My dad has worked with newborns and their mothers and the terminally ill. He’s been lunged at and cursed by clients. He’s been thanked with bags of dates, fresh homegrown oranges, bundles of yarn, and a five-foot-tall white teddy bear for his youngest daughter. People who almost lost their children to foster care have given him gifts, welcomed him like family, and offered him money he’s had to decline. My dad, now retired, has been a social worker for almost forty years. His past workplaces have put his face on brochures to demonstrate their commitment to diversity. As a black man in a field that is over 83 percent female and 70 percent white, he was, as a white female coworker of his once put it, “like a fly in buttermilk.”
Sometimes the whole family would cram into a rental car for the three-hour drive from San Diego to Santa Barbara, sweeping past Californian broccoli fields that smelled like cattle flatulence, my brothers squabbling with me in the back of our station wagon. When we arrived, my dad would vanish for the day. Only as an adult did I learn the reason for these disappearances: He was performing courtesy supervision for group homes, foster homes, and treatment centers.
As a child, I didn’t understand exactly what it was my father did. We moved often, and his role seemed different in every city. When we lived in Rhode Island, he would return to our second-floor apartment with anonymized stories of “at-risk kids.” One of the kids lived nearby, a Cape Verdean who could pass for thirty but was the same age as my older brother. Even though they had only met a handful of times, Dad encouraged my brother to be “a good role model” for him. I remember looking for that boy among the purple-gowned graduates on my brother’s final day of school and being told that he went to a different, less illustrious junior high.
When we lived in Desert Hot Springs, my father spoke more of infant nutrition, WIC (the Women, Infants and Children program, which subsidizes the cost of healthy foods for new moms and their children), and developmental delays. We experienced some of these same things at home: My older siblings and I would sometimes take the bus to the grocery store and use our own WIC vouchers to buy cheese, juice, and cereal to round out our family meals. While my dad worked, we would walk to and from the bus stop with bulky backpacks, ruining our posture for the sake of the family.
My dad knew social services from both sides, its rules and limitations, the stigma of needing public assistance. He told me once that he could find a job no matter where he moved, because there were poor people to serve everywhere. Because of our nine-person family and the low pay of the field, we were included in that category. But still, we cobbler’s children were shoed—and fed.
Three things were constant no matter where my dad worked: He had a long commute and returned late and exhausted; he was generally assigned any Spanish-speaking clients, as the only bilingual person on staff; and he was perennially weary of dealing with some of his white female coworkers. As a child, I thought he was being biased when he spoke about them. Now that I also work in the nonprofit world, I see things somewhat differently.
After college, I spent a couple of months staying with my parents in Palm Springs, trying to find a job that utilized my writing skills yet was as marketable as my dad’s. It was he who suggested AmeriCorps service and, eventually, grant writing. AmeriCorps is a domestic version of the Peace Corps, offering young adults skills training through public service. The program generally pays poverty-level wages, and during the two terms I served I was forbidden from taking additional paid work. A stated goal was for AmeriCorps members to experience the same life as those they sought to help. Still, I was making more than I had as an unemployed millennial in the middle of the recession. Orientation materials included information on how to apply for food stamps—this was a rare setting in which it wasn’t looked down upon.
Some of my cohort used AmeriCorps to explore their options before leaning on prior connections to secure dream jobs elsewhere. For me, the program was my entry point into the nonprofit world in a new city where I knew nobody. It was AmeriCorps that first introduced me to the concept of intersectionality, a theoretical framework that examines how different identities and types of oppression overlap and influence one another.
While a man may be in the minority in a woman-dominated field such as social work, he is still likely to be paid more—though higher pay in a “feminine” field is still comparatively low. The men working in “pink-collar” fields are more likely to be men of color. But a black man like my father is still doubly a minority.
As a black woman in the nonprofit world, I understand the emotional cost of being a person of color at work. I know the additional level of emotional labor expected of women who work in social services, where you are often paid with less with money than meaning. I have been talked over, doubted, dismissed, and confused for other black female coworkers. I have simplified my name to make my resume more appealing, but have no way of telling how implicit bias has affected my interviews. I have been a “problem,” calling attention to the institutional biases and policies that drove my organization to lose three black women and nonbinary people in the year since I’d started. My dad is one of the mentor figures with whom I can discuss these many small battles and disillusionments.
