Spending her days inside working from her home in Washington, DC, during the pandemic, Linnea expected to feel lonely, isolated, and disconnected. But that wasn’t the case, for a simple reason, she soon realized: “The white people were missing.”
Linnea, a Black woman in her mid-thirties who works in public policy and requested partial anonymity to protect her privacy, no longer had to endure white managers at her office discounting her ideas only to praise them when they were repeated by white colleagues. She didn’t have to see white people give their dirty dishes to the catering and janitorial staff, who were usually people of color, without saying a word or otherwise acknowledging their presence. She no longer felt labeled as “that loud, angry, Black woman” and no longer had to deal with “painful and traumatic reminders that I do not necessarily belong here, and these institutions and these workplaces weren’t built for people like myself,” she said. She watched her heart rate drop on her Fitbit.
“Working from home has brought me a level of peace that I did not anticipate, that I really didn’t expect, and frankly, that I don’t even think I knew was missing until I was able to be in my home by myself,” she said.
As offices around the country prepare to reopen, Linnea is among the employees of color who say they are hesitant to return to work environments in which they were regularly excluded, ignored, misunderstood, or undermined by the colleagues around them before the pandemic. While corporate America has made sweeping diversity and inclusion pledges over the last year, non-white employees told BuzzFeed News that they wonder whether that flash of support will amount to any meaningful change, or if managers’ and colleagues’ biases will spring back reflexively once the public pressure dissipates.
“Once I have to go back out, then that peace is going to be ripped away from me.”
“It almost feels like temporary empowerment, because it’s only empowering as long as I’m able to stay in my cocoon,” Linnea said. “Once I have to go back out, then that peace is going to be ripped away from me.” She said she does not plan to return to in-office work five days a week if she doesn’t have to.
BuzzFeed News heard from 80 people of color around the country who filled out a survey about their experiences working remotely during the pandemic in industries ranging from education and public policy to finance, law, and tech. We interviewed 10 respondents, all of whom asked to be identified by a nickname or just their first name because they didn’t want to risk retaliation for speaking candidly about work; many also requested that we not name their employers, as the lack of people of color in their workplaces would make them easily identifiable.
Some shared feelings of loneliness due to remote work and worried about becoming professionally invisible without in-person interactions. But most said not going to the office for the last 15 months had provided a calming reprieve from having to contort themselves to conform to white corporate culture, hearing colleagues make racist comments, or feeling othered and professionally and socially left out.
Employees who spoke to BuzzFeed News said remote work also gave them the privacy to emotionally process the endless reports of violence against people of color without having to coddle white colleagues, some of whom may have only started thinking about inequality recently. One Asian woman in Minneapolis said that while her white colleagues have considered the last year “to be a time of ‘reflection’ and ‘learning,’ for everyone else it’s been something far more stressful and exhausting.”
Workers of color also point out that they are wondering whether they will have to continue to sacrifice time and emotional energy to support their white colleagues through the ongoing reckoning about racial inequality throughout corporate America, which they receive little or no credit for and no additional pay.
Amelia, a Latina attorney in Denver who is in her late twenties, said the last year has been the most productive in her career so far: “I didn’t have to deal with a lot of the things that come with being brown, like [white colleagues] asking my opinions about how to make something culturally sensitive” or doing Spanish-English translations — basically having to “supplement other people’s work.” “These are important conversations to have, but after having them 15 million times, it just kind of reminds you that you’re not really fitting in. … How many times can I tell people that you shouldn't call people ‘illegals’?”
Other parts of her company’s culture made Amelia feel othered. Colleagues oriented in cliques that didn’t include her. Amelia said when she was a mid-level attorney, “all of the mid-levels would be in a group chat” except for her and a non-white co-worker. They would organize expensive, last-minute trips to Las Vegas “and spend 10 grand to hang out with the boys.” People took golf lessons so they could go golfing with the president of the firm. Amelia felt judged for prioritizing her family — she financially supports six people — and for asking her mother out for lunch every day instead of spending that time on work-related activities. “People thought that was kind of funny,” she said. Working from home during the pandemic, “I get to not spend time with people who generally don’t invite me to group chats or don’t want to hang out with me. I’ve been able to choose the investment of my time.”
As Amelia sees reports of companies eager for employees to reconnect through group events after more than a year apart, she feels that experiences like hers and other people of color who were marginalized before the pandemic are being overlooked. “To me, it just feels kind of oppressive,” she said.
As Laura, a Black higher education administrator in Delaware in her forties, put it, “I never necessarily felt included anyway.” And like Amelia, Laura said she has been able to work more efficiently over the last year, even though she is home with her husband and children. “People recognize that I don’t want to spend my time wiping their tears...I’m actually glad that we’ve spent this time apart.”
