Wyatt O'Brian Evans

Dire Straits

Filed By Wyatt O'Brian Evans | March 17, 2009 3:00 PM | comments

Filed in: Living, Politics
Tags: personal stories, race issues, racial discrimination, racism in the gay community, Wyatt O'Brian Evans

Editors' Note: Wyatt O'Brian Evans is a Bilerico-DC contributor. This is part of the series "The Cancer that Slowly Consumes Our Very Souls: Racism" that we're running here on Bilerico Project.

NaNa is an American citizen who is half-African American, half-Ghanian. Armed with an engineering degree, this twenty-something male is well educated, articulate, politically aware, outgoing, and presents himself well.

syndicatedpt2pic1.jpgIn January, before the economy hit the skids, NaNa interviewed with an established Washington-area IT company. Afterward, he got a second interview.

"I believed both meetings were homeruns," according to the young man. "The interviewers (all of them Caucasian) said they 'liked me very much,' and that 'things were looking extremely well'...that all they had to do was check my references. They said that one way or another, they'd get back to me." NaNa added that his references were solid.

For a time, NaNa was dancing on "Cloud Nine." However, a couple of weeks went by and he heard nary a peep from the firm. So, he called his references to find out what happened. All four reported that no one had contacted them.

NaNa was blown away. He was bewildered and hurt. Swallowing hard, he contacted the company. And, guess what? NaNa was told that another applicant had been chosen for the position.

So, pray tell, what in the world happened? Did the interviewers feel that this degreed, highly skilled, well-spoken, dark-skinned Black man would not neatly fit into their organization...and comfort zone? Did they feel that this young Black man would pose too much of a threat? Just what was the deal?

CNN's "Black in America" also featured D. L. Hughley, the popular African-American actor, comedian and producer. He stated that he believes that as a Black man, he's always a target of the police. "'When you're Black, your skin color is always in the equation," he said. "It doesn't matter how rich or how famous you are.'" What a highly disturbing assessment. It makes you pause. And then flinch.

Roots--and all that Stuff

Born in the Washington, D.C. area, where I continue to reside, I'm the youngest of five--and the only male. "Legend" has it that when the nurse told Dad that he (finally) had a son, he didn't take her word for it. He checked it out for himself. (I suppose I inherited some of my investigative reporting skills from him.

But let me back up a bit. While my Mom was "with child," (yours truly, of course), her favorite television program was the western, Wyatt Earp. The actor who played the role was Hugh O'Brien. So, that's how I got my first and middle names. Quite a creative woman, Mom was.

syndicatedpt3pic1.jpgWhen I was five, Dad passed away. Growing up without a father figure was extraordinarily difficult, and at times painful. Being poor was another burden.

Also, I was saddled with a deformity to my right ear, which occurred at birth. Thankfully though, several plastic surgeries during childhood corrected the problem to some degree. However, kids would point and shout, "Pig ear! Pig ear!" A few would even grab it. Those "monsters" were relentless. And then there were those who would just steer clear of me--like the plague.

As a result, all of this crap inflicted damage to my self-esteem: I suffered from crippling shyness and feelings of awkwardness. Which didn't make me very popular at school. And to make matters worse, I wasn't the most athletically inclined. Therefore, I chose to excel in academics.

What made life even more trying was that I realized quite early on that I was gay. I was attracted to the older, muscular/beefy boys because I was looking for a daddy and boyfriend all wrapped up into one. These feelings confused me, and made me ashamed. I pondered, "What do I do with these thoughts, these urges? They can't be normal...and if I act on them, won't I disappoint my mother?" This turmoil led to bouts of depression.

Fortunately though, by working through these issues and resolving them in therapy, I was able to overcome. To win. (And, taking up bodybuilding during adolescence and continuing it through adulthood has been another form of "therapy.")

I won an academic scholarship to D.C.'s George Washington University (GWU). As a freshman, I had my first sexual experiences--with girls. Even though in my heart I knew I was gay, I was workin' hard to walk that "straight line." But that didn't last for very long because I "stumbled."

Well, actually, I fell into bed with an extremely HOT, built older African-American guy. Abruptly however, our brief affair ended: I discovered he had a lover. And, he continually made heated attempts to "top" me--which I repeatedly swatted aside. Being a "bottom" just wasn't me. Although I knew the break-up was for the best, it left me distraught.

And then, weeks later, certain circumstances caused me to "come clean" with my mother regarding my true sexual orientation--although she said she'd already suspected the truth. Though in reality, I already knew she knew.

As circumstances would have it, she took my admission relatively well. But since we were extraordinarily close, I felt I'd really let her down. Consequently, I lapsed into a deep depression, which drove me to the shrink's couch for the first time.

