Back in 2015, I was working at an office that was so bewildering, I almost let it become my new normal.
The receptionist would arrive over 20 minutes late most days, and over an hour late at times. No explanation was offered to me, but who knows what she told the office manager, who also handled our HR. She would also come in wearing booty shorts and tights with strategically cut holes in them. I’ve never been one to tell women what they can and cannot wear, but I was told the office dress code was business casual and got yelled at once because my “breasts were showing,” when in actuality I was wearing a high boatneck neckline and no cleavage skin was showing. I had assumed the big boss was right so the shirt was examined from all angles when I got home. Nope. No decolletage.
After I responded “getting my hair braided” when asked about weekend plans, I was told braids weren’t allowed in the office, and that one of my supervisors didn’t like that style. That same one would routinely stare at my breasts, never masking the smirk in his eyes or the lick of his lips, even keeping his head bent down and eyes lazer focused when speaking to me. In front of waiting clients, he would yell belittling statements about how we didn’t know how to do our jobs and send us on our way.
The microagressions, the sexism, the harassment. It was getting to be too much to handle, feeling squeezed, dissected, and tossed aside by my co-workers.
Let’s call the receptionist B. When I first started working there, I saw B as a quirky young woman, just trying to make it on her own, open about her financial struggles, with a steadfast yet fragile spirit. We had gone for drinks after work a few times, sharing nachos as she introduced me to things other than blended margaritas. We laughed over screwdrivers, white gummy bears (yummm), fireballs (gross), and those clear margaritas with olives (even more gross), and got the courage to share with each other all the ways that job had fucked us up and made us believe we were the problem.
I abruptly stopped talking to her about non work related matters.
“Have you heard of this makeup thing called contouring? I don’t get how to do it.”
“Ummm I think I’ve seen it, but I don’t have any contouring stuff. Or the patience.”
“It makes your nose smaller.”
“I used to be really insecure about my nose, that’s why I never got the nose piercing I wanted. I didn’t want to draw attention to it, but I’m ok with my nose now.”
“You have a nose like an ape.”
I immediately walked out of the office. She was mid-sentence, I think trying to backtrack. There was a ringing noise in my ear, but I remember her rapid blinking and her mouth moving.
It was early spring, and the weather was somewhere between cloudy but not cold. I did a couple of loops around the block, humming the random Nelly song stuck in my head. Swing batter batter swing, batter up. SwingbattabattaswingBATTAUP. How do I tell her that saying I have an ape nose carries such racial implications, and starting it off with nose contouring let me know she believes African features are not beautiful? How to explain my hurt?
Back inside, the office manager (let’s call her M) glanced at me as I was walking back to my desk and called me into her office.
“I was just taking a lunch break.”
B was sitting in one of the two chairs snuggled against each other by the door, the office manager smiling and gesturing towards the other.
M: “B has been crying since you went on break. She wasn’t calling you a monkey.”
“She said I have a nose like an ape, but I can make it smaller.”
M: “Makeup talk is harmless. Maybe we should all get back to work.”
B: “I think you’re really pretty! I wasn’t saying you look like an ape.”
“And that’s not what I said you said.”
B was crying again and looking at me with wide, frightened eyes. She turned in her chair and talked to my sideburns. “Well you do have slave features, like the nose and hair and stuff. But you’re not like… bad looking so that’s not what I meant.”
Oh lawd. What in the hell was I supposed to say? Both M and B were either minimizing the shit out of what was said, or genuinely could not make the connection between European beauty standards, a white woman talking about apes and slave features, and biases around them as ugly, dirty, never the ideal.
B was still sniffling and tearing up a piece of tissue paper. I watched it snow to the floor in little clumps, and remained silent, trying to navigate how much I would be vilianized, coded as an angry Black woman if I raised my voice, if I whispered their racial undertones were disappointing at best.
M: “Do you accept her apology?”
“She didn’t say sorry.”
M: “Well you look upset? She said she didn’t mean it, so let’s move on.”
“Move on? To what?”
We were obviously starting at different places and arriving at completely separate destinations. Move from where and land on what? My question went unanswered.
I left M’s office feeling like I had been chastised as if I was in the wrong. B, who had mentioned being embarrassed about her red eyes, was told she could take a sick day for the rest of the afternoon. After B left, M huffed to where I was sitting, told me to be more understanding, then shut the door on her way out.
Lock the problem away. Don’t want any words from the nappy head in the back.