Confessions of a Good Negro—Abandoning the Black Highlander Dynamic in the Workplace & Beyond
Updated: Jul 8
By Nekose Wills
Over the last 20 years, I have worked and volunteered for numerous non-profit organizations, in a variety of environments and with all types of people. I have always been baffled by staff who really want to believe their commitment to a particular social cause makes them immune to bias. These employees think that “doing good work” in the world makes them incapable of isms — racism, sexism, ableism, etcetera. In these do-gooder organizations, there is an abundance of money for white leadership roles, but a reluctance to admit that oppression is institutionalized, even within their own walls. In attempts to address problems created by white people, that disproportionately impact Black and Brown people, non-profits often perpetuate inequality. Unfortunately, they are rarely able to conceptualize themselves as negatively contributing to larger societal issues.
At one point in my life, being a do-gooder and making a non-profit work home were my priorities. I was actively pursuing what I call “good Negro” status, without realizing that good Negros are like Highlander, “there can be only one” in a particular environment. I used to earnestly believe I could achieve success (as defined by American standards), if I could be perceived as good. At the time, my ideas about who I was, as a whole person, were heavily tied to my occupation. I didn’t realize that equating my worth with a job, or career, was extremely harmful and that being a good Negro was a complete set up for failure. In a world built on racism and systems of oppression, I thought that convincing white folks, particularly white folks at work, that I was worthy of their approval, would somehow inoculate me from workplace foolishness and have a positive effect on my life. It took me years to recognize that inequities are baked into everything, to free my own mind, and most importantly, to define me for me.
The Good Negro Construct
The good Negro construct makes Black excellence the exception, instead of the rule. We are literally Highlander at work, with a small amount of Black people being the norm in various employment settings. I have frequently worked in environments where I was the only black person and it is not uncommon for companies to have one or two black people per team or department, if there are any black employees at all. White people are really uncomfortable when our numbers start to creep up and even more uncomfortable when we are in leadership roles, particularly if those roles fall outside of administration and diversity and inclusion. The good Negro construct forces Black people to live in the little boxes white people have created for our lives. A box where the concept of “good” is filtered through a white lens and Black people have little say in defining themselves.
Good Negros get good jobs and have good hair; earn multiple degrees and buy houses (preferably in neighborhoods where they are in the minority); drive nice cars and don’t threaten societal norms. Good Negros raise “respectable” Black children and hope on a wish and a prayer that any of the aforementioned offers some protection in the world. Ultimately, good Negros are conditioned to constantly package their existence to placate and be palatable to white people. This is key to achieving good Negro status—the art of packaging oneself to be palatable to white people.
As Black people, we are told that all things are possible with the right representation of blackness, and that white people are the best barometer of how Black is presented. The good Negro construct leaves everyone in a remarkably bad place. Good Negros do not subvert the lie of white supremacy and unfortunately, end up contributing to the lie of Black inferiority. When Black people are made to prove our worth, and our humanity, day-in and day-out, we uphold age-old definitions of black as bad and white as good. Even though black is undeniably beautiful and Black excellence is the norm, from linguistics to skin color, the placement of black and dark in ‘bad’ categories persists. Society has internalized these lies and woven them into its fabric.
Only White is Covered by the Light
We have all been indoctrinated in the lie of white supremacy, which teaches us that white is the gold standard that everyone should strive to meet. This lie says whiteness, and by default lightness, is good and pure—no questions asked. This lie gives colorism its wings as lighter skinned people, of any ethnic group, are seen as more valuable because of their lighter complexions, as are people with naturally straighter hair. The systemic nature of racism is automatically removed from the conversation when all white people are automatically good, just because they are white. White goodness covers everybody white. Being the good Negro only covers one Negro. Black people are told our goodness must be developed, preferably under the tutelage of white people, and we are still not allowed to define goodness for ourselves.
For as much as individual Black people have to prove goodness, white goodness is assumed and considered inherent. This dynamic is compounded in white circles, where Black people are viewed through the one-dimensional bubble of a work environment or a social setting, sans other Black people—Highlander status in full effect. In the framing of the white light narrative, white people get obsessed with “it’s not all white people” conversations about race. These conversations go no further than white folks’ preoccupation with Black folks’ perceptions. Dialogues on racial equity end up centered around white people’s feelings. White people are centered in these conversations, as they are in life, and the good Negro is supposed to place white feelings above their own feelings and their own safety, at all times.
Anyone thinking that bad individuals could represent an entire race of white people is met with strong disapproval, however Black people are never offered the protection of collective goodness. Black criminology myths turn in to superpredator myths and are used as rationales for laws that criminalize all Black people, while white folks get to be good until proven otherwise, even as they murder us. Perceived bad acts by Black people immediately reflect poorly on the whole race and work environments often perpetuate this notion. European history is fraught with raping, murdering, pillaging, and plundering, with contemporary times mirroring the past, however Black and Brown people have been reframed as the bad guys.
