Business travel is on the rise again, as more employers and professional firms return to private meetings.
Face-to-face interactions with coworkers after two years of zoom fatigue can be cathartic. But it does mean the return of a curious but little-known event known as Conferencing while Black.
Here’s how it worked for me in 2019.
I was at a big national conference with hundreds of other academics. Not surprisingly, very few black people were present. When I saw someone black on that rare occasion, I felt comforted. In this type of interaction, you have an instant connection. It is trivial, and you can quickly see that there are six degrees of legal separation. During that interaction, you feel optimistic.
Then something happens to remind you that you are holding a conference while you are black.
I attended a morning session, eager to learn from the panelists. But when I sat next to another participant, a white woman, I remembered the race. She looked at me, snatched her purse from the empty seat in the middle of us and stuffed it under her own seat.
I mean, I think I fit in with a thief’s profile: black, 40-something, educated, sitting in the front row of an academic conference at 8:30 a.m. with a notebook in my hand.
Feeling a micro aggression within 30 seconds of my arrival confused me throughout the session. I’ve been profiled. And I was reminded how many times I have profiled in other situations: in the supermarket, in the mall, on the flight.
By 8:35 in the morning, I was exhausted. It was not physical fatigue. I slept well the night before. I was suffering from the mental fatigue that many black people feel at conferences.
The rest of the day passed unprepared until I met a friend whom I had known for years, a white man who had worked with me on many projects. While we were catching up, another conference participant, a white woman, interrupted our conversation and started talking to my friend. He never admitted that I was standing there.
Imagine that. I disappeared from the thief in just four hours. Now this is the real power of black girl magic!
Finally, the woman turned her body so slightly that she said “Hello.” That has really worn her out. He did not ask my name, company or anything else. Fortunately, he left shortly after.
After a lovely dinner with my friend, it was time to join the evening networking session. I changed clothes back in my hotel room. I thought, if I had to wear my armor and shield (figuratively, of course), I would have to wear my favorite color: Power Red.
Sadly, I got on the elevator, checked Happy Hour’s address, and walked as slowly as possible to the networking event. As I approached the door, I noticed a director shouting, “Light, camera, action!” I smiled and went inside.
I must say that I am naturally introverted, which most people do not believe. But fellow introverts know how important it is to go out and socialize with others. It takes four times as much effort when you are socializing while being black.
The happy time was right. I talked to some of my acquaintances. Then I came back to my room. The night will not end without a last micro aggression in the hotel elevator.
You have to insert the key to your room to press the button on your floor. Digging through my bag, I couldn’t find the key. I asked another guest in the elevator, a white man, if he could push a button on my floor.
We wore identical badges, so it should have been clear that we were guests at the same conference. But instead of pressing the button, he asked, “Are you a guest at this hotel?” I said yes. “Well,” he replied, “I think you should go back to the front desk.”
This time I must fit in the profile of a hotel thief: black, 40-something, educated, wearing a red dress and a conference badge.
Just then, I found the key to my room and decisively pressed the button. When the elevator stopped under another guest, I looked at him and waited to apologize. He left without saying a word.
Research shows that attending professional conferences is the most preferred networking activity for people of color, and black professionals find it easy. We smile. We socialize. We provide presentations. But to be honest, we’re tired. Although our goal is to learn and invest in relationship capital, we often face painful obstacles. And some are more obvious than others.
We’ve heard a lot in the last two years about how black people need collaborators in the workplace. This is absolutely true. But we also need collaborators in work functions that are performed outside of the normal 9-to-5.