“Your skills are not what we need at this time.”
Five years ago, my boss, Laura, not her real name, terminated my employment with these words.
Face-to-face in an office the size of a coat closet, sat this middle-aged white woman, Chief Development Officer at the foundation, and I, former Director of Cause Marketing and Partnerships, with my head held high, trying to project dignity. I felt vulnerable and exposed, as if the ultimate sorting mechanism of American life, the pigment of my skin, had yanked me from the white world of fundraising and development, where I’ve always been in the minority, my profession.
For the first time, I found myself unemployed. My partner of 14 years, a Latinx male, assured me I was loved and valued by him and our community, and I was not to blame for my predicament. Yet, when I laid my head down to sleep, the knowledge of my disproportionate likelihood to experience extended unemployment, reduced economic recovery, and greater odds of incarceration, simply because of my race, haunted my dreams and made the world feel uninviting.
After my dismissal, I struggled to process how my professional investment of three years had become a skills and talent mismatch in three months. I was unsure if my expulsion resulted from perceived shortcomings or racism, or some other unknown force. If racism, it hadn’t been the blatant or intentional kind, though a donor once presumed I was part of a banquet of staff. No, this was more complex, a murky entanglement of my sense of worth, unconscious bias, tokenism, and microaggressions that I could neither understand nor control. I spent the next five years unpacking what had happened. I wanted to do a better job of protecting myself from a repeat experience. My journey from that rock bottom place in my career led me to therapy where I learned how to cultivate a foundation of resilience and self-love.
The world has told me all my life that others perceive me as a threat or as incapable because of my race, so I responded. I responded by striving, relentlessly, to be the best at all cost. I kept a career coach on retainer to help guide my professional life. I also invested in a vocal coach to help me speak with the confidence and clarity of an aspiring executive. I regularly took classes in communications, marketing, and digital media to keep my technical skills sharp, and I held volunteer roles on local nonprofit boards. I believed I had to be perfect. I felt stuck in my Black identity and faulted this unchanging part of me. Looking back, what made that period so painful was the inability to control the circumstances around me, in spite of having taken so many precautions. The nature of this problem felt beyond my ability to solve on my own. I thought I had failed. I knew I needed help processing my feelings about the world, and guidance from an objective professional. No one in my orbit of white homogeneity could really understand or advise me about how to be okay while still moving forward. Professionally, I was recovering, but with residual and varied impacts.
I decided to search for a Black therapist, or one who would identify with either of my minority communities, and could genuinely empathize, and I found one. Someone who would tell me I’m not crazy when I say that my work can feel like a tortured and never-ending effort to hide my identity— voice modulation, hyper self-awareness of expressions, emotions, mannerisms —all for the comfort of those around me, to facilitate my assimilation. My therapist revealed my labor to me.
When he asked how I felt as the only man and the only Black person on my team, and what I’d really wanted to say when in this situation or that, I felt seen. Acknowledged. I never had to explain or defend the cultural experiences and family bonds that shape my life as a gay and Black man. I began to understand how my desire for perfection is related to my being the youngest kid from a split family, where parental attention was scarce and the authority of an older sibling was heavy and unchecked. Therapy allowed me to explore the ways in which my perspective and reactions to the world have been shaped, in some ways, through my upbringing, familial, and cultural experiences. It encouraged me to check my thoughts when the world feels out of control.
Therapy gave me permission to just be me, to rediscover the fun in life, and I exhaled with relief.
I returned to my love of reading and scoured texts like Rollo May’s Man’s Search For Himself. May’s musings on existential psychology changed my outlook on life. I sought narratives on race like Invisible Man by Ralph Ellison and The Souls of Black Folk by W.E.B. Du Bois. And I consumed self-help titles like Brené Brown’s The Gift of Imperfection, now outlined and saved in the cloud for quick reference. When I feel overwhelmed or hopeless, I turn to it and remind myself of the importance of setting boundaries and holding others accountable, instead of festering in shame and blame, and that I am worthy of love and belonging at all times. Through therapy and through these readings, I came to believe that other people’s “isms” don’t define me, nor do they dictate how I show up in the world. I harnessed my perspective to my benefit, leaned into my resilience, and celebrated the strengths of who I am — past, present, and future.
This summer, a few weeks after the murder of George Floyd, a former colleague reached out to check-in and we talked about the racial unrest. Following, she said, “I know how important it is to have an advocate, someone in your corner at work. With awareness raised through Black Lives Matter, she had recognized the unfairness. “I’m sorry for my complacency,” she said.
Following the call, I expressed to my partner how I genuinely appreciated the apology, yet felt conflicted. Acknowledgment of the racism I experienced so long ago felt anticlimactic, as if it mattered greatly, and not at all. It was a feeling anchored somewhere between the person I was then and the person I am now – in a way, two different men, owed, in part, to therapy. Logic said I should be angry, furious, at this delayed admission, but I turned to my journal, a practice I’ve maintained since I was a teenager, and to my therapist who helped me understand that, though this old wound may never heal completely, it no longer controls me. I have become so much more than the experience of that injury.
JOHN R. MCCOY, MBA, is San Francisco Bay Area native and has spent his career overseeing community outreach and philanthropic initiatives on behalf of local and national nonprofit organizations.