black staffer

or, Anecdotes from a Broken System

The stories below are mine and they are true.

I’ve changed some of the identifying details in order to preserve others’ privacy. I’m not interested in Twitter mobs or attempts to get anyone canceled. If all you see here is gossip then you’ve missed the point.

TW: racism, racial slurs

Edit 1: These stories took place over the course of six different campaigns.

It’s 11PM and my phone buzzes on the couch.

It’s an email from a close confidant of the candidate. He’s replying to an email that I sent earlier that day with the next day’s content for approval. But he’s not approving the content—it’s already been posted. Instead, he’s attached a promotional club flyer?

The guy in the image is Black with darker skin. His hair is dyed blonde and he’s wearing large gold sunglasses, a thin gold chain, and an oversized wristwatch. Neon- colored flowers are blooming in the background and their light illuminates his dark bomber jacket. I stare at the flyer for a little bit trying to decipher the meaning—is the candidate’s advisor inviting me out clubbing?

And then I notice the subject line:

This dude looks like Stefan

I look back at the flyer and I don’t see it.

I don’t own and have never worn oversized gold sunglasses around the office. I don’t own a gold chain or a wristwatch and I’d certainly aged out of dyed blonde hair and club attire. I was living my life in khaki shorts and a hoodie in the office most days. I spent a while sitting on the edge of my bed, staring at the club flyer, trying to look for something beyond the obvious—that he was a Black man and I’m a Black man and in the eyes of one of the candidate’s closest advisors that was enough of a similarity.

And that’s when I realize that he has sent the flyer to every member of senior staff.

Our team is being split up so that we can cover more ground on Election Day.

Everyone who isn’t absolutely essential is being assigned to a staging location where canvassing and phone calls will be made until the polls close. But as people start to get assigned, I notice that the Black staffers are being assigned to the Black areas and that white staffers are being assigned white areas. I look at my Black coworker across the office and I think she’s made the same connection.

We lock eyes and chuckle.

I’m in a conference room with the whole team.

We’re trying to come up with a publicity plan for a new initiative. It was not a barnburner of a topic so the team spends the meeting brainstorming ways to make it more personal online. I’m the only Black person in the meeting and near the end I raise my hand to ask how we’re thinking about messaging this to communities of color online. So far, the ideas thrown out aren’t universal enough or tailored enough to reach them—especially if they’re not college educated.

I can see my boss tense.

“This is not about Black people.

This initiative is about [redacted]—it’s not about that.”

He says it with a slight exhale of annoyance—as if it should be obvious to me that our initiative on [redacted] wasn’t targeted to Black people. I sit there for a couple seconds trying to come up with a way to respond that won’t cost me my job and while I wait the entire rooms waits with me. I can feel their eyes. Finally a white friend from another team chimes in and boosts my concerns about messaging diversity and how it’s important to build that outreach into the messaging plan.

Her courage breaks the dam and my boss can now see that he’s on the wrong side of this issue. But I can also see that he is feeling embarrassed about what just happened. He turns and asks me to work with our stakeholders to gather the information on communities of color and then write out the content plan myself and send it to him.

I do what he asks.

None of my suggestions make it into the larger content plan. A few weeks later I get curious and check the view history for the document I sent.

He never opened it.

Our Asian-American organizer is in my office.

Our campaign manager is escorting a member of the candidate’s family down the hallway and I can hear vague exhortations from him about how he didn’t mean any offense when he referred to our Asian staffer as a chink. I go back to my office and sit with our organizer—who seems both hurt and nonchalant. I don’t think I told him about the time that same man reached out to pet my hair.

Our campaign manager comes in and mumbles something that sounds like an apology.

It takes two hours on backroads to reach the bar.

I am traveling the area with a few other staffers to meet officials and hold trainings. It’s a deeply rural area and I find the diner alongside a two-lane stretch of road. I pull in to the lot and park in front of the porch swing. I walk through the nearly empty bar to a room in the back. It wasn’t long before people arrive and we begin.

I give my usual presentation and then step outside for a cigarette while another staffer starts.

On my heels I can hear a local party official complimenting me on the way the training unfolded. He wants to ask me some follow up questions. He starts to talk and I can feel the conversation drifting in weird ways towards race—he likes how professional and put together I seem and emphasizes that he’s proud to be a Democrat because we lift up the disadvantaged.

Am I the only Black person for miles?

I’m exhausted—and the three hour drive back to my apartment looms large. All I want is to smoke a cigarette in peace and let the nicotine calm down that anxious feeling that I still get after I finish public speaking.

