Assimilation Is Inevitable for Black Professionals

 Did you decide on a career change during COVID-19 isolation? Are you a recent high school grad trying to choose a long-term career with low stress and perks?

Don’t choose horticulture.

Watering plants and putting around a greenhouse all day seems like an easy way to make a living. What’s not to love? Calming atmosphere and soothing greenery surround you while the musical sound of water bubbling from the hose plays softly in your ears…It’s like a dream job.

And that’s exactly what this image is — a dream. It’s fake.

The Realities of the Job.

Working in the horticulture industry is hot, sweaty, back-breaking work. There’s no standing still, listening to the birdies sing. I spent years getting my college degree in horticulture, then worked doing indoor plant maintenance and installation. I also managed a small greenhouse for three years.

My time was spent hauling ladders, full buckets of water, and heavy hoses. I climbed two stories on a ladder several times a week while dragging a hose with me to water plants hanging from the ceilings inside malls, restaurants, and office buildings. I had legs like a pro cyclist.

I also had to trim back any overgrowth of leaves and branches and haul away the remains. Dead or dying plants had to be pulled out of the installation and replaced with new ones. If the plant wasn’t dead yet, it had to be returned to the greenhouse and nursed back to health.

Understaffing is Common.

Running the greenhouse was no easier since I was the only full-time employee. In addition to hand-watering everything, plants had to be fed, trimmed, and repotted on a regular basis. The greenhouse had to be swept several times a week, tools cleaned and put away, and cooling coils on the evap maintained.

Lest you think that my being the only employee was unusual, let me tell you that understaffing is the norm in the horticulture trade. Three people usually do the work of seven to ten and make less money per hour than people who make now flipping burgers.

Pay is Low.

Starting pay for plant maintenance personnel is just above minimum wage (sorry!); folks with a degree are not in high demand, and having a degree doesn’t get you a lot more money. Pay for degreed horticulturalists hovers around $17 per hour, and you bust your butt for that money.

People working at big box stores are rarely horticulturalists unless they are department managers. Even then, they often hold the position by experience and seniority, not because of a degree. Most folks in the garden shop are just cashiers and many don’t know much about plants at all.

Horticulture is different from plant maintenance.

True horticulturalists have degrees with either a commercial/production focus or a science focus. Commercial horticulturalists are concerned with the growth and production of plants for agriculture, retail, or wholesale sales. Scientific horticulturalists learn to diagnose and treat various plant ailments, improve the health of breed stocks, and may work in the chemical industry. There is some overlap between these two specialties.

Despite having a Bachelor of Science degree, I still wound up doing hard physical labor.

I spent just seven years in the horticulture trade. At the end of that time, my knees and back were a wreck. After breathing damp greenhouse air, my lungs became sensitive to mildew and allergens, and I still sometimes need an inhaler for asthma. I gave up the career I’d trained for and became a retail bookseller — where I had to lift 50-pound boxes of books every day and stand for eight hours straight each shift. But it was still less physical than the demands of horticulture.


Listen, do yourself a favor. If you want to take care of plants, get yourself some houseplants or grow a garden in your backyard. Get a degree in a field that pays well and doesn’t wreck your body, then use your fat wallet to buy a chunk of land somewhere and enjoy your plant hobby.

Better yet, hire a horticulturalists.

Around this time last year, I had a professional breakthrough. Last summer, in the midst of various American institutions being taken to task for upholding systemic racism, I decided to shed my code-switching ways once and for all. Longtime readers may remember me pouring out a lil liquor for my White voice and making a personal promise to more closely align my out-of-office and on-the-clock personas. I’ve been logging on to work as my full Black self ever since.

I have no regrets about this subtle yet meaningful choice. Keepin’ it real hasn’t gone wrong yet. But if I’m being honest, there are still words and phrases in my vocabulary that I reserve for outside of work ecosystems. It’s especially palpable for me after spending weekends around my people — homecomings, weddings, cookouts, family reunions — before rejiggering the lexicon come Monday morning.

As soon as we were both seated, he started apologizing profusely, saying he had no idea of the connections between “itis” and harmful racial stigmas about laziness.

These tweaks aren’t about making anyone else feel comfortable. It’s more about reducing friction due to lingo getting lost in translation. For the sake of my sanity and convenience, what I want to say to my co-workers — whether in a meeting or during the small talk — is usually conveyed in a manner I know they’ll understand.

Working virtually has only heightened these differences. I find myself wanting to communicate in video meetings or via Slack the same way that I do on my Very Black group texts or when I’m engaging on Clubhouse. But I don’t have patience for the question mark or thinking-emoji replies. Below, I’ve listed five common phrases or words that have recently come to mind while working — and the five things I ended up saying instead.

What I want to say: I can’t wait until the outside opens back up.
What I say instead: 
I can’t wait until the pandemic is over.

On Black Twitter and other melanated corners of social media, “outside” is shorthand not just for anywhere beyond the walls of your home but particularly a context where folks are free to turn up at functions without fear. That time and place are still in flux as Covid-19 is popping up with more variants than Loki these days. But until then, I’ll keep the colloquialism outside of my corporate comms.

What I want to say: Nah.
What I say instead: 

This one is simple, but the reason I’m mindful about using “Nah” is twofold. First, it sounds lazy when spoken and dismissive in the text — like “no” with a dash of IDGAF. It’s already hard enough to convey enthusiasm these days.

The other reason I don’t say “Nah” to my co-workers: Those damn Rosa Parks T-shirts have gone mainstream. Something tells me I work with a few folks who barely passed their African American studies college elective — they’d probably think I’m quoting a historic civil-rights icon when really I’m just saying I haven’t confirmed a proposed meeting time.

What I want to say: I have the itis.
What I say instead: I’m stuffed.

At a past job, I once overheard a White co-worker say he had “the itis” following what I’d imagine was a hearty lunch, full of foods that were either fried or processed as all hell. It struck me how casually he said it, especially considering that I never refer to itis in front of mixed company. I didn’t think he intended to offend, but I was also pretty sure he was ignorant to that word’s origin. I saw it as a teachable moment.

“Hey, Jeff,” I said. “Do you know where that term comes from?” He admitted he didn’t, and I told him to do his Googles. Within a few minutes, he booked a meeting room for us to talk. As soon as we were both seated, he started apologizing profusely, saying he had no idea of the connections between “itis” and harmful racial stigmas about laziness. I’m glad I got the chance to tell him “postprandial somnolence” — or “food coma” — works just fine.

What I want to say: Yessir!
What I say instead: Yep.

Not all AAVE holds up when being spelled out; “yessir” is one of those words. When I was in the office, if a co-worker asked if I watched Game of Thrones the night before, “yessir!” would leap out of my mouth, word to 2000s-era Jay-Z and Pharrell. Simple enough. But when committed to text, it just looks like my spacebar is broken.

What I want to say: Prayers up.
What I say instead: 
My condolences.

This well-intentioned, bare-minimum means of expressing sympathy is often accompanied on social media by that ubiquitous prayer hand emoji. And while we’ve all seen colleagues experience personal hardships and loss, “prayers up” is a bit too casual. Plus, the religious subtext is probably better served outside of the workplace. Amen to that.

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