By Tami Warren
Research reflects, Black girls are subject to discipline, and punishment at a disproportionate rate, in comparison to white girls, and even fellow Asian, and Latino girls of color, for subjective transgressions like defiance, or not displaying appropriate comportment. Reading studies on the unequal treatment Black girls face, was not surprising, however it did confirm that the inequitable experiences I was subject to were real, I was not in the Twilight Zone, the data supports, Black girls are subjected to disproportionate discipline for perceived conduct. White people explained away discrimination, as if I didn’t know what I had actually seen, heard, or witnessed. In the eyes of white people, I was either militant, or menial – viewed as aggressive if I spoke up for myself, or weak if I didn’t respond to their bigoted comments, and actions. From the classroom to the board room, I have been on the receiving end of antipathetic actions for not being what a white person, thought I should be, or for how I acted in any given situation. From the time I was in school, to entering the workforce, I experienced first hand, what researchers documented, on the whole, Black girls do not receive equitable treatment, and are actually punished for not acting or behaving in a manner white people deem comfortably appropriate in their estimation, while the same actions were not punished when demonstrated by our white counterparts. It unfortunately became something I accepted as an established standard of how I thought I should expect to be treated from classmates, teachers, and colleagues. Essentially, my experiences of discriminatory treatment, were normalized in my life, because I was tolerating behavior, and environments rife with covert racism, that was having an overt impact on my daily life.
In subsequent years, I tried in vain, to release the pain, and resentment left by bigotry. To release the anguish felt from the silence of by standers, who chose to encourage the pain of microaggressions, by dismissing the racist actions, or taking part in them. To release the pain of those who denounced bias amplified through intentionally muted megaphones, and the faux fairness of neutrality, that always benefited white people. In later years, it felt as if it didn’t matter how much Brene Brown I read, ingesting her words and wisdom with openness, because the “arena” she spoke of with brilliance, and statistics, was built on my back, and that of my ancestors, therefore, simply “being in the arena,” didn’t seem like it was enough, as the arena architects rarely remember those whom they utilized for its construction. It’s the name at the top of the building that appears to matter far more than the souls at the bottom, who actually built it. No excuses, simply a fact that systematic, structural racism is real, impacting human beings – Black human beings. I clung to her words, ‘You can’t hate up close.’ even though from the classroom to corporate America, I experienced the hate up close. I unfairly expected Brene Brown to be some kind of white person whisperer.
Earlier in my twenties, I observed the workplace demanded that I navigate racism and sexism with compliance, to voice discriminatory treatment to management, or human resources, was viewed as complaining, and detrimental to my employment. Regardless of the type of office, for profit, non-profit, boutique firm, or large corporation, I experienced first hand, the stigma attached for following procedure when reporting discrimination. If you are Black, and blowing a whistle, you better be dancing, or officiating a sporting event under the direction of a white referee. When you are Black, there is a catch-22 for reporting, you are stigmatized for doing it, and vilified for having the courage to call it out. This was an era, pre #MeToo, and pre Michelle Obama, although not much has changed when reporting discriminatory treatment at work for regular folks, as it’s rare to have a white person have your back, and stand with you against the wrathful winds of whiteness, when you are Black. Reporting is still an open invitation for retaliation, as no one wants to hear, their fellow colleagues engaged in discriminatory action, or displayed racial bias. Essentially, the message was, don’t complain about discrimination, because as a Black person, I should be extra grateful for even being allowed in the building. Posters, and memos regarding a diverse, safe, and bias free work environment, were optics. Apparently, as a Black person, you are only allowed one single racist experience in your career, in one single office, and that one single racist experience must directly involve the Ku Klux Klan, to be deemed actual racism. And even then, questions are raised as to what the Black person did to provoke the ire of the KKK. Apparently, some white people lack the capacity to acknowledge, accept, or even entertain the possibility that racism regularly occurs, that racial bias is systematic, and that white people benefit from that system, and are largely silent when it comes to actually standing in solidarity with Black people in the workplace.