In Texas, a Fidelity employee also said she is dreading face time with her colleagues. She felt distressed when the company announced a series of in-person events starting in June for employees to reconnect. She doesn’t plan on attending. “Being a Black person in the office is difficult because every little thing you do is judged and possibly misread,” she said. She worries she will “walk into the office one day with my natural Black resting bitchface and you’re not gonna like it or you’re gonna see it as an aggression. I’m free of that at home.” The employee said even though she has children and experienced many of the challenges shared by parents trying to balance childcare and work during the pandemic, working from home has still been “peaceful.”
“I’d wear my hair in an Afro, and people would pump the Black power fist.”
Other Black women said it has been liberating to wear their natural hair at home without feeling othered by their colleagues’ comments about it, or feeling like they have to assimilate by styling their hair to fit in with white coworkers.
“I’d wear my hair in an Afro, and people would pump the Black power fist,” said Jessica, a Black woman in her thirties who works for the state of California. “Or someone would look at me and go, ‘Hey, nice statement.’ And that’s not a statement. I just wore my hair out.”
Several Black women said they are happier doing their jobs without the stress that comes from feeling like they have to constantly prove themselves as Black people, which they felt more strongly in person, when acts as simple as stepping away from their desk to make tea have drawn judgment from supervisors and peers.
“That whole feeling of people thinking you’re lazy, or that you don’t even work here, or how’d you get this job — yeah, I used to feel that,” said Laura.
Even as corporate America pledges to address long-standing inequities, some workers of color said they are skeptical that they’ll see tangible changes at the office. “One of the hard things I’ve tried to grapple with is that I don’t know how it gets better,” said Olivia, a Black woman in her late twenties who works for a think tank in DC. “People who are ostensibly politically on my side but meanwhile don't know how to treat a coworker of color with dignity— I don’t know how to deal with that.”
A number of people also said their companies’ attempts at inclusion have felt off the mark so far. Loren, a Black woman in her mid-twenties who works for a logistics company in Plano, Texas, said her employer recently added a floating holiday “that we can use to celebrate our culture or another culture” and encouraged people to send in pictures of their celebrations on the newly granted day off for a competition. “It’s like, who has the best culture?” she said.
At a Phoenix-area university, Jason Wall signed up to help in an initiative the school announced to address racial inequality in the workforce and student body, but they haven’t heard anything since. “I have no earthly idea what is going on with that,” said Wall, who is Black and uses they/them pronouns. Wall recalls “the vibe” at their workplace as one where a colleague felt comfortable asking a Latino coworker if they rode their burro to work and people just laughed it off. Then, suddenly, “after George Floyd died, the entire Black community was just kind of like, OK, another time to be incredibly depressed again, and all of a sudden, everybody and their mom was like, ‘You know what, we love Black people.’ And it was kind of strange,” said Wall.
Jessica said a racial equity initiative in her department ended up stirring controversy, with some colleagues saying it was racist and one saying it did not consider “the other side” of things. “It's nice that they’re doing it, but I’ll be honest, I don’t trust it,” she said. “No matter how inclusive your workspace tries to be, as a Black person and especially as a Black woman, you always have to be thinking three steps ahead, because you always have to manage the way they’ll perceive you. It’s exhausting.”
“I feel a pressure to represent for everyone and to be the voice for everyone.”
Meanwhile, some people of color say the lack of diversity in many workplaces makes them feel obligated to take on extra emotional labor. Brittany, who is a biracial Latina and works for a tech company in Dallas, said her company’s diversity, equity, and inclusion initiatives have largely been led by a group of white colleagues, and no one has asked her about her experience at work as a person of color. While the company has sent out surveys about its culture, “it needs to be a conversation with us, with me.” As one of the few people of color in her office, she said she feels a responsibility to speak up for others. “I feel a pressure to represent for everyone and to be the voice for everyone,” she said.
Brittany, who felt ready to return to work after spending the year at home, volunteered to be in a small pilot group that began going back to the office in June — she is the only person of color going in right now. “I feel like if I don’t, nobody else will,” she said. “No one else will be thinking about the lens of people of color, the lens of microaggressions, the lens of what that means for everybody in the office, not just your cisgender white male.”
For many, returning to the office will mark an end to a freedom from white-dominated workplaces, leaving them to wonder how they can hold onto the peace of mind they maintained through the pandemic.
“We really only get one life,” said Wall, adding that it was hard for them to imagine having to spend so much of it in environments that can feel soul-sucking. Working remotely, they said, “It’s been really wonderful to be able to do little things that make me feel alive again.” ●