My current workplace is an arts nonprofit rooted in progressive thought, and it’s both more tolerable and more tolerant than most. But when I visit statewide nonprofit conventions and trainings, I can look over crowds of hundreds and get a visual overview of the field: mostly white, female, and middle-class, unlike the majority of its clients. There are few people of color. Sometimes I count the men and wonder why there aren’t more of them in the room. It can’t just be a matter of who cares the most. This is one way in which my experience of the philanthropic sector has been different from my father’s: I know what it’s like to be the only black person in the room, but I don’t know what it’s like for the neighbors of the family you’re assisting to suggest that you must be a predator—“because why else would a man take that job?”
When I told my dad about this essay, he noted that social work was about half male when he joined the profession. It was a different world back then: Psychoanalysis was just beginning to lose precedence; deinstitutionalization was closing the asylums; psychotropic drugs were fresh on the market; and the Vietnam War was hungry for the lives of able-bodied young men. My dad was still in his hometown of Chicago, preparing to graduate from a majority-white high school where deliberately mediocre grades prevented him from attracting too much attention. He decided he would rather go to college than to war—if you had a job, a family, and/or school to attend, the draft would pass you over. (My dad worked to secure all three, so I like to joke that my siblings and I were born of pacifism.) When it came time to pick a college major, my dad chose psychology in hopes that it would show him, as he explained to me, “why niggas were so crazy.” He realized that he understood more about human nature than he’d thought, particularly about the understudied communities he grew up around in Chicago’s notorious projects. He told me that over the course of his career, he has seen the survival mechanisms once confined to the projects infiltrate mainstream society.
One time, I went along with him to the unincorporated community of Thermal. We drove across dusty, inhospitable desert and came to a stop in a makeshift city that resembled a trailer park. Dogs and chickens roamed free, red-tinged puddles lay stagnant on the clay-like soil. There were occasional palm trees but no sidewalks, chain-link fences but no lawns. I know now that Thermal’s population is primarily migrant workers, roughly 95 percent Hispanic or Latino. Of course, the bilingual black man on staff was the one picked for the job. I remember looking at the exteriors of the many RVs and trailers and wondering how similar they were to the brown and yellow interior of our own Brougham. I remember avoiding eye contact with the children who played in the streets, staring warily at this stranger’s car, while I sat inside playing my Gameboy.
Walking through Thermal, my father looked far more at ease than I felt. I imagine he’s never talked to his clients from the position of a savior. I wonder if, just as students of color prefer teachers of color, his clients in Thermal felt more at ease around him. I wonder how many black and brown boys might need someone like him to admire; how many white women have punished or contributed to the dissolution of black and brown families for being poor and imperfect, believing themselves right. I wonder if my dad has ever dropped all pretensions for a client—switched to his normal voice, with its usual slang, to candidly complain about the systems we all operate in. And then, like me, has he switched and become stiff and proper around his coworkers, wearing a face that allows him to spend less energy proving himself to them?
In response to the emotional tax of the working world and other anxieties, I started to see a therapist in Minnesota. I insisted on finding a black woman and, as a result, found the first therapist I fully trusted. When I told her about the many ways in which I am made to doubt my own perceptions, she gave me a poem about being black in the workplace. Written by an unknown author, the most striking lines read:
They take my kindness for weakness. They take my silence for speechless.
Growing up, I remember my father used to say that all the time. In my colorblind youth, I’d thought he was just being cynical.
I’ m deviant if I separate. I’ m fake if I assimilate.
I read the poem when I call my dad to vent, pacing around my economy apartment. His response is roughly same old, same old, because he believes nothing’s really changed. But in order to do right by him, I need to build on what he’s accomplished. I need to see progress. I catch him up on how terms have changed, from the civil rights movement to the social justice movement. I try to convince him that we have made strides that are more than cosmetic. I argue in favor of the very organizations that have let me down. We talk for hours, learning from each other.