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Systemic Racism, Racial Hostility, and Your Employer

Updated: Feb 4, 2021

This is a hard one. I have been carrying around a lot of anger and frustration in regard to a previous work experience for a long time. If you see yourself in this post I am sorry if it hurts you, but I am now free from feeling the need to protect you from embarrassment while sacrificing my own human decency and peace of mind.

Please excuse me while I unload.

It was my first week at a new job and my boss was tasked with taking my headshot. I believe it was a Friday because my hair was in a bun (close to wash day). My boss saw me that morning and smiled and said "Oh! We should take your picture today because your hair is nice and neat". I gave her the side eye (in my mind) and said "ok". I am a black female with natural hair. The following pictures are what my hair normally looked like.

These images were taken at my desk (same job).

We went in the photo studio so she could take my picture. She took several pictures, fiddled around with the camera and then she stopped and looked at me and said "I can't get the lighting right, I think it must be your skin color."

I wish I was making this up! I wish this didn't happen in real life. I also wish the idea that someone's skin color could make it impossible to get a proper photo was true. But you see, I am a photographer. I was hired by this same woman to be the "Video Production Specialist". My job description meant that I was in charge of shooting, editing, and producing all the company's videos AND photos.

So, I know very well that what my boss suggested to me was ridiculous. These first two experiences were simply foreshadowing what would become the most dreadful and valuable work experiences I have ever had.

Here's a bit of back story.

I volunteered in a doctor's office owned by 3 black female doctors at the age of 14. I volunteered until I became a Certified Nurse Assistant at 16. From the age of 14 to about 28 years old I worked in 3 different doctor's offices all of whom were black. They hired staff of varied races... White, Black, Filipino, Puerto Rican, etc. I also attended a Historically Black College (HBCU). My only work experiences were in black owned doctor's offices, teaching music for a black owned music school, and doing freelance video production for myself. So, honestly, I never experienced any kind of racial tension in a work environment. I completely forgot that my skin and hair might make some people uncomfortable.

Fast forward back to my new job. Sure, most everyone was nice, made small talk, I had a couple of friends even, but I dreaded EVERY SINGLE DAY of going to that job for 5 years. Just about everyday something happened that made me ANGRY! Not to mention, I was the only black female that was hired during the 5 years I was there. The company had 13 offices around the country, and I was the ONLY one for 5 years. There were maybe 4 black men that came and went. The following are a few things that happened while I was there.

  1. I straightened my hair, as I normally did to get it trimmed. I bumped into the HR manager in the hallway, she looked into my eyes with intent and said "I like your hair, you should keep it that way, sometimes a change is good."

  2. I was in a meeting with my boss and the rest of the marketing department. We were planning my trip to New Jersey to shoot a customer testimonial video. My boss asked me to list a few things the customer needed to be camera ready... like what to wear etc. I listed translucent powder for their face. She burst into laughter ( in a room full of people) and said "yeah, cause I'm sure you don't have the right color". We never saw or met the person that was going to be on camera, she just assumed they were white.

  3. I was walking down the hall one day and I heard my co-worker say "Well, it's not like he's lynching people in their offices". I couldn't believe what I heard! I went to the person she was talking to (because we were cordial) and I asked him what they were talking about. He turned red and said, "Oh... she is making my reservations for my trip to South Africa and there are a lot of questions you have to answer about whether or not you are apart of a hate group, she was just joking around."

  4. I had several conversations with our senior accountant about hair. She always had questions about it. One day, I was in the restroom and she spoke to me from the stall. She came out and grabbed my head and started searching through my hair as if to be looking for something. No, she did not wash her hands first.

  5. One day I was eating lunch in the break room (which was rare). I sat at a table with the senior accountant (same woman from the bathroom) and another accountant. They were talking, I wasn't. Before I knew it, the senior account rolled up the stack of papers she had and started swatting me over the head with it. Without reason, explanation...just swatting... After I was done eating I went back to my desk and sent her an email telling her she was out of line and to never do it again.

  6. I found out that I was the lowest paid in the Marketing Department. By lowest I mean, 3 times lower than my counterparts and hourly while they were salary AND I had an assistant. Mind you, I had a Bachelors degree and a Master's degree in a subject directly related to my job. My new boss (yes, I prayed the first boss away) fought to get me a raise and get me moved up to be salary. The CEO agree to giving me a raise (not the full amount), but refused to make me a salaried employee. Side note: When you apply for certain jobs they always ask what your previous compensation was, if you were hourly or salary. These things play a part in how you can negotiate your pay. Also, salaried employees got bonuses with our employer.

