TheGrio’s Christmas party guide for Black employees

OPINION: For people who work in white spaces, attending the office holiday party can be a traumatic experience … until now.

Editor’s note: The following article is an op-ed, and the views expressed are the author’s own. Read more opinions on theGrio.

For most Black professionals, nothing induces anxiety like an office Christmas party.

While most white people live in white neighborhoods and work in racially homogenous workplaces, the vast majority of Black professionals work in environments that are majority white. Smiling through 40 hours of caucasity is an unwritten requirement in every job description, but there will likely come a time when you will find yourself face-to-face in a social situation with your white co-worker.

Every Black employee has suffered through a Juneteenth ice cream social or an MLK Day moment of silence. You may have managed to stop Sheila in accounting from touching your daughter’s hair when you ran into her at a Little League football game, but December is different. Whether it’s an ugly sweater breakroom kickback, a formal holiday soirée, a Secret Santa gift exchange or a lunch-hour breakroom kickback, Christmastime is when Black people are expected to interact with their on-the-job microaggressors off the clock.

To prepare you for this experience, theGrio has teamed up with the Black Legislative American Cookout Council (BLACC) along with the Professional Employees at Outside Parties and Labor Events Organization (PEOPLE) to create the BLACC/PEOPLE Handbook for Holiday Parties. 

And if you’re wondering what cookouts have to do with a workplace holiday event, think about it. This is the time of year when white people come together during their time off for food, games and fun. You might meet parts of your work family you’ve never met, there is music that everyone knows, and you might even dance. But you can only attend if you are invited.  

Basically, workplace Christmas parties are white cookouts.

Before You Arrive

Unlike most events you attend, you already know “who all gon’ be there.” However, you still have a few decisions to make. 

Your first consideration must be your attire. If your job requires you to wear a uniform or you work in a corporate environment, your co-workers may have never seen you in your “Black clothes.” That’s why it’s important to always have a stash of “white clothes.” If it is a casual event like an “ugly sweater” party, Black men should invest in a pair of khakis, a pair of boat shoes and a holiday-themed sweater (No Stacy Adams; no Jordans). Make sure your shirt has Santa Claus or Christmas trees. Wearing a non-Christmas sweater that you deem “ugly” can have disastrous effects. Don’t show up in a hideous cardigan that Bob loves to wear to the supermarket. 

Never wear form-fitting attire. This suggestion has nothing to do with white men’s tendency to violate the sexual harassment policy when they drink. It’s about the white women at the party. You will spend all of 2023 wondering why the office Karen suddenly started giving you the side-eye. It’s because she feels a mixture of jealousy and inadequacy after you showed up in a sweater dress. In many workspaces, Black women’s bodies are considered “inappropriate attire.”

I also recommend that you never bring a date — even if you are afforded a plus-one. Trust me, no matter how much your significant other loves you, they don’t want to mingle all night with white people. Even if you bring a platonic friend, you run the risk of them revealing information that you wanted to keep private. When Sheila asks why you didn’t invite her to Tulum with your girlfriends last spring, do you want to explain that she’s not your friend friend just because she works in the cubicle next to yours? How are you gonna tell your boss that you lied about your aunt’s funeral so you can go to Tuskegee’s homecoming?

Also, when your CFO asks your date if they work in janitorial services, things might explode. 

You know we all look alike. 

How long should you stay?

If you are Black, the length of time you spend at any event is divided into four categories:

  • Showing your face: This is the shortest amount of time you can spend at an event. Also called “stopping by,” the decision to just “show your face” requires a lot of pre-planning. The key is to arrive at the height of the party when everyone is there perhaps during the gift exchange. Alternately, you can show up at the end of the night and pretend that you have been there the entire time. Skilled face showers like myself will arrive early, announce that they left something in the car and never return. 
  • A minute: Commonly known as “just speaking,” this is the most elastic unit of time. In Black parlance, going someplace for “a minute” might be 17 minutes or it might be two hours. Whatever the case may be, staying for “a minute” usually comes with a descriptor. A “hot minute” is the shortest denomination of a minute, followed by “a few minutes.” And, if you are seeking a promotion, a raise or just want to convince your boss that you are part of the workplace “culture,” you would stay for a “good lil’ minute.”
  • A while: Congratulations! If you stay at a white Christmas party for “a while,” you’re probably higher up in the organization. It’s unseemly to show your face if you are a supervisor or an executive with underlings who stay for the entire event. 
  • Might as well: This is what you do when you play it by ear. A “might as well” is used to transition between the previously mentioned categories. Maybe you intended to show your face and realize that you “might as well stay for a minute” if your boss is there. Maybe you planned to stay for a hot minute and realized there’s an open bar. In that case, you might as well stay for a while. 

Interactions

Because 58 percent of Black employees say they have experienced some form of racism in the workplace, you should know that there is no difference between the workplace environment and the “holiday mood.” The “Christmas spirit” is as racist as three o‘clock on a Wednesday. Your colleagues may smile more at the holiday soirée, but they are the same people who you work with every day.

