Have you ever been sexually harassed and too scared to speak up? Or been the subject of dirty talk, whistling or a long-lasting stare at your chest or derriere? If so, it likely made you feel angry and objectified. You probably wanted to tell HR and file a complaint, but you didn’t, because you were afraid. Not afraid that the offender would harm you for exposing them, but afraid that you would lose your job. Afraid because the perpetrator was your boss, or your boss’s friend or perhaps you were the only woman working in an all-male business. And they’d certainly replace you, before him. You felt like you had nowhere to go.
If so, I’ve been where you’ve been. It’s awful. It’s wrong, and I’m sorry for your pain.
But have you ever experienced being afraid to speak up, because you were black? Have you ever experienced racism in your workplace and quietly kept it to yourself because speaking up would make you a target or put your job on the line? I sure have. Let me tell you about a few instances.
I once worked for a company that was new, but growing, and as it expanded, so did the job opportunities. After successfully serving in my role for a year, I decided to apply for a position as a manager. There were multiple manager openings available. A black co-worker, who had become my friend, decided to apply as well. She, in fact, was more qualified than me. She was a very confident, outspoken person. After our interviews, we were both informed, by notes left on our chairs, that neither of us were being promoted. We were crushed, without so much as an in-person rejection.
A few days later, my supervisor pulled me aside to inform me that, though they did want to give me the promotion, they decided they couldn’t, because they didn’t want to promote my co-worker, whom they didn’t like as well, and considered “unapproachable”.
Yes, “unapproachable”. The term that is cast upon black women who are not afraid to speak their minds or voice their opinions.
So, I was denied a promotion because they didn’t wish to promote my outspoken black friend. And they were afraid to tell her so to her face.
In another instance, I interviewed for a job at a company that had only one other female employee (let’s call her Vicki). I was given the job and Vicki and I quickly became friends. After a few months, Vicki revealed to me that she wasn’t sure they were going to hire me when I first interviewed. When I asked her why, she informed me that, after my interview, the male Vice President asked her how she liked me. Vicki replied “I think she’s great.” He then asked her if she was sure she could work with me, to which Vicki replied, “Yes. I think you should hire her.” The VP then asked Vicki again, “Are you sure you don’t mind working with someone who is TALL?”
Now, to be perfectly honest, I AM tall. Always have been, always will be. And when Vicki told me this, I wondered why my height should matter to anyone. It took me a second to realize what she was telling me and then I replied, “Oh. He meant TALL as in BLACK!” And Vicki shook her head in agreement that TALL was the VP’s way of asking her if she was okay working with a black person. Little did he know, that Vicki was not only okay with it, but she would eventually file a complaint, on my behalf, when some of the male staff were sexually harassing me and I was too afraid to speak up.
At two other jobs, I have had my personal information, including salary, shown to other black female co-workers by managers who repeatedly handed us each other’s pay stubs, or other personal papers, as if they could not tell us apart. At each of these employers, I was one of only two black female employees, and I’m nearly six feet tall. My black co-workers were 5′ 5″ and under. How could they not tell us apart? Giving us the wrong pay stubs one time could be considered a mistake, but multiple times is a travesty, especially when you are placing it in my hand and looking me in my face and there’s only one other black female employee. It was a clear indication of our worth as black female employees, to those managers.
And hairstyles? When switching from curly hairstyles to braids, I’ve been asked, “What’s wrong with you today,” or told “you look upset today,” or “Is this a new attitude you’re trying to show? Are you trying to look militant?” One week when I wore an afro, hardly anyone spoke to me until I went back to curls. People literally looked around me as if my natural hair made me invisible.
Most of these instances have involved managers, from the supervisory level to VP, and it’s scary to tell on your manager. And just like sexual harassment, they were hurtful and wrong. But I tolerated them. I needed to keep my job. I didn’t go off on people, I wasn’t unapproachable. I chalked them up to ignorance and the norm, because all too often, for black people in a white corporate world, this is the norm.
But guess what? It’s time for a new norm.
It’s time for me and every black woman who’s been afraid to speak out to stand up, not just for our rights, but for WHAT’S right. It’s time we demand to be acknowledged and respected, and look out for others who need to be protected. Fear be damned. Let’s call it out! Let’s count!
I have forgiven the things of the past, but I will not be silent in the future. My voice will be heard! Starting today, you will recognize me as an individual, acknowledge my worth and you will know my name. Because my name is April, and MY LIFE MATTERS!
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