I was staring at my hysterical white female coworker—we’ll call her Karen—who was screaming, “You’re not going to talk to me that way! You’ve already turned them [our supervisors] against me!”
I watched as a crimson rage charted a path up her chest to her neck and made its home on her face. There was snot. There were tears.
All because I wouldn’t play Mammy or Black bestie for her personal comfort.
I’ll refrain from getting into all the details of how I ended up watching Karen unravel in front of my eyes. You’re likely aware of how little it can take for a white woman to perform this kind of rage and fragility publicly, but what happens in the moments and days after are what still leave me filled with anger.
Karen and I had the same supervisor, a white man who I can only describe as false and friendly to a fault. He reminded me of the father in Jordan Peele’s ‘Get Out’: middle-aged and mediocre. We’d managed to have what he referred to as a “blossoming” friendship. Personally, I didn’t trust him, but at the time I didn’t see the harm in allowing him to think that way.
However, his messiness soon began to impact me.
He’d been aware that things weren’t going well between me and Karen, but because we were “friends” he’d vent about Karen, instead of intervening. And when Karen had her meltdown, my so-called “friend” decided not to put his supervisor hat on. Instead, he hid in his office. All the supervisors did the same, rather than step in and stop the verbal assault.
When discipline had to be doled out, I learned that Karen accused me of harassing, demeaning, and intimidating her. I’d done none of those things – she had NO evidence supporting her claims. But I had evidence of my claims against her: the whole office heard her tirade against me.
She was written up, and I was not, but my all-white chain of command made sure I paid for making one of theirs cry.
Lighting gas lamps
There is a shadow position Black women must work at almost every job they take: managing the white people around us. Anything you do, or don’t do, can be seen as a form of aggression. Don’t smile enough? You’re angry. Don’t chat with someone in the breakroom? You’re mean. Forget to put exclamation points in an email? You have a tone. Stick up for yourself? You’re not a team player.
The list is vast and never ending.
Your very existence in the workplace can be weaponized against you the moment you do something they don’t approve of.
When working with Karen, I’d suffer regular indignities. When I mentioned my concern that Karen might be unstable enough to take her harassment claims to the police, our manager laughed in my face. In another meeting he would express his disappointment in me for not “being the bigger person” and extending forgiveness to Karen—even though she’d never apologized for her behavior. In that same meeting, after I suggested that she and I have a moderated conversation to get it all settled, he asked me, “How is she supposed to feel if I get her alone in a room with you?!”
In her article ‘Racism at My Job Literally Gave Me PTSD’, Dr. Monnica Williams talks about how these behaviors can impact Black people:
“If one microaggression was all we ever had to deal with, I don’t think any of us would be complaining, but because it happens so often and unpredictably, the stress is cumulative. You don’t have any control over it. And it … cuts at the heart of important parts of our identity.”
Holding on to reality and sanity
The discombobulation I felt after Karen’s outburst is still hard to describe. I went from outperforming my co-workers to being seen as a common enemy for them to bond over. In the thick of it all, I started looking for answers about what was happening and how I could manage it.
I searched for information on how to navigate a toxic workplace as a Black woman and found two articles – About the Weary Weaponizing of White Women Tears and Weapon of Lass Destruction: The Tears of a White Woman. After reading them, two things became evident. One: every day, Black women are reporting to professional spaces that treat them with hostility, malice, disregard, and disrespect. Two: I’d been experiencing this kind of violence since I started working as a teenager.
Vague reprimands about not smiling enough. A customer saying I had an attitude. Supervisors saying they couldn’t read me. Supervisors saying I look angry. Co-workers complaining I didn’t sit with. A co-worker claiming I was talking down to them. I could look at my entire work history and remember each uncomfortable and demeaning incident. My body and words were constantly being monitored for signs of hostility, and if someone couldn’t find it, they weren’t above making it up.
When I spoke to Black people about these encounters, they recognized what was happening, validated my concerns, commiserated by sharing their own experiences, and gave advice on managing the situation. Speaking to white people I trusted often ended with a dismissive Well perhaps they didn’t mean it that way or My assertive white friend gets treated the same way.
Volleying between white denial and Black affirmation would sometimes make me wonder if I was being too sensitive or if my experiences were even real.
But once I realized what was happening to me was not new, just the latest and most violent iteration of workplace racism I’d experienced to date, I felt both relieved and angry. I wasn’t losing my mind. Those baffling interactions were clear manifestations of racism and misogyny.
From gaslights to a blaze
As I continued to hear more accounts from other Black women, I learned that it didn’t matter the industry they worked in or how famous or successful they were, eventually someone would feel the need to remind them of their “place.”
Drafting this article has been difficult. How do I write what happened without re-harming myself? I felt so alone when this situation first began, but, as time went on, I learned every Black woman I knew had stories like mine.
This discovery led me to create a documentary short, named Twice as Hard, Half as Much, that explores the intersections of workplace racism and sexism, how Black women address it, and its psychological toll. I’m so honored that the women I talked to allowed me to share their stories and insights. I hope to raise money to make a feature-length version and hear from more Black women about this vast topic.
In the end I was able to escape that toxic workplace. I landed somewhere much better for me in every way… still, occasionally a distant white co-worker gets that look in their eye. But this time, I will be more prepared.