The payoff for the months of tough work and opening up in counseling was finding peace with being gay, in all of its contexts, and being comfortable with being Wyatt. I was able to rid myself of the guilt and regret. And, I was well on the road to repairing my self-esteem, and coming to terms with the feelings I had regarding the loss of my father. Emotionally, I was healing and growing. I was a work in progress, I guess you'd say.

But when you think about it, aren't we all? Throughout our entire lives?

Misadventures into "Mainstream" Racism

After graduating with Bachelor of Arts degrees in journalism and political science, I remained in the metro Washington area because I was involved in my first serious gay relationship. The Commerce Clearing House (CCH), a large and respected publisher of legal texts and newsletters, offered me a position as a reporter/writer.

It was all fresh and exciting! My "beats" were the Commodities Futures Trading Commission (CFTC), and the Departments of Education and Housing and Urban Development. My duties included attending meetings, interviewing key officials, obtaining the news--and then returning to the office to write articles and news briefs for the company's various publications.

My enthusiasm, however, was quickly dampened. I was the only Black reporter/writer, and the youngest. Another challenge was my "manager from hell," Chuck Aldridge, a forty-something, hard-boiled, intransigent white guy, who also was racist and discriminatory.

Because he really didn't want to deal with me, Aldridge provided little guidance. Period. When I initiated meetings, he usually didn't have the time. Or, when he did find the time, he'd quickly dismiss me.

He repeatedly nitpicked and second-guessed. He steadfastly refused to give me credit for any successes.

Oh, I'm not saying I didn't make mistakes. I did. This guy, though, wanted me to fail.

syndicatedpt3pic3.jpgMy attempts to get support from the other reporter/writers were in vain. I felt isolated. Things got so bad that some days, I became physically ill at the office.

And you know your manager is giving you a vote of no confidence when he tries to secretly follow you to your beats. But "get a load of this:" Aldridge sometimes would not visit his own beats--instead, he went home.

How did we know that? Well, when he got back to the office, he was wearing a different suit! And, Aldridge was getting into other types of trouble. It's "inneresting" that he was never canned.

I explained my situation to those CFTC, Education and HUD officials with whom I had direct dealings. More than eager to assist me, they sent letters to Aldridge praising and applauding my performance.

After about a year at CCH, I interviewed with Vitro Labs, Inc., a technical editing and writing firm that primarily supported the Navy. I felt that my meeting with Charlene Parrott, the manager, went smoothly. She seemed decent. Charming, in fact.

Parrott offered me a writer/editor position. I thought I'd made the right move.
Dead wrong.

Parrott, a Caucasian who migrated to the D.C. area from the Deep South, reminded one of the Delta Burke character from "Designing Women." She was condescending, dictatorial, and plain ol' nasty. And like Aldridge, racist and discriminatory.

She would "regale" us with tales of how her granddaddy treated Black folk back in the day. I'm sure you can fill in the blanks here. We Black employees were subjected to harsher patterns of discipline as compared to white employees regarding the same offense. Different, tougher standards were applied to the work products of African-Americans. Fewer Blacks than whites received pay increases and promotions.

My bitterness was escalating. My self-esteem was taking a beating. I was on edge much of the time. I had to find an escape hatch.

After a few years, I accepted a job as an associate editor/consumer information writer in the Corporate Communications/Media Relations Department of the Potomac Electric Power Company (PEPCO), the major utility for the metro Washington area.

Now, that was a real "plantation."

PEPCO had a sizable number of African-American employees, but very few in management positions that really mattered. Barbara, a Media Relations employee hired in the early 1960's, told of the separate water fountains for Blacks and whites during that period. I was informed that African-American employees routinely filed complaints with the company's Equal Employment Opportunity (EEO) Department, which was headed by a Black male. However, the department was a joke--deeply in the pocket of PEPCO's racist white power structure--and dismissed the vast majority of the claims, citing that they "were without merit and therefore not justified."

Much of this I learned during the first few weeks on the job. I shook my head and whispered to myself, "Oh, God. Here we go again."

But I was determined to "tough it out." I decided right then and there that I would not let these people win.

I had two managers--Jill Downs, and then Nancy Moses. Downs was racist and discriminatory in a quiet, sly sort of way. Moses was the flip side--more overt and raucous about it.

Downs used a subtle strategy in attempts to make me believe I was incompetent. She provided little guidance (Here we go again!). She did her level best to avoid me, and to make it unpleasant when I did meet with her.

However, I was constantly "in her face"--diplomatically, mind you. And, I made sure that my work product was consistently accurate, well written, and polished.

As well, I'm known as being articulate and dignified. And, I make sure to carry myself in a professional manner--both in demeanor and dress. At PEPCO, I made it a point to be even more focused in that regard.

