Anti-Black Racism and Ableism in the Workplace

by D’Arcee Neal

When I went for a job interview in the summer of 2015 for a high-powered federal position, I remember thinking that unlike most people who had come in with hopes of obtaining the job, my anxieties were different. I was of course, questioning if my knowledge of writing and editing would be enough to convince them to give me the job. I was also thinking about the performance I was giving, because in a federal building, a black person in a manual wheelchair with tied dreadlocks in a mauve three-piece suit will always be looked at.

With my interview anxiety pushed aside, as I rolled down the hallway, I found myself unconsciously doing what most black people do without telling anyone: counting the number of black employees in a new space. By the time I reached the administrative assistant’s office at the far end, that number was two, and it forced me to fix my face when I was later told that the total staff for the department was in fact, 42. Was I surprised? No. But as the interviewer surveyed my wheelchair and my suit and asked, “are there any accommodations you would need before you started?” I remember having to hide this information in my head and instead focusing on the issue at hand, thinking, maybe they get it. Most employers wouldn’t bother to ask this ahead of a start date. They might not understand the critical lack of diversity they had, but at least they understood this. Right?

Fast forward three months, when a series of snowstorms came to Washington, D.C. and I found myself the sole occupant of the hallway while the rest of the department teleworked. Why? Because, as they put it, I was a new hire and had no personal leave available for snow days. But arguing over email at 6:00 a.m. as I stared at 2 feet of snow outside my window or flagging down buses in the middle of the roads while navigating icy sidewalks was not my idea of a “snow day.”

When someone from the legal department later spotted me wheeling slowly to my freezing office, preciously cradling a cup of coffee in my lap, they asked me, “Isn’t there a blizzard going on? What are you doing here?” I responded, “I was told I had to come by HR. Still on probation.” Their answer gave me pause. “But that’s…not right. That’s a complaint on record against the department,” They told me I should file one; but to borrow the metaphor from scholar Kimberlé Crenshaw, I heard the intersectional brakes squealing loudly in my head. How could I file a complaint? I was a young federal career worker new to the system (the 2nd youngest in my office and the lowest paid), the only visibly disabled person on staff, and one of three black people on the floor, in a position that, as one of the black women in the office told me, pulling me into the mail room on my first day, hadn’t seen more than three black faces in the 40 years she’d been there.

Blackness and disability had gotten me the job initially as a “super diversity hire,” which I overheard when they thought no one was listening, but it had also cornered me into an impossible position of silence and discomfort that demanded I do everything possible to keep my supervisors happy, at least initially. Even when situations arose where they were squarely in the wrong, I remained unable to speak.

Crenshaw notes that for too long, societies have struggled with trying to figure out ways to honor multiply-marginalized people in making use of their various talents. My job was no different. Hearing someone in my office tell me that I was a surprisingly highly qualified writer with two master’s degrees in English felt like a backhanded compliment. Hearing a claim that to find me as a queer person with cerebral palsy too made me a virtual unicorn just cemented the issue further. This country has a sordid history in dealing with black labor and forasmuch as we claim inclusion and equity, watching black bodies make up disproportionate sectors of the service and minimum wage industries is a constant reminder of how we are actually seen. And disabled people are woefully under/un-employed. It stings to know that somehow making it out of the traps society places on us because of our identities is commendable.

My father once told me that he approved of affirmative action strictly because it forced employers to find people outside of their own biases and hire them. These days, however, we also need to look at the negative side of the equation for the hired person. An individual hired through affirmative action is often put into a position of unbalanced expectation, as though they need to be grateful to executives for the opportunity. This is where many diversity initiatives fail, because they don’t examine the foundational lack of inclusion.

But this is also where the equation differs. There are repeated calls for a closer look at the lack of people of color in every level of employment. But disability is not as commonly considered “diversity,” and it has much to do with stigma and assumption about things like performance and value. When connecting the two, the question of disabled people of color working in visible roles is one that often assumed to be covered under one umbrella or another. But so much of the work that I do in my current role as a doctoral student in racial disability theory looks at how the connected nature of black disability is not in fact, recognized.

Misunderstandings of what it is like to be both and black and disabled cause extra problems where there need not be any. I felt unable to question my employer during the snowstorm because I didn’t want to be perceived as an angry black person, or to seem ungrateful to the people who essentially “took a chance” by hiring me. But in reflecting on this, I must remember not to undermine my own self confidence.

Employers must remember that employees are human beings who bring with them not only their personal experiences but also other people’s assumptions. No one should be expected to express only parts of themselves in service to making a supervisor or another employee feel better. Coworkers with intersecting marginalized identities should be understood as valuable for the wealth of perspectives they provide, and should be honored in ways that are authentic to the company’s mission. I know the value I bring to workplaces, but it’s time for organizations not only to appreciate that value, but actively work to bring in more of it.

Headshot of D'Arcee Neal

D’Arcee Charington Neal (he/they) is a professional storyteller, and 2nd year doctoral student at The Ohio State University in English and Disability Studies, focusing on the intersections of black digital media and disabled erasure within Afrofuturism. When not theorizing about black techno-agency, he works as a disability and writing consultant, and professional speaker for clients like Conde Nast, Uber, NASA, The World Bank, The Ford Foundation, and many non-profits. Ultimately, as a queer disabled digital griot, he believes that the future can and should be both, accessible, and in Wakanda, forever.