Black employees don’t have the privilege of being professional at work and letting their hair down when they are off the clock. If you are a Black woman who wears a Caucasian-approved hairstyle at work, you can’t show your natural hair during the Santa shindig. If you code-switch during your work hours, your co-workers might not recognize you if you use your outside voice. Even though it’s Jesus’ birthday party, you still have to absorb the microaggressions and the white shade that you face daily. However, there’s a key to navigating all of this unseasoned workplace trauma:

Keep it moving.

Getting involved in a long conversation with a white co-worker is just asking for trouble. If you stand there and listen to Jim talk about his fishing boat, he may make an offhanded remark about how he knows you can’t swim. Don’t go off when Carol asks what “your people do” for Christmas as if you’re from outer space. Just keep it moving. To avoid slapping a work associate, you may want to limit your conversations to three subjects:

  1. Sports: This is usually safe territory. Talk about the World Cup, whether Tom Brady will retire or who’s gonna win the championship. However, don’t bring up LeBron or Colin Kaepernick unless you want to hear a rant about “athletes.”
  2. Family: Asking about your fellow employees’ kids is always a good bet. It might be boring to hear about dance recitals or how smart little Timmy is, but the worst-case scenario is having to spend $17 on Girl Scout cookies. Of course, you can say you left your wallet in the car and then leave.
  3. Music: If there’s one subject that Black and white people have in common, it’s music. All music is Black music, so you may be pleasantly surprised that Chad is a big fan of the Wu-Tang Clan. Or, you might shock the guy in HR when he discovers that you know something about Nirvana.

You also want to avoid any of these three subjects:

  1. The past: Unless you want to hear about how good America had it when Reagan was president before the world got so “woke.”
  2. The present: This might take you into politics, and you might discover that your boss is a diehard Trump supporter.
  3. The future: You risk finding out that there’s gonna be a round of layoffs and ruin your Christmas.

Food and Drinks

The key to surviving a Christmas party is eating before you get there. 

If it’s a potluck, do you really want to spend your Christmas vacation with the bubbleguts because you ate green bean casserole cooked by Laura the cat lady in the IT department? If the event is catered, you’re gonna have dry ham and chicken seasoned with frankincense and myrrh. There is, however, one caveat to this strategy:

Dessert.

White people go all out on their holiday treats. Who knew you could top gingerbread cookies with peppermint candy cane sprinkles? Powdered sugar snowflakes over a key lime Christmas tree cake will make you re-evaluate every church basement pound cake. I can’t front; Jesus has the best birthday cakes!

And for His sake, limit your drinking around white people. Alcohol tends to make you speak what’s on your mind, and you don’t want to be called into a meeting because you were ranting about how Santa is a capitalist, white supremacist construct and Kwanzaa is better. When they gather around the open bar and start screaming “Shots! Shots! Shots…,” grab your coat and wish them a Merry Christmas.

Also, if a white person asks if you “party,” they’re offering you cocaine.

I told you, white parties are different.

White Christmas Traditions

At the Christmas party you must be aware of Caucasian Christmas practices:

  1. Caroling: Black people don’t go to strangers’ homes and start singing because someone is gonna call the police, the cops will assume it is a Black Lives Matter rally and start pepper-spraying carolers. Plus, do you know the lyrics to “God Rest Ye Merry Gentlemen”?
  2. Mistletoe: Yes, mistletoe is actually a thing. Unless you want your personal space invaded by someone who smells a little bit like pennies, don’t fall for it. That’s what happened to Black Wall Street.
  3. Presents: If there is a gift swap, don’t fall for the trap of getting a “gag gift.” Let your co-workers trade candy-cane-colored dildos and inappropriately endowed elves. If you really want to give a gag gift, give them a gift certificate to a Black-owned business. 
  4. Santa: White people do this thing where they pretend Santa Clause is real. I can’t figure out if they’re playing or not so, just to be safe, when someone asks what Santa is bringing you, go with it. The thought of receiving a gift just because you were born might seem strange to you, but that is the technical definition of white privilege.
  5. They’re not talking about snow: When they say they’re dreaming of a White Christmas, they’re talking about Santa, the Three Wise Men, Mrs. Claus, the elves, and even Jesus. The only non-white Christmas figure is Rudolph.
  6. Music: You won’t hear any Donny Hathaway at your Christmas party and the unmelanated version of “Silent Night” does not begin with “In my mind…” And, in case you were wondering, white people actually have yule logs and roast chestnuts on open fires.

Leaving

Unlike African-American holiday celebrations, you can just leave a white Christmas party. 

As a Black person, you may feel the African-American urge to announce your departure or tell every individual goodbye. However, the most you’ll ever hear a white person say is that they’re getting ready to “rock and roll.” In fact, if you don’t leave quietly, someone will definitely pose the question: “So soon?” While this may make you think you’re being asked to stay “for a while,” that’s just Caucasian for goodbye. Also, if you are ever told that they “haven’t even gotten to the good part, yet,” don’t believe it. There is no good part. You can go home. 

After all, you’ve been there for “a minute.”

God Bless ye merry gentlemen.


Michael Harriot is a writer, cultural critic and championship-level Spades player. His book, Black AF History: The Unwhitewashed Story of America, will be released in 2023.

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