Saddled with the myth of the bad Black monolith, we are treated as second class citizens while shopping, banking, running, driving, and barbequing. White folks are held to much lower standards, despite stealing billions from pensions and committing actual crimes. White people do not receive scrutiny anywhere near the level of scrutiny Black people endure. Work environments reflect society and are still no different in this regard. Whiteness doesn’t have to live in a box when it is perceived as inherently good. White people are free to show up as full human beings in any setting, most of the time, while the shield of the white light prevents meaningful consequences for ineptitude or incompetence and allows cruelty and neglect to be overlooked.
As holier than thou perceptions of whiteness continue to flourish, across cultures, atrocities committed by white people are chalked up to “bad apples,” no matter how horrific or how many white people are involved. Entire white American communities massacred thriving Black American communities in more cities than Tulsa and Rosewood, and the lack of peace in the Middle East can be traced back to European colonialism, yet discussions about white rage and white destruction do not happen. Conversations about white people systemically destroying inroads that help people who are not white, or white people at the center of property damage and looting during peaceful protests, are taboo. The truth is not in service of the white light’s fictional narrative of goodness.
The White Light at Work
Much to the detriment of all people of color, white people set the perceptions of our races and ethnicities, as well as parameters for our existence, including at work. While we are boxed in, the white light allows poor managers to continue to manage, without proper oversight. Make no mistake, the white light also covers people of color who act in service to the lie of white supremacy, either knowingly or unknowingly. Again, we have all been indoctrinated with the lies and a Clarence Thomas level of obviousness is unnecessary to be in service of them.
In general, companies have a hard time attributing high turnover rates to poor management and often shift blame to employees, even when the manager is the common thread. This dynamic happens with ill equipped white managers and competent, dedicated white employees, but this analysis is specifically focused on racialized workplace foolishness. Some, non-salary related, examples include the following.
#1 Reluctance to hire more than a minimal amount of Black employees
Plain and simple, white people are more comfortable in the majority—in schools, in neighborhoods, and at work—and have a long history of defending their majority status. There is always strength in numbers but the good Negro construct says that Black people have to remain Highlanders in various work settings. Racism abounds even in jobs where Black people are disproportionately represented, such as low-paying sales or service industry jobs. For higher paying or higher prestige jobs, white people like to hire other white people and it is not an issue of competence related to Black employees.
I don’t know how many times I have heard of a white hiring manager choosing an underqualified white candidate over an extremely qualified Black applicant with reasoning such as, “She reminds me of my self at that age.” Hiring managers are using “culture fit” to justify their preferences and culture fit often boils down to the candidate a boss can envision doing social activities with, such as drinking. It is code for hiring and promotion practices that are either consciously or subconsciously predicated on a preference for white employees or employees of color who are white acculturated.
#2 White folks love white acculturated employees of color
White people are great at hiring candidates of color who are white acculturated, whether because of their upbringing or the interpersonal relationships and friendships they have chosen in adulthood. White people are also masterful at hiring people of color who aren't going to make waves about other people of color being non-existent at the organization. I have found that the Black and Brown people who make white people feel most comfortable tend to fall into those two categories, and usually serve the status quo.
I understand that most of us need our jobs and have felt the real consequences of bringing up racial equity at work, however I am referring to people that do not see a problem with the Highlander dynamic. These people have either sufficiently bought into the lie of Black inferiority or see other Black people as a threat to their current status. If there can be only one Black, or Latinx, or Asian person in an environment, another person of the same ethnicity immediately becomes a threat to perceived security. This mentality makes people unwilling to jeopardize their status within an organization.
#3 Competent Black employees considered threatening
It’s all good with the good Negro until a white person starts feeling threatened. I believe that, sometimes, white folks have an inability to cope when they realize Black people have never been inferior. An alarm bell goes off and all of a sudden, they are shaken and feel threatened. Then an irrational fear surfaces that Black people will usurp white privilege. The idea of being usurped by a Black person is much more troubling than a white person taking their place.
Black people, or any other minority group, have never had the power to take anything from white people—jobs included. White people do not even need to be skilled to acquire the jobs they are given, conversely it is extremely important for Black candidates to be competent, unless a candidate is intentionally being hired to feed the lie of Black inferiority. Hiring a Black person who cannot do the job gives the cover of, “Every time we hire a Black, it just doesn’t work out.”
#4 Inability to recognize Black voices as knowledgeable, even about their lived experiences
When I lived in San Diego, I applied for a workforce development position. During the second round of interviews, we were discussing barriers to employment for Black and Latinx people and the head of the department, a young white man, stated that training was the primary barrier. I informed him that training and education may be an issue in technical and biomedical professions, but I had been living in San Diego for a year and knew a treasure trove of competent, skilled, and educated Black women who struggled to find gainful employment despite their numerous qualifications.