I try and wave him off with half-answers and polite chuckles. I stare at my phone in the hope that he would take the hint. He doesn’t take the hint. He can’t take the hint. He wants to talk about Trump and Obama and immigration.

I want to be rude—but I can’t.

Because he is an important local Democrat and it wouldn’t be smart for me politically. He wants me to affirm his goodness and praise his open mindedness. He wants me to give him a metaphorical pat on the back for not being as bad as the other side. And so—rather than have a real conversation with that man—I spend my next cigarette as a political fluffer; giving him the praise and platitudes his ego obviously needed.

You’re one of the good ones!

When it is over he goes inside the bar and I sit on the porch swing near my car and think very seriously about whether or not electoral politics is really for me.

And then I go back inside.

Our digital ads don’t have people of color in them.

It is my first week on the job and I started by performing an inclusivity audit of our digital programs—mainly centered on whether or not we were elevating people and issues from underrepresented or marginalized communities. During the audit a number of issues come up—including with our ad program. I set up a meeting with the ads consultant to talk.

Why do we need people of color in our acquisition ads? None of the other candidates have people of color in their list building ads? We don’t even have any photos of people of color to include in our digital ads. Those pictures you sent aren’t the right type to use to run ads.

It’s really not a priority right now.

Why do we need people of color in our digital ads?

I write a memo with the findings from the audit and send it to my boss, who sets up a meeting with the campaign manager to discuss it.

The meeting is canceled and never rescheduled.

He is sitting in my passenger seat.

I say something. He says something.

I say something.

He says, “I don’t really consider myself a person of color—I have too much privilege.” I spend the rest of the ride wondering why my boss said that to me.

A major report is about to be released from a prominent civil rights group and the campaign is worried about what it will say about the candidate. A conference call is put on the calendar and I listen for more than thirty minutes as a mostly white leadership team contemplates attacking the credibility of a civil rights group.

I spend the time preparing to quit in protest.

In the end, they chose not to attack.

We’re sitting in the center of a restaurant.

It’s my first one-on-one with my boss and first week on the job. It’s a pretty small team. Over lunch he walks me through who everyone is and what they do on the campaign. He also adds a little bit of color about how they measure up in his opinion. It was a great lunch and I felt happy about my decision to work here.

A few weeks later that I realize that the only people my boss gave negative reviews of during that lunch were people of color.

People of color on the campaign want a safe space to have difficult conversations.

With public support from senior leadership, a series of sessions are organized where conversations can happen and bridges can be built.

A white staffer records the second session.

And then leaks it to the NYTimes.

We’re discussing hiring at the staff meeting.

Summer is starting and the campaign is in the process of picking interns, but so far the only applications we’ve received—or interns hired—were white. None were from the surrounding community, which was majority-minority. None were Spanish fluent. And I finally find what I think is the right moment to say something obvious:

We cannot have all-white interns.

I tried to explain that we need to be more intentional about outreach. Maybe we can tap our partners to amplify? Have we posted about it in more places than our social channels? Have we reached out to the party to ask if they have any leads on students who might fit the job description? Internships are the first step up the political ladder and we should do what we can to ensure that that opportunity is equally available.

The other end of the conference table disagrees.

I’m not worried about hitting some quota.

All we’ve done is pick the best people.

And I say that I resent the implication that building a campaign that looks like the people we’re trying to represent is somehow different than picking the best people.

I lost the argument that happened afterward.

I ask a Black friend to read this piece.

It’s been finished for a couple days, but I can’t decide on an ending. I can’t figure out a way to put a tidy bow on these experiences. He sends over some formatting edits and he suggests that I add a trigger warning at the top for racism.

And then he asks—What do all of these anecdotes have in common? What is the theme here?

I try to talk about the impacts of institutional racism, the broken pipeline, emotional labor, and microaggressions, but he interrupts me—I already know all of that and so do most of your readers. Tell me something they don’t know.

And so I think for a minute.

And so I take a deep breath.

And so I tell him about the smallness.

I tell him that these experiences are different, but that the feeling I had in each of them was one of immeasurable smallness. Standing in that parking lot, sitting in my office, listening on that conference call—each of these experiences felt like I was being hit with a massive wave and each time it receded it took a little bit of me with it.

Racism feels like being chipped away. It feels like a persistent erosion of the self. And I tell him that sometimes I feel so small that I may as well not exist.

He laughs heartily on the phone. And then sighs.

But you’re not small, are you?

And I pause for a second.

No—I’m not small.

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