After nearly two years, I received a promotion. Was I really becoming triumphant? (Hmmm...maybe not. A trusted, reliable source revealed that the white person I replaced got a heftier raise when he was promoted to that exact same position.)

What I didn't realize was that Downs had set me up. I was a victim of what I've coined "UNS"--Uppity Negro Syndrome, similar to what Senator Obama has experienced. The long and short of it was that I didn't fit Downs' image of what a Black male should be and how he should conduct himself. She wanted me the hell out of PEPCO. By any means necessary.

Downs believed that Moses, one of the most racist managers in the company, was the ticket. Downs thought that I wouldn't be able to survive Moses.

Before I accepted the promotion, I took my reservations about Moses to Bill Jones, our VP, who happened to Caucasian. He assured me that he "really wanted me for the job." Jones also said that he knew Moses "could be 'difficult,' but that she was the best at what she did, and that I could learn a lot from her."

He also promised that I would have an "open-door policy"--that if I had any concerns at any time, I could meet with him.

Boy, was I naïve! They were all lies. But, it was "an offer I couldn't refuse." If I'd turned down the promotion, I would've been screwed in terms of climbing the ladder. I was in a box.

Another reason why Downs wanted me gone was that she concluded that I was gay. Because I'm a naturally straight-acting and appearing guy, most folk assume I'm straight. However, on one autumn day, months before the promotion, Aaron, my lover, drove to PEPCO to give me a lift home. We hadn't seen each other in nearly a week--he'd been in Atlanta on business. We were missing each other like crazy.

But for some reason, my gut yelled at me to just hop on the Metro and meet him at his place or mine. I should've heeded that warning.

Aaron was waiting for me in the lobby. He couldn't double park outside the building, which was on an extremely busy street. He was forced to find a parking space. And besides, rarely was I able to leave work on time. As fate would have it, this was one of those evenings.

The lobby was practically empty. I thought, "Yes! Good deal."

As I walked towards Aaron, I cut him a look that said, "'Daymn,' you look GOOD! How I've missed you! And I love you, 'M.L.' (short for "Muscle Legs," which he surely had)." And, "I wanna get horizontal with you, too," danced in my eyes for a hot second.

Then immediately, my gaze warned, "Be cool, though. We're in the 'plantation,' so's when we hug, we gotta appear to be 'straight boyz.'"

But because he couldn't wait to see me, Aaron couldn't quite pull it off.

And suddenly, out of the corner of my right eye, I spied Downs checking us out as she was chatting it up with another manager. An astute woman, she caught the "vibe." Afterwards, I tried to dismiss what I'd picked up on. But the feeling never totally disappeared.

Working with Moses was a living nightmare. As she saw it, very little of what I did was correct and of value. For little or no reason, she'd drastically alter my writing. We're talkin' red marks every which way. And on a regular basis, she also terrorized her secretary Barbara (whom I mentioned earlier).

At that point, I'd started freelancing for a variety of publications. (This pissed off Moses.) So, to shore myself up, my mantra was: "If these publications accept my work, what the hell is Moses talking about?" That justification only helped to a degree.

Moses was verbally abusive. She made me work unnecessarily long hours, due to her constant rewrites. Her mantra was: "You ARE a professional employee, and professional employees do whatever it takes to get the job done."

When I sought out VP Jones to mediate, he told me, "You and Nancy must work out your issues amongst yourselves. It would be inappropriate for me to get involved."

His nonchalant, "don't bother me" attitude absolutely floored me! So much for his "open-door policy."

My self-esteem, and confidence in my skills and abilities were being shattered. And to make things even uglier, I was beginning to have serious relationship issues. It felt like I was drowning in the Sea of Hell.

So, I exited PEPCO. But not without joining eight other employees in a class action suit, which eventually ballooned to over a hundred complainants. After several years, there was an out-of-court settlement.

Out of the Fire--(Somewhat)

Next, I became a senior writer for the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA). During that time, my relationship ended--which tore me up inside. Also, I was feeling so much rage over the raw deals I'd received professionally...it galled me that those racist bastards had derailed my career, and attempted to destroy my self-worth.

To conquer my demons, I gathered the courage to return to counseling. This second stint lasted a little more than a year.

It can be exceedingly scary, frustrating and grueling to turn yourself inside out to unearth your authentic self. But you must. There's no getting around it.

Fortunately, my hard work paid off. I gained clarity, and a fuller understanding of myself. I emerged a stronger, much more focused and self-assured individual.

I also came to the realization that not all white people are racist, discriminatory, and evil. I'd slayed my monsters. So you see, I'm an ardent proponent of therapy.

syndicatedpt2pic2.jpgAfter several years at EPA, I received a great opportunity to work for Givenchy Fragrances, Inc. At the same time, I entered the entertainment business.

