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‘People are less careful ... when they don’t realize there’s a Black person in the room’

A school HR director discusses the unsettling access her light skin can provide

Heather Miller is the human resources director at Milestones Day School and Transition Program in Waltham. She said: "Throughout life I’ve heard, 'I don’t think of you as Black,' or 'You don’t look Black to me,' or 'You’re not ‘Black Black.' People usually don’t mean any harm, but it’s really insensitive to tell someone they don’t look like what they just told you they are."Jonathan Wiggs/Globe Staff

Heather Miller is the human resources director at Milestones Day School and Transition Program in Waltham, a therapeutic school for students on the autism spectrum and with other social-emotional therapeutic needs. Here, she talks about how surprised some people are when they find out she’s mixed race, and why that reaction hurts — as told to Globe reporter Katie Johnston. Part of Inequality at Work, an occasional series of personal essays by people of color working in the Boston area.

I am mixed race, Black and white, and I assume people know. I have curly hair; I have olive skin; I have some Black features. But I can appear racially ambiguous, especially in the winter when I’m paler. And people are less careful about how they say things when they don’t realize there’s a Black person in the room. You hear what they’re actually thinking but might not say otherwise.

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When I worked for a large health care company, negative comments were being made at a meeting about a department with a lot of government contractors, a number of whom were minorities. I don’t remember the specifics, but I think it was something about them being lazy or not showing up on time. I said, “You know I’m Black, right?” And the room just kind of stopped. People said, “Oh, I thought you were Spanish. Oh, I thought you were Indian,” trying to cover their tracks, probably out of embarrassment. I think I picked up my stuff and left the room because it was so uncomfortable.

At the school where I work now, at a meeting three or four years ago, a former leader noted that all staff, a majority of whom are white, should be mindful of implicit bias and society’s tendency to treat African American students unfairly. I made the comment, “I can really understand it from both sides.” Again, the room stopped, and some people looked puzzled. When I told them I was mixed, they seemed very surprised.

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Throughout life I’ve heard, “I don’t think of you as Black,” or “You don’t look Black to me,” or “You’re not ‘Black Black.’” People usually don’t mean any harm, but it’s really insensitive to tell someone they don’t look like what they just told you they are. It’s hurtful because, as the daughter of a Black man and a white woman with red hair and freckles, it’s pointing out something I’ve heard a lot.

There are many positive responses that aren’t invalidating, like, “That’s awesome, tell me about your family.” Saying, “I had no idea, I couldn’t tell,” makes me feel unseen. I can’t imagine a person telling me, “I’m German and Irish,” and replying, “Oh, you don’t look white.”

The surprise alone, even if it’s not aggressive or malicious, is an example of the cultural insensitivities woven into this country. It shows the lingering systemic racism in the United States, stemming from the time not so long ago when Blacks and whites weren’t allowed to get married. And I think it’s still this unspoken expectation for those who refuse to open their minds.

My current job has an inclusive and culturally sensitive environment, but there aren’t many Black employees, and when you’re the only minority in the room, you’re aware of it.

One time when I was coming into work with braids, I wondered, should I give my boss a heads up? I got worried because of how I’d seen Black people treated in other companies, and even myself growing up, getting teased when I tried to wear my hair naturally. Braids and dreadlocks are sometimes wrongfully considered unprofessional or unclean due to the racist policies that some companies still follow. I didn’t end up warning anybody about my hair, and everyone loved my braids. But past trauma made me second-guess showing up that way.

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When I went to an unemployment hearing to represent the school a few years ago, the person who greeted me immediately assumed I was the former employee there to contest the unemployment determination. A judgment was made that as a minority, I must have been unemployed — and not worthy of being asked who I actually was.

I’ve been able to make positive changes, though. During my first year on the job, I noticed that Martin Luther King Jr. Day was a full school day. A year-round special-education school is required to be in session a certain number of days, and the holidays don’t always match a typical school schedule. MLK Day falls close to two other breaks, so it wasn’t an ideal day to take off, timing-wise. But we really needed to take a look at what message we were inadvertently sending by not making it a holiday. Recognizing Martin Luther King Jr.’s contributions to the civil rights of not only Black people but of women and those with disabilities is something that is so important in this country. Overlooking that felt disheartening. But the executive team truly heard me and agreed how important it was. Now it’s an official school holiday.

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I have to recognize my privilege. There are probably ways I get treated better because my skin is light. That’s not to say I don’t get followed in stores or questioned hard around certain things. But I can’t say my trouble is the same as my good friend’s, who is a professor from West Africa. There might be audiences I have access to that she doesn’t. It makes me feel like I have even more of a responsibility to speak up.

I think of how my grandmother would call places with job openings, and they would ask if she was Black and then hang up the phone when she said yes. I think of myself as a child at a holiday party when an older white man announced to the whole room, “The only thing I like Black is my coffee,” and no one challenged him.

It’s not always comfortable to do that. But that little girl deserved to have someone stand up for her, even years later. I have to do it not just for myself and my daughter, I have to do it for my grandmother, and the ones who came before her. I have to use my own privilege and success to influence any community I’m part of. We have to give people the opportunity to learn and encourage them to do better, even when it hurts like hell.

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Heather Miller can be reached at heathermiller349@gmail.com.

To tell your story, contact workplace reporter Katie Johnston at katie.johnston@globe.com. Explore the full Inequality at Work series.


Katie Johnston can be reached at katie.johnston@globe.com. Follow her on Twitter @ktkjohnston.