code switching

How I Learned to Small Talk With White People

I knew my career depended on connecting with people unlike me. Now I want to challenge them, too.

Illustration: By Blacksneakers
Illustration: By Blacksneakers

“My dad owns his own construction company,” a colleague was saying to the others gathered in the office kitchen. As more of my co-workers listed their fathers’ powerful-sounding jobs, I felt relieved to be at my desk, figuring I would not have much to add in a group of white people from affluent backgrounds. I don’t know exactly what my dad did at the time, but basically he is a cook who changes jobs often. My white colleagues’ moment of connection was not an opportunity to build work relationships for me, nor was it the first or the last time I was physically and figuratively left out. There were a few reasons why I was sitting at my desk alone.

I’m Black. I’m a woman. I am from a working-class, low-income family. Nearly a decade later, I am more outspoken about my past and my background in small-talk office banter, but I wasn’t always so confident, especially at the beginning of my career in corporate communications. There were so many moments when I simply had nothing to add to the conversation. I didn’t spend much time traveling. In fact, by the time I graduated from college, I’d flown on a plane just twice: once for a mission trip during my junior year of high school and again for a spring-break trip in college. I felt largely excluded when my colleagues chatted about summers away and semesters abroad. Things that my family — largely Black working women — didn’t prioritize.

But it wasn’t long before I saw how much connecting personally with your colleagues can affect your career growth. In my first two post-graduation jobs, two women pulled me aside and urged me to speak up, cautioning me against sitting in a boardroom and saying nothing. I knew I had to find ways to align with the people in those rooms.

My greatest achievements were my colleagues’ norms — the bare-minimum requirements. I am proudly a first-generation college graduate. My mom worked as a receptionist, executive assistant, and office manager at a D.C. trade association. Her roles were rewarding and gave her a work-life balance that meant she double-checked my homework each night as she cooked dinner in our single-parent household. But her earning potential was limited, and she didn’t save up for college. We were figuring it out as we went along. For my elementary- and middle-school years, my mom’s limited expendable income went toward tuition at a tiny underfunded, all-Black Catholic school one block away from one of the most notorious housing projects in D.C. Many of my classmates lived there.

The squalor of my neighborhood and the lack of resources for extracurriculars at my school weren’t evident to me then. I was a child, knowing home only as home. I didn’t know a world beyond me — one ripe with money, privilege, and legacy — until I was 11 years old and set foot on the picturesque, Ivy League–looking campus that would soon become my high school. I dreamt of going there from the second I saw the campus, enamored of its beauty. At the open house, my mom and grandma locked eyes, trying to figure out how they’d comfort me if it didn’t work out.

I ended up earning my way into one of the nation’s most prestigious and oldest all-girls high schools in the country. I remember vividly gawking every single day my first semester at the world now afforded me. There were club fairs and traditions like marshmallow roast and retreats in serene suburban cottages just outside D.C. It was unlike anything I’d ever seen. That school is my code-switching talking point when I want to connect with white people over anything. I reach there, first.

This is because connecting over other things is charged. Saying the name of the neighborhood where I live — Bloomingdale, which is also where I grew up — is met with loaded commentary about what the neighborhood used to be. It used to be “scary” and “dangerous,” a place (white, they often forget white) people “couldn’t go.” I don’t know if the thought is there’s no way Black women with college degrees grew up there or that I am one of them.

“I grew up there” is typically enough to create an uncomfortable reflection. But I think we have to go beyond that and have people sit with their discomfort instead of staying out of small-talk situations. Why do you feel that way? I grew up with many decent — and some high-earning — Black people when D.C. was Chocolate City. Did you feel more comfortable there when white people moved there?

Experience and looking to others helped get me to this place. As I spent more and more time in boardrooms, I saw how Black executives were unafraid to be their authentic selves. Early on, this meant a vice-president whom I admired wearing braids in an extremely corporate environment. Later in my career, I met like-minded executives with upbringings similar to mine who leveraged their experiences in ways that impacted the bottom line, first, and inspired those around them because, again, these stories are not the norm.

Gradually, I started sharing experiences that allowed me to become more authentic — and more comfortable — in those rooms. The shift wasn’t instant: I recall a brainstorm for a campaign to reach moms and a comment that kids today all have iPads. In my head, I was actively challenging the idea but too scared to speak aloud. I wasn’t a mom then. I could have been wrong. But I know kids from around the way don’t all have iPads. I grew up in a house without the internet for most of my life. I know the families living well below the mean were — and still are — experiencing a digital divide like no other. Because I come from a working-class and lower-income background, my perspective spans race and class. My high-school experience opened the door into a world I’d never imagined, but the reality is that I got there through tuition assistance and scholarships.

Now, with years of experience and the present cultural awakening, I’m encouraged to share perspectives still largely unique in boardrooms. And I want to reach back, so it’s not just me at the table. I want people to be taken seriously without code switching. I want people to no longer have to think about their hair or taking out braids before a job interview or big project. I want to think we have the opportunity to course correct like no other. I want young Black hires to come into environments that welcome them for being themselves. I don’t want to be one of the only ones who made it.

How I Learned to Small Talk With White People