This organization was majority white and the people of color working there were primarily in administrative roles. Although I knew better than to challenge a white man who believes his knowledge is supreme, especially during a job interview, I could not hold my tongue even though my bank account was begging me to shut up. I was an actual Black person sharing my lived experiences but there was no room to hear that more forces are at play than simply unskilled Black and Brown people. Needless to say, I did not fit the culture of that organization and my bank account was like "Bitc....!" The good Negro is in constant service of white folks’ egos, even when they are wrong.
#5 “Black sounding” names as a roadblock
My best job search occurred when I consciously de-Blackified myself and went gender neutral, at the same time. Instead of using my full name Nekose (nee-ko-see), I began to use my initials and last name, N.E. Wills. In an attempt to eradicate any obvious references to my race or gender, I changed my name and URL on both my LinkedIn profile and portfolio website. I also removed my photo from both sites. Hands down, racially and sexually ambiguous N.E. Wills had a better job search than Nekose ever did.
I received the most responses in the shortest amount of time and found a job within three weeks of starting my search. I only had phone interviews for the job I accepted and assumed the women who interviewed me guessed I was a woman because I have no bass in my voice. Voice is used to stratify people into binary male and female categories and people believe they are able to guess race by someone's voice. The good Negro however, is skilled in the art of code switching. My vernacular is spectacular and I can sound any way I choose. Unfortunately, my experience is the norm. Research demonstrates that whitened names and gender removal on resumes lead to better interview and hiring outcomes for Black people and women.
#6 General office racism (aka microaggressions)
Minority status creates a breeding ground for the racism we refer to as microaggressions, especially at work. Black people know when a compliment is legitimate, and our hearts are warmed when our skills are genuinely acknowledged. By the same token, we also recognize a backhanded “compliment.” The first microaggression is acting like we are not smart enough to tell the difference between the two.
A compliment is a complete sentence with no qualifiers, “You did that well.” “You did that well,” full stop, is much different than, “You did that well for a......” The second microaggression is the audacity to make a “You ____ well for a” statement. If the intent of the words are to say, "You do that well for a Black person," it is irrelevant if the actual words "for a Black person" were spoken. The implication is clear. Lies of inferiority are embedded in our culture and take active resistance to fight. Disingenuous compliments, like good intentions, pave the path to hell.
The good Negro construct is a form of brainwashing, and what I consider Bootstrap Theory revisited. While society tells Black people we are only allotted a few examples of Black excellence, the racial barriers faced by the people we are told to revere for "making it" are rarely acknowledged. A handful of Black folks could never represent the totality of Black greatness, across the diaspora. The good Negro construct equates a lack of success with a lack of character, perpetuating the perception that Black people are simply not “pulling themselves up by their bootstraps.” Bootstrap theory is ridiculously stupid. It is a myth that does not acknowledge the codified handouts white people are granted to form their bootstraps. While the rest of us are trying to make something from nothing, society chooses to believe that white folks did not have the benefit of everyone else's labor and resources to achieve success.
Money and respectability have yet to save Black people from anything. No matter how good we are, the police still brutalize and murder us; Black women in the US still have deadly maternal and child health outcomes, and advancement in the workplace is still a struggle. No matter how good we are, there will always be a better good Negro, who is more palatable and more white acculturated, waiting as a replacement. Being the good Negro won’t stop us from being fired, replaced, or paid less to do the same, or more, work. It won’t change dynamics that only promote or recognize us when we have to clean up other people's messes. Black people already exist at numerous intersections (e.g. race, gender, sexual identity, age, physical health, ability to handle nonsense) and there is no tangible bump up from the class-level accomplishments that represent good Negro status. The social construction of the Good Negro, Black Highlander, and Bootstrap theories deny the realities of systemic oppression.
Working to abandon good Negro and Highlander constructs have forced me to actively reframe my own thinking. If I catch myself cringing because the news chose the most inarticulate Black person they could find for an interview, I check myself. When I start to feel embarrassed because another Black person's presentation of themselves is at odds with how I would prefer they present, I remind myself that we get to be individuals. Blackness can operate on a spectrum, the same way whiteness can operate on a spectrum. Black people need to stop being gatekeepers and overseers for other Black people, either explicitly or implicitly. It does not serve us to do so, and forces us to put one another in a box.
Black people--go ahead and throw your good Negro tendencies in the trash, openly chat with your Black coworkers although you know it makes the white folks nervous; decorate your office with your black, Black, blackity, Black artwork; wear your pencil skirt even if you are worried about how your Black girl figure will be perceived. Join me in the ex-good Negro support group, where our motto is, “We not doing foolishness no more and are embracing being our own Negros.” It's time for us all to bid our good Negro mentality adieu, to tell Black Highlander to hit the road, and to stop believing in the idiocy of Bootstraps. Instead, we need to recognize that Black excellence is collective and embrace the fact that it is the norm.