Last weekend I saw the opening of “Lee Daniels’ The Butler.” As a movie it was a good but flawed story based on the life of a black man who served as a butler for several generations of presidents in the White House.
One theme of the story is that the Butler wears two faces — the face of subservience that doesn’t intimidate the people he serves, and his real face.
A white colleague of mine was disturbed when I said that this still holds true for many people in the workplace if they are in anything other than the majority. He was disturbed that any American still feels that basic acceptance still remains a moving target.
But truth remains truth no matter how uncomfortable. And, in fact, it’s knowing the danger of provoking discomfort that requires many to still pack that second face when they go to work every day.
For many people of color, for example, there is almost always a tendency to think about about how something they are saying or sharing will be interpreted by their co-workers in light of stereotypes.
Sometimes the other face is shown because one gets tired of being the group representative. Some people don’t mind engaging in well meaning conversations about cultural differences.
But others hate the questions (or statements and assumptions disguised as questions) about their race or religion or sexual orientation or family life that people like to direct their way. That’s not their temperament or inclination.
Even though many of these subjects aren’t topics best talked about in a workplace anyway, it happens all the time, with the conversations ranging from truly educational to downright offensive.
And since one who is a minority of any kind knows that a conversation can go from easy and breezy to defensive and offended in the blink of an eye it’s best to keep on the face — or mask — that keeps you the safest. That keeps you the least irritated. That keeps you the most on path of keeping your job and maybe climbing the ladder.
Recently, I was in a meeting in which a colleague had the rare experience of being in the racial minority. His body language was distinctly uncomfortable. Even though race was the only differential in the experience, he admitted that it bothered him more than he thought it would. He became self-conscious about his words and his reactions to what others were saying. He worried if he would be accepted, which made him more subdued and reserved than he normally is.
He did something he rarely has to do — he unpacked and put on his other face.
In our workplaces, we could all stand to be aware that while we think we are working in lively, open environments, there are probably people wearing another face to protect themselves from the dangers that come from expressing their true faces.