Sinclair: Share about a time you felt unwelcome when working while Black. What happened? What did you take away from the experience/incident/situation?
Terry: This experience that comes to mind involved the police while doing my job while working in residence life at a PWI as a professional staff employee. I was performing my duties of being on call, and I had two experiences that really stuck with me.
The first experience: I was responding to a duty call at 2 am in the morning.
The call came from the township police. When I arrived – note that I had my badge/nametag, clipboard, and all – the police officer shouted, “Back up, get out of here!”I responded, “Ma’am, you called me.”
She then said I called for a professional Residence Life staff person. I stared at her, holding my badge in my hand that read “Coordinator, Residence Life.” I then said, “Like I said, you called me.”
The second experience was a little more light-hearted because it involved our campus police who all knew me pretty well. I responded to a smoke alarm 3 am in the morning and when I got there, one of the officers said to me, “Hey Terry, sorry but you didn’t get a call from us earlier that you should have.” He went on to tell me the situation. It involved drugs and a possible threat with a firearm.
On my drive back home, I thought to myself, “If my kid was in college, and this happened, I would want someone to check in on them, even if it was 3am in the morning.”
So I turned around and proceeded to the apartment complex.
I knocked on the door, and no one answered. I could see the lights on and can hear them talking. I thought about how these students just experienced a traumatic event and about how they didn’t know me. I loudly announced myself and showed my badge via their door’s peephole.
After a 1-minute wait, the door finally opened. Two females – who happened to be Caucasian – looked very nervous when they opened the door. I went on to announce who I was and why I was there. Most importantly, I wanted to make sure they felt safe. They seemed to relax quickly. They told me their story and said they were okay. I gave them my business card along with the duty cell phone number written on the back. I told them to call me if they changed their mind.
On the way home, I get a call on the duty phone from police services. They said, “Hey Terry, did you stop by that apartment I just told you about?”
I asked why.
They told me that the girls from that apartment called police and reported that “some black guy came by their apartment saying he was a coordinator.”
I just laughed.
Sinclair: What advice would you give to another Black professional who is feeling tired, defeated and/or hopeless?
Terry: My advice would be stay true to yourself. If your institution doesn’t like your true self, consider moving. Lastly, find time for yourself. There is a saying, “If you died tomorrow, they’d post your job before they posted your obituary.”
Sinclair: In regard to your colleagues that don’t identify as Black: what is one way they continue to send the message of “You don’t belong here” to you – intentionally or unintentionally?
Terry: I had a great conversation with my supervisor regarding dress code. The dress code does not only affect race, but also ethnicity, gender, and SES. I told my supervisor that I wouldn’t participate in casual Fridays, because I didn’t want to be mistaken for the delivery guy.
Sinclair: What do you do for self-care?
Terry: Write and read.
Sinclair: What’s something you’re working to unlearn about what it means to be Black?
Terry: Think about the negative messages and stories you’ve internalized about your own identity. I tend not to let experience affect my identity, but instead allow it to contribute to my narrative.
Learn more about the Working While Black Series and share your story.
Terry Watson has worked in Student Affairs – specifically Residence Life – for six years before making his way to disability services in 2011. Prior to Higher Education, he worked for the state as a behavioral specialist providing therapy to children and teens with special needs. On a personal note, he’s holding engaging conversations around the country on policing and communities of color through an initiative called The Battle w. Moses People, When Black Lives Matters meets Blue Lives Matters
Learn more about Terry and connect: Email