Not only was I stigmatized for following the process of reporting discrimination, a process established by the white powers that be, I was stigmatized because, according to white people, workplace racism happens only in an overt isolated instance. And white people know this, because white people are always considered the neutral party, white people are the referees, always making the call. White people define what is racist, and what is not, and guess what? White people find very few instances of discrimination, committed by themselves, or their friends, and colleagues. Racism is solved in their eyes, and Black women should be extra super appreciative to even be permitted to work in their space. Justice is jettisoned. There is an automatic defensive reaction to calling out racism, it doesn’t appear white people are open to acknowledge systematic racism, as they follow the dogma of, “I didn’t own slaves, so I’m not responsible for slavery.” Forgetting the fact that just as Black people are still oppressed by the system of slavery, that built America, white people are still benefiting from that system. White people in America inherited unearned privilege, while Black people in America inherited oppression.
Most Black children are raised with the understanding that what is acceptable for our white counterparts, will not be acceptable for us. It is not a matter of fairness, it is a matter of survival. As a Black girl, I assimilated to the white world I was growing up in, yet as I became a young woman, I realized mere assimilation was not enough to advance in the world, white people stipulated submissiveness, with a smile in the workplace, and virtually everywhere else. I observed white women in the office having it both ways, raising issue with the number of women in higher positions, yet at the same time, expecting the women in those high positions to be white. It was a spurious sorority, in the workplace, with white women at the helm, wielding control over Black, and brown women, through passive aggressive action, resulting in professional sabotage, not easily overcome. The excessive crying from white women in the office was over the top, seriously over the top; convenient crying when faced with their own error, their own wrong doing, their own or bias, or simply whenever they felt like it. It was a whole other level of shit to deal with at work – the “feelings” of white women. It only takes one white woman to cry in the office, and all hell breaks loose, the flood gates of retribution, and protection for white women, has no bounds, especially when the person of focus is, a Black woman. Everyday, I live the aftermath of the antebellum, white women have been riding shotgun, with white men throughout history. White women have always wielded power over Black women, yet somehow, I am suppose to be extra grateful, because a white women thinks she has done something special, by allowing me to be in her space.
Unfortunately, there are women who choose to believe that there are a select number of women that advance, and they are willing to belittle, and betray other women, to ensure their place. Perhaps, due to job security, a desperate need to fit in, or just plain pettiness, women, even some women of color, were willing to join the sorority shit storm. Although I empathize with the desire to be accepted, especially in the work place, where acceptance often determines ones livelihood, and career path, the pain of being ostracized, or fired, for reporting discrimination, stays with you – stigma stains. The agony of having your reputation destroyed, or being a professional pariah is not easily overcome.
In the 1983 film, Twilight Zone: The Movie, one of the tales is about a racist, played by Vic Morrow, who finds himself in the skin of the people he is racist toward. This is what needs to happen to all racists, and to all who discredit, dismiss, and deny discrimination. The fact is, Black women are not provided the latitude, that comes automatically to white women, and some women of color, as Black women are frequently not believed, disproportionately deemed insolent instead of intelligent, or pompous instead of professional, when we dare speak up . “Women of color” is a broad, and beautiful umbrella, having said that, I observe and experience that white women demonstrate a tangible, more comfortable demeanor, around certain women of color, where they are able to talk about tanning, blow outs, bronzer, and which character on Friends, they are like in real life. They buy their beauty products in the same isle – hell, my beauty products were not even considered beautiful, and were not found in any beauty isle. The Sisterhood of the Traveling Pants, did not include me – consider the logistical challenges alone, there is no way of fitting my ample ass in those jeans. Alas, the sisterhood of separation continues. The impact of colorism can be both a stealth attack, not felt until the aircraft of delivery is long gone, and as obvious as a Hollywood casting. The struggle is real, made even more challenging, when women of color, succumb to corporate cooning in order to belong to the corporate clan, they embrace the work place equivalent of Stockholm Syndrome. White women may harbor stereotypes about women of color, yet it seems they do not fear my Latino or Asian sisters in the manner they fear Black women. White women view our actual physical bodies as something odd and ugly, less than, and different; yet they are comforted by the similar hair texture, and skin tone they often share with certain women with far less color. Under the Women of Color umbrella, Black women are not included with the same support, we are segregated, and often shamed. White women view Black women as truly different, with strange hair, dark skin, and of course, that underlying faux fear that a Black woman, without a smile, and little bit of confidence, is a threat. I say this not to draw division with my sisters of colors, I see myself, my mother, and grandmother, in their faces. We are stronger together, capable of limitless change. Black women know the agony of family separation, and seeing our children shackled and in cages. However, white women, (and Latino, and Asian women for that matter), can’t have it both ways whenever it is convenient for them.
