point where he had to mute his microphone every 30 seconds. There were some chuckles — a check off of the Zoom bingo card — but no one anticipated me trolling him the following day with the “my dog doesn’t bite” meme as my virtual background. Apparently, White people love dog humor just as much as they love dogs.

By now, I have a folder of images stashed away for repeated use. When things feel like a disorganized mess, I’ll cue up a flick from Teddy Riley’s Verzuz battle, which was a shitshow in the best way possible. That one goes over folks’ heads, but I don’t care — I’ll entertain my damn self during these dry-ass meetings. (To date, only one colleague has asked if his Verzuz co-star, Breyon Prescott, is me. SMH.)

But not everything is jokes. Zoom backgrounds have also served as a means of responding to the ever-trash news cycle. I selected an image to honor John Lewis and Chadwick Boseman after their unfortunate passings, and the late Kobe Bryant on what would’ve been the Laker legend’s 42nd birthday. It felt good to see a few others also bringing Black Mamba energy that Monday morning. I’ll probably do the same for Ruth Bader Ginsburg (just don’t expect any of that #Ruthkanda nonsense).

Other backgrounds have allowed me to tap into my identity. After my job opted not to close for business in observance of Juneteenth, I threw up a loud-ass background to celebrate the holiday — and school those colleagues who’d only recently realized the date’s significance. I let that one rock for a couple weeks. (Please, like you’ve never left the Christmas lights up until February.)

As 2020 continues to prove, shit is definitely not sweet, and I haven’t hesitated to reflect that in my backgrounds. After Jacob Blake became the latest victim of police brutality, I posted an image from a video capturing the violent encounter moments before he was shot in the back. I anticipated some kind of note that I was taking things too far, but by that point, I didn’t give a damn about Zoom decorum. What was Kate from HR gonna tell me, anyway?

By now, I’ve landed on my go-to background image, which surprisingly originated from a tourism website for my home city. On a page celebrating local Black-owned businesses, Visit Seattle recently added a Zoom-optimized image that features a silhouette of the city’s skyline against the always-relevant hashtag #BlackLivesMatter. That design has become my default; whether I’m feeling Black Boy Joy or Angry Black Man Energy, it fits. Most importantly, it reminds everyone else on the call that my life and my people’s lives matter — and there’s nothing virtual about that.

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

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