THE ONLY BLACK GUY IN THE OFFICE

When Mixing Colleagues and Friends Goes Nightmarishly Wrong

How a night out became a cautionary tale about keeping the two worlds separate

I still remember the disappointment of my 25th birthday as clear as day. I’d decided on a hibachi dinner downtown with a few friends from different corners of my life — childhood, church, college, that one time I worked at a Macy’s perfume counter. Despite the steak and shrimp being bomb, the night felt like a disaster. My guests were like oil and water and I had to play peacemaker in the midst of passive-aggressive jabs and sake shots. Awkward as fuck.

But the worst birthday I’ve ever experienced wasn’t even my own.

Look, the only thing more regrettable than blending your friend groups is agreeing to blindly step into those of your co-workers. I tend to keep it cordial with co-workers on the clock, but a handful are cool enough to kick it with outside of work. Jill, an associate from my last telemarketing gig, was my person. Not only did she catch my eyes whenever there was some drama happening on the office floor, but at the bar, she could match me shot for shot without becoming a public embarrassment. My kind of drinker.

For a disco-themed surprise birthday party happening for one of our old co-workers, Ted, we decided to make a date out of it. We coordinated our best Sonny & Cher denim look (quiet as kept, I love dressing up for a good theme) and in the spirit of the more the merrier, we roped in my friend Arin and Jill’s friend Lisa to tag along. Now, Arin’s never met Jill, I’ve never met Lisa, and obviously Arin and Lisa have never seen each other. But we linked up at my place, got intros out of the way, marveled at our ensembles, and piled into Lisa’s car to head out for the night.

The air got tense all around us; it felt like we were in a standoff. No one said anything, but we could feel the eyes trailing as we walked through the apartment searching for Ted.

We’re on CP time, so when we arrive at the party, instead of walking into the function to get ready to surprise Ted, we were the surprise. All the noise quieted as we filed in, and a cluster of White guys in the living room looked at us like, who the hell are these Black people in our house? Mind you, we’re all people of color — I’m Black, Jill’s multiracial but part Black, Arin is El Salvadorian, and Lisa is half-Black, half-White. Just enough melanin to stand out in a room full of fratty White guys taking turns at the beer keg (some of which I’m convinced are about that MAGA life). Guess Ted’s roommates weren’t aware that he might have Black friends.

The air got tense all around us; it felt like we were in a standoff. No one said anything, but we could feel their eyes trailing us as we walked through the apartment searching for Ted. Even he was low-key surprised to see us standing there in his kitchen bearing bottles of wine. The stares in the apartment only got icier, the whispering louder, and the discomfort on all sides more palpable. Of course, the birthday boy was too lit to notice any of this, let alone diffuse the situation.

After 20 minutes of trying to drink the awkward away and pretend like none of this was happening, Lisa, who was clearly triggered, started clutching onto Jill’s arm and having a panic attack. Arin hit me with the It’s time to go look, so before anything funny went down, we decided to chuck the deuces to Ted and his weird-ass friends. I know we looked all kinds of crazy during our retreat: some weird disco-looking freaks leaving this house, walking through this dark neighborhood, trying to find where Lisa parked as she was still calming down.

We try to salvage the night at a local bar — and yeah, I’m going into present tense now, so bear with me — to recap and unpack the fact that these people acted like we were thieves breaking into their home. It’s almost laughable, now that we’ve got a few real drinks flowing in our system. Arin and I take a quick bathroom break and by the time we come back, we see Jill and Lisa in these guys’ faces, having a full-blown war of words at the bar. Necks rolling. Hands snapping in the air. “Assholes” and “motherfuckers” being thrown around. Apparently, one of the men whispered some inappropriate shit in Lisa’s ear. That, on top of the previous tension from the party, was too much; Lisa’s blown her lid and Jill is there to back her up, matching her energy. A couple of randos tried to interject to calm down the screaming match, but, of course, that caused an even bigger scene.

Somewhere in the midst of this, Lisa calls her dad, who’s a cop, and patrol cars appear outside. She goes outside to send them in to find the guys who were upsetting her. At this point, Arin and I need a minute, so we walk across the street to grab some food and take in the scene. It’s 2 a.m., and people are spilling onto the street because it’s curfew in Seattle and the clubs are shutting down. Everyone’s drunk and crying and lit and a mess. I’m like, wow, this is really what it looks like.

My phone’s blowing up in my hands because Lisa’s freaking out thinking I left with her car keys in my pocket, so I need to find her before she has another meltdown. I look over to Arin to check how he’s doing, and he says, “Yeah, I don’t think I can go out with your friends again.” Who could blame him?

I took my L quietly and learned that maybe I’m not meant to meet my work friends’ friends. Maybe conference room happy hours are as far as it should go. And to keep it a buck, Jill’s still my homie, but in the two years since that rollercoaster of a night, I haven’t tried to reconnect with Ted or Lisa since.

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

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