  7. I applied for a new position (within the same company I worked for) that I was over qualified for that paid more than I was currently making. My new boss encouraged me to apply because she couldn't get the CEO to make me salary. She had no idea I had a Master's Degree. I applied and the CEO ignored my application until I asked him about it. Finally, he sent me a denial letter.

  8. I was shooting an even the at our office where the CEO was giving a presentation. There were quite a few big wigs from around the city in the room, several other scientist, and doctors (I was the only black person). The event happened to be the same night as the Democratic debate. Our CEO began his presentation by saying "it's a good thing nobody in this room will have to leave to catch the Democratic Debate. (not all black people are democrats but...)

  9. My second week on the job we were going on a a team outing. We were passing through a part of town that some people in the city were working to revitalize. I was new to the job and the city so I didn't have anything to add to the conversation. However, a coworker said "they are really trying to do something about this part of town, but these THUGS that control the city are trying to stop it". Another coworker responded "no, the people that control the city are white". The first coworker responded "I know, I was talking about thugs... you know like... mafia, head honcho type thugs". I sat there in awe thinking "why did she ever assume 'thug' was synonymous with black, and why we she ok saying that in front of me".

  10. Here's a funny one. The person in charge of panning events for the office asked me why I didn't submit a baby picture for the company's "Guess the Employee" game. "You should submit a picture," she said, "there is a good prize!" Unfortunately, I had to remind her that I was the ONLY black person in the office and I was sure everyone would know it was me. She felt bad, I told her it was fine (she was a very sweet lady).

Unfortunately, this list could go on and on and on. These are not overtly racist events. Racism has grown up to be quiet, sophisticated, covert...systemic. This was an environment where I could not trust that the people who smiled in my face and had water cooler chit chat with me, had my best interest at heart. I felt a "these people probably go home and talk about black people and come here in the morning and smile at me." Every day I felt worn out. I had to be so careful about choosing when and how to stand up for myself. I knew that if I did stand up for myself I would be ignored or brushed off because there was literally no one there who didn't see the world through white privilege glasses. Not to mention, many of the offensive statements and actions that took place were at the hands of the company's executives.

My experiences are not unique. There are soooooo many black people who have had similar and even worse experiences than mine. We have to be agile, quiet, strategic, patient, forgiving, subdued... all just to get along in a work place. In many cases we have be completely different people from who we are at home just to make people comfortable, it's exhausting. I remember when they hired a black guy who worked on the other side of the building. I was so excited! There was somebody who got me.

There was a day I overheard a coworker asking another coworker why her kids call her Felicia. "They are always saying, 'bye Felicia' to me and I don't know why." I then heard the other woman say "Oh, it's a thing the kids are saying that means leave me alone."

I shook my head and I immediately sent my new black "friend" (we never really talked, only gave each other the head nod, and a look from across the room here and there) a message on our internal app:

Me: Have you ever seen the movie Friday?

Him: Of course!!

Me: describes what happened with coworker...


It felt good that I had a "person".

For 4 years I felt like I didn't have anyone to advocate for me, I couldn't trust my pay, and had to deal with comments about my hair, skin, and ALL KINDS of remarks during the 2016 election. I even missed VERY FEW days of work (after running out of sick days) after being diagnosed with a brain tumor because being at work was more important to my employer than my health.

My 4th year there the marketing department was dismantled and I was the last man standing. I was moved to a different department, but I had the best boss ever!!!!! She literally fought for me and was there for me all along the way while I was sick. She was a white woman. I say this because it is not necessarily about companies having to hire a bunch of black people (especially just for the sake of doing it) it's about actually caring for your employees, advocating for them, and creating a safe and healthy work environment like my last boss did. And she had her own battles to fight... coughs*misogyny*coughs.

If you are white and you are wondering what you can do during this time of racial unrest, you can use your privilege to advocate for your employees and coworkers of color. Ask your HR manager or CEO what the company's plan of action is to create a healthy and safe environment. Ask about posting a Black Lives Matter banner on the company website to let black people who are looking for employment know where you stand. Push for making Juneteenth and MLK day paid company holidays. If you hear a racist or insensitive joke SPEAK UP! Don't just laugh it off, or look away. These are the things that make a difference. You have to be willing to make people uncomfortable with being racially prejudice.

(Image taken at my desk on Martin Luther King Jr. Day)

If you are unsure where your company stands, look around. If you notice a lack of color in your office, you either own or you are working for a problematic company that is contributing to systemic racism.

This experience was extremely valuable to me because it made me realize the importance of representation and helped me to make the decision to NEVER work form someone else again (God willing)!

Like Beyonce said, "Always be gracious, the best revenge is your paper". And I've worked for myself ever since.

I wish somebody WOULD tell me what to do with my hair today!

Register Now for the Racism is Deadly Virtual 5K Juneteenth Celebration!

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