I've been pleased with my achievements in the "biz," although it's an unfortunate fact that racism pervades this arena. Allow me to share an incident that occurred when I was a Voice Over instructor for the renowned White Lake Music and Post/Creative Development Group, located in New York. A middle-aged female Caucasian student refused to train with me one-on-one, even after she'd paid her tuition. This woman had no idea that I was African-American--and was absolutely dumbfounded and shocked when we met for the first time! Her expression, which spoke volumes, cracked me up. (For that matter, I was "in the same boat" before she arrived--I wasn't privy to her race, either. So, did I get all bent out of shape? Heck no.)

Her reaction "rolled off my back" because I had so much to offer her, which included the benefit of my acting and comedic talents and skills. In fact, I pitied the woman (am I sounding like Mr. T here?). It was her loss.

My race didn't sit too well with several other white students; but somehow, they survived. On the whole though, I was well liked and respected. A number of my pupils--of all colors--gave me heartfelt notes of thanks and appreciation.

Now, that made the experience worthwhile.

This is part of the series "The Cancer that Slowly Consumes Our Very Souls: Racism." Originally published in Qbliss, the article has been modified slightly for online readers. For more information on Wyatt O'Brian-Evans, you can visit his website or check out his Bilerico-DC bio page.


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David in Houston | March 17, 2009 6:12 PM

Thank you for sharing your heartfelt story. I thoroughly enjoyed reading it.

If NaNa has an engineering degree, I am sure he will have no trouble getting a job associated with the Obama stimulous plan. Building bridges and reparing the infrastucture. Good luck.

What a very personal story. Thanks for sharing it, Wyatt.

Thanks Wyatt for sharing this.

Ummm...the same EXACT thing that happened to NaNa happend to me numerous times while interviewing. And Im positive its happened to Millions of people...you cannot assume that in this situation its was racism...especially when the EXACT thing happens to people of all races.

I had a friend I used to hang out with at the bars, one time he smiled at this guy and the guy didnt smile back and my friend was upset and said oh he must be racist, he must not like black guys... and I chuckled and said no, I dont think he likes chubby guys :-)

Sometimes its not what we think.....

Peace

Vince in LA | March 18, 2009 7:26 PM

Echoing what Midtowner said - I'm not sure I see how the NaNa story can be attributed to racism. If it WERE racism, then how do you explain the NaNa's SECOND interview? Clearly, the first interviewer would have seen his skin color during the first interview.
Did NaNa ask the recruiter the skin color of the applicant who was selected? How does NaNa know that the chosen applicant is not also a dark-skinned person? Perhaps the chosen applicant was a woman - if so, then would NaNa attribute their selection to sexism?
Perhaps there were a number of highly qualified applicants, and the recruiter checked the references of the "first choice" first and made an offer. As an employee of a large company, I know that often these types of things happen - as hiring managers, we don't want to scare away a "second choice" qualified applicant if we're not sure that our "first choice" will accept. And then, sometimes, when the first choice does accept, in our excitement to get that person on board, we fail to get back to the other applicants. (I'm not justifying this rude behavior, I'm just saying that sometimes this does happen.)
One of the problems with being a "minority" is that sometimes we're too quick to attribute a perceived bias to racism or homophobia, when there could be a multitude of other explanations. We'll never know the true answer unless we're inside the other person's head.

Again, I wish to thank everyone for their comments--particulary those with encouraging words. That means the world to me.

The dialogue is continuing--which was one of my objectives in writing this important, landmark series.

I find it "inneresting"--to say the least--that there's this focus on NaNa. First, not once did I state that racism was the reason that NaNa did not get the position. (However, I do find it curious that the interviewers did not contact any of his references.) I simply posed questions, in an attempt to get the reader to entertain that maybe, just maybe, racism could have played a role in the situation. Let's open up our minds.

Now, let's get real--and stop being defensive. For decades upon decades, we all know that racism has (and continues to)adversely impacted people of color--particularly Blacks--in the employment arena. We all know that institutional racism lives on.

As I've stated, google Melissa Harris-Lacewell, and her eloquent commentary about racism for CNN in February.

Keep reading. "The Cancer that Slowly Consumes Our Very Souls" becomes more and more thought-provoking.

Wyatt,

Great writing and thanks for sharing your experiences. Good to learn more about you. Nice to know you are a good, normal person trying to make a decent living that unfortunately has experienced many various levels of racism and discrimination.

To me, your writing of NaNa was an example you were using, the major theme here was your real life experiences which aided in your writing of this series.

As a white gay male, you have a fan here, keep up the good work and thanks for sharing your experiences,

Norm

That's what makes employment discrimination so pernicious - even if you're sure it happened it's really hard to prove to others.

That's good that your class-action suit had a positive result.