Nels Abbey’s ‘Think Like A White Man’ Hilariously Captures The Realities Of Working In Corporate Spaces

Words: Jesse Bernard

In the 2016 movie Hidden Figures, there’s a scene where Taraji P. Henson’s character Katherine Johnson walked over to the coffee machine in the NASA building where she worked. As she approached the machine, she was met with stern, bemused looks from the faces of her white, male colleagues, as though to suggest it was an audacity in and of itself that she was making coffee.

Not only did this particular scenario feel familiar to much of the film’s black audience, it presented a reality that still exists for many black professionals working in majority white institutions and corporations. In his debut book, Think Like A White Man, writer and media professional Nels Abbey explores the fragile nature of being a black professional in white corporations and the perils that often come with that. However, rather than a sombre, melancholic atmosphere, Abbey approaches the topic with a satirical lens through the imagined narrator Dr. Boulé Whytelaw III, who provides a go-to guide on how to navigate said spaces.

Although there are serious and pertinent conversations to be had with how black people are treated and regarded in the workplace, the reality is that black people will continue to work in these spaces often risking their own mental health and physical wellbeing. Abbey does well to convey the multitude of issues that blacks are faced with and although lighthearted in tone, he approaches the topic with a level of care and understanding that allows readers to engage beyond the satire and confront the ways in which they navigate the workspace.

Nels Abbey’s own experience working in banking and media informed the experiences he explores in Think Like A White Man. Through creating an imaginary character and removing himself from the conversation though, he allows readers to look beyond the personal and observe the issues that arise in the British workplace. It observes the class politics black professionals often have to wrestle with, which is a particularly pertinent aspect of the book. Most black people in the UK carry out low-paid, unskilled labour with the majority being working class, and while the dynamics can differ from working in an office environment, Think Like A White Man presents the stark reality of what it is like to be black and working.

Abbey goes as far to reference the imagined world of the 1992 film Boomerang, where Eddie Murphy’s character Marcus was a senior figure in what appeared to be a black-owned and run creative agency. Going out and creating our own businesses isn’t always an effective solution to racism in the workplace, as there are often institutional and systemic barriers that prevent black people from doing so. Yet, it’s an idea that is also called into question through Dr Boulé Whytelaw’s commentary.

There have been countless stories told of workplaces offering less-qualified white professionals more than more-qualified black professionals, racial microaggressions in regards to appearance, hair, and even lunch. Hearing your line manager casually drop ‘nigga’ while Kendrick Lamar plays in the office is a cross no one should have to bear, and one we’re not taught to deal with, but unfortunately, it is all too common. Abbey even provides a handy equation that shows the true cost of black people having to work twice as hard often to receive the same, or less, than our white peers.

En masse, this is a relatively contemporary experience following the increase in young working-class blacks attending university since the Labour government introduced student loans. Diversity & Inclusion schemes and HR policies are effectively redundant as they often fail to recognise the barriers black professionals are working against before they even step in the building. Abbey doesn’t present or offer tangible, realistic solutions but instead asks something more profound of the book’s readers—to interrogate the varying ways in which black people are forced to assimilate.

The age-old black proverb that suggests we have to work twice as hard as white folk is called into question by Abbey, and the satirical approach takes the question further by asking what we are working towards by examining the result of that equation.

Posted on June 19, 2019