Foreign House: Sixteen


>Be me 
>42yo black male annon 
>Director of customer support at annon corp
>Weekend company training session
>Fainted.mp3 during orienteering team building session earlier 
>Get to training room after lunch

>15 colleagues happy to see me looking well
>CEO says I have colour back in my face
>Realises what he said
>”I know what you mean” I say
>Asian guy from the backend code team says hi
>”Oh the other non-white employee” I say

>Obviously a joke
>Multiple apologies 
>Leadership 11/10

Ozzy gives me a slap on the back and whispers into my ear, “You have to be careful now. The zoomers are really sensitive.”

“But I didn’t…”

“I know, I know.”

There are five round tables scattered around the room. Two or three of the team on each table. About fifteen of us in total, including Ozzy and I. There is a bottle of hand sanitiser on each table. A few of the team are hiding their expression behind surgical masks.  

I hate round tables. Hotels keep them for weddings and conferences because you can get the greatest number of people sitting in the smallest space. Ten to twelve people around a table. But you can only talk people directly to your left and right. Completely counterproductive. 

“How are you presenting without an internet connection?” I ask Ozzy. 

He holds up a USB stick. “I went old-school. You can never rely on hotel Wi-Fi.” 

I find a seat at one of the closer tables and glance around. The team looks keen, like Home Guard volunteers, righteous but limp. 

I notice Ashley is at one of the further tables. Mask on. Lego arms hanging unnaturally stiff at her side. Empty eyes locked on me. Not aggressively. Just as if there is nowhere else to look. 

Our HR manager, Sally, stands up. Technically a director, but she can’t sign off anything actually important. She is one of the younger members of the board. I think she’s only twenty-nine. Built Nordic, athletic and leggy. But with the shrill demeanour of that rotting music teacher who won’t retire. I have no idea what she has contributed to the company, ever, but she posts a lot of things on LinkedIn with trendy hashtags. I muted her. 

She announces todays training is on a subject that has been requested by many employees. Someone dims the lights and the first slide beams into the screen. 

>Slide one
>”DIE in the workplace” 


>Slide two 
>”DIE stands for, diversity, inclusion and equality” 

This was requested?

I look around the room. Almost all mid-twenties to mid-thirties. More women than men. A few are gay. All white except myself and one other. Odd that this training was requested. But these things are normally a snooze. So I get comfortable in my chair and prepare to look awake.  

>Slide 6 
>”White fragility refers to feelings of discomfort a white person experiences when they witness discussions around racial inequality and injustice”

I look around the room expecting a reaction. The team is mostly nodding.  

>Slide 9
>”Sociologists define racism as an unequal distribution of privileges between white people and people of colour. Racism occurs when white people benefit from an unequal distribution of privileges and people of colour experience deprivation”
>Slide 10
>”This  only applies to white people. Historically, white people have not had to experience the same oppression, inequality, and discrimination that people of colour have due to white people holding power.”

I catch Ozzy’s eye and give him a confused look. He smiles neutrally. The rest of the team is still wet-eyed and engaged. I look at the slides again, convinced I’ve missed something. But now there is a clip-art picture of a mug. Sally announces a coffee break.

I feel irritated after after that, as if everyone is in on a joke that I’m not. I take a sugar in my coffee and a long, Wim Hof breath when I sit down. Picture your body filling with relaxing light, from the feet up.  

Sally asks, “Are there any questions about the first segment?” Someone, inevitably, asks if the slides will be available later. The slides are always fucking available later. Always. Someone else asks about white fragility. Sally says we’re coming onto it. I can’t wait to find out what that is. 

Nobody is asking the obvious question. So I raise my hand. Sally nods at me. “Can you go back to slide 13?” She flips back. “Does that mean only white people can be racist?” I ask. 

“Only white people can be racist,” she flips to slide 12, “under this definition of racism, which means…” 

“Is that the definition of racism?” I interrupt. 

She smiles, “What is your definition of racism? You could be in a unique position of understanding.”

I choke on a sip of my coffee, “Why would I be in a unique position of understanding? I’m not accusing you of anything, of course, but what you said assumes I know something based on the colour of my skin.” I’m sure I hear a tut and an intake of breath from my colleagues.

“You’re right,” she responds instantly. “My whiteness and my access to privileges that you might not have had, caused me to make assumptions about you. Thank you for pointing that out.” 

“What privileges?” I ask. 

“White people experience many privileges and power that people of colour don’t.”

“Again, Sally, I’m not being awkward for the sake of it, but is this saying that, for example, a rural, white, working-class, twenty year old from around here,” I wave my hand at the hotel walls, “has more access to power and privilege than me?” 

“It’s a complicated topic,” says Ozzy, interrupting. “Sally has only completed the first part of the presentation. Perhaps we can continue this conversation at the end, once we’ve seen all the information and the theory.” 

“Fair enough,” I say, nodding and smiling at Sally, to indicate I am ceding. She smiles warmly, but performatively. But I don’t mind. Presenting is tough enough. But when I turn back to the group I see my unmasked colleagues wearing faces of terror and rage. Except Ashley is staring at me with the same expressionless neutrality.

The slide show restarts.  


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