It is insanity to ever try to be the perfect POC (Person of Color) more to the point, the perfect Black person when living, and moving, in this wild white world. Following the rules, being polite, putting Caucasians at ease, if that is even possible, as they are a hyper sensitive, disillusioned group, it is a waste of time, involves too much energy, and sacrifice of soul. It is exhausting.
White people are comfortable with each other, and the select placement of their carefully chosen POC’s, which are always few in number. Even when experiencing the headwinds of racism in the workplace, one may follow procedure, contact Human Resources, or file a complaint, still, the burden of blame falls upon the shoulders of the Black person. Instantly, you are stigmatized, and ironically, black listed, because a good, reasonable Black person would not draw racism upon themselves, as racism in the eyes of white people is simply a card of convenience that is played. Black people should be extra grateful for any allowance of opportunity tossed our way, in the eyes of Caucasians, and their collective unconscious bias. The responsibility of continually being the perfect POC for white folks is a full time job. Watch how you speak, what you say, how you say it, be aware of your facial expression, what music you play, where your hands are, smile, wear a hair style they are comfortable with, always be agreeable, and don’t correct them, faux screams of you “threatening” them, will surely follow, as white folks have mastered being outraged, and of course being victimized by Black people. White folks require their version of “perfection” from of us, yet we are suppose to think that it is normal. There are no second chances, as the benefit of the doubt is a privilege they receive.
I’ve heard white women refer to the term “mansplaining” when a man is talking down to them, yet to endure mansplaining and “whitesplaining” which is when white people talk to you as if you are beneath them, without the dignity of even being a human being, it is an overbearing daily burden I experience as a Black woman, from white folks, both white men, and white women, they even encourage their selected POC’s to partake, as a means of validation for themselves. Navigating this mind field is never ending, the moment you let down your guard, they get you. Don’t be taken in at work, school, or elsewhere, for lurking behind that smiling alabaster face, lay centuries of unearned privilege, wrapped in unconscious bias, piety, and self righteousness. White people basically operate in the world, taking their shit out on us. Black people absorbing the displaced anger, insecurity, fear, and sadness of white people, because they refuse to accept personal responsibly for themselves, to be accountable, to acknowledge that systematic racism is real, that they benefit from it, and we suffer from it. Ironic really, white folks love to tout the virtues of personal responsibility, yet don’t practice what they pontificate. Microaggressions are real, having significant impact, building up and destroying any opportunity for a fair foundation, upon which to build a career. Critical to career building is what takes place outside of the office, the get togethers, the happy hours, the bosses’ party, these are also environment’s which, like the workplace, allow for relationships to build, and connections to be made. This is not hyper sensitivity – microaggressions amplify marginalization, with subtle, yet powerful actions that have lasting consequences.
I concede, it was fucking annoying, insulting, to observe white women at work, slip into speaking in a manner, which I will describe as “jive,” to be kind, try thinking, Barbara Billingsley, the Jive Lady, in the film, Airplane, circa 1980. So-called liberal white women, talking down to me, talking at me, not with me. That select “manner of speaking” aimed at “relating” to me – but really, it was white people demeaning me, and me not speaking up. By not speaking up, I was contributing to my dehumanization. At work, white people were constantly searching for any misstep, to enlarge, and publicize for conference call criticism, it was too much. Having white people treat me as though I was invisible, yet seen when convenient for them, was the regular. White people treating me like this – then suddenly treating the Black woman who came into the offie occasionally to clean, and water plants, with some level of dignity was, confusing at the time. Then I realized, it was easier, and far more comfortable, for white people to treat a Black woman carrying a bucket, and smile, with dignity, than it was for them to treat a Black woman carrying a degree, and the any amount of ambition, with dignity. Ultimately, no office should be allowed to investigate itself, when Human Resource colleagues, and management, are permitted to review each other, investigation transitions to retaliation. Perhaps it is their privilege, that makes white people so damn defensive, and apoplectic, to call out their friends, or colleagues on racism. I’ve observed the majority of white people, won’t call out racism, they will however, “whitesplain” it to Black people, whenever we dare step out of our
whitesplaining [(h)wīt] [ˈsplāniNG] noun: explanation of any topic by a white person, usually to a Black person, in a practice or manner which is condescending, oversimplified, or patronizing, typically delivered with an overconfident, supercilious, demeanor.