*trigger warning: this post describes instances of racial discrimination, including microagressions and outright threats. It may be uncomfortable and directly triggering for folks that have lived experiences. Please take care of yourselves, in a way that feels healthy and supportive for you.*
It was like nothing happened, the way they just moved on.Nothing new- I was the only one befuddled and emotional, the only placing this in the realm of this is not right. So I must be wrong.
Starting around fall 2015, a mere 6 months after I had started that job and about a year after I had big chopped my hair, a manager told me my natural hair was unprofessional.
Most of the women here, their hair is…. straighter. Or if it’s curly, it looks… not like this. Maybe you can change it…. it’s not me! Just board members come in! So we have to think about what they want and how we look, y’know? If I could, I would wear jeans every day. But I can’t. And your hair… can’t.”He was walking away, had already moved on to the next problem to be solved. I wasn’t even remotely surprised that a white, male manager had questioned my natural hair. There was no outrage. This one I actually felt prepared for- in college, mentors had hounded into me that the only “acceptable” natural hair style was braids and even those had to be styled a certain way as to not draw too much attention. Button them up, so to speak. Accompany it with palatable ways of code switching: the language used, the cultural references chosen, the examples of weekend activities and childhood icons, and braids might just slip under the radar. The “blackness” they represented was tame enough so as not to offend.
I kept my twist outs, my Senegalese twists and box braids, but unconsciously worried more about the styling and overall package I was presenting. The swirls and dots of ink outlining the dress code became like a daily mantra for me. No toe stepped out of line. No edge unslicked. No Gorilla Snot left behind.
I never showed up at work fully myself- I was a quieter, more demure, less questioning and more focused version. I came in at least an hour early most days and checked email nights and weekends. I was working with and managing volunteers, and some volunteers (and a co-worker), would laughingly say things like, “you’re more articulate than I expected,” after meeting me in person. What did you expect, African American Vernacular English? Let it go- it’s not the time or place.
How else could I show up as exemplary, as amazing, as non-threatening to mitigate the micro-aggressions? This came naturally. Black women have to work twice as hard to get half as far. Nothing new. I knew how the game had to be played.
Maybe I forgot that prejudice and bigots don’t give a flying fuck. Their belief system is still ingrained and I’m still Black.
About a year or so after the hair comment, files started showing up missing off of my desk and food taken out of the fridge. Admittedly, there were a couple of prior times my lunch had been stolen out of the staff kitchen and I chalked it up to a one-time event. Someone was hungry- they don’t pay us enough at this nonprofit and it’s that final squeeze before payday.
The file pilfering continued, a list of interpreters here, a client case file there. It wasn’t just me it was happening to, higher ups explained. It was an office gremlin problem. It was a personnel problem- everyone’s lunch was being taken. As annoying as these gremlins are, just suck it up and deal while we shake our finger at all staff until it stops.
However, when it escalated, it was always against a marginalized population. Yes, the lunches were against a myriad of co-workers but the file taking was only against folks of color. A letter outlining someone’s salary increase was only taken from the desk of an out member of the LGBTQIA+ community.
It’s the office gremlins, the Executive Director explained at an all staff meeting. If you’re the gremlin, cut it out.
That’s that on that?
My depression was worsening at this time, a sickening feeling exponentially increasing each morning. Was this adulthood- a daily battle between the thoughts in my head and the words of my bosses? Is this what it meant to navigate being Black in the workplace- to keep a job, thus my only steady means of meager income, to hold on to a semblance of stability and my apartment, food, credit card bills, utilities, clothes, medical bills, doctor visits, treats and maybe one day savings and an emergency fund? Don’t dissect wrong doing and slights at your identity? Don’t think. Move on to the next.
Just follow your routine. Don’t think.
In 2017, while using the single stall bathroom, co-workers were waiting outside. Surprised to see two people watching me leave the bathroom, I tried to squeeze past their peering eyes. Only one of them spoke.
I just wanted to see who was in there. You know you can’t be in there if you’re not disabled.
I ignored her- how did she know if I was disabled or not? Wasn’t there a new Seattle city ordinance about single stall restrooms being available in public buildings? Shortly thereafter, that same coworker was knocking on the door of the single stall bathroom, repeating whose in there? Are you disabled? Great- now someone is policing our bodies and determining who is able-bodied. Fun. A little light shaming to surprise you throughout the day.
On 8/6/2018, typed and folded on printer paper and nestled in my work mailbox, was a note calling me a tranny and a whale for using the single stall bathroom. I showed my boss, and we together showed it to the Director of our department. IT did a soft inquiry to see if they could tell if it was printed on a work computer (who knows) and I was told to work from home for about a week. My first day back in the office, another printed and folded note was waiting for me under a legal pad.
Nigger nigger nigger
Get the strap and the lynching
Nigger tranny whale
I couldn’t fully inhale or exhale. Who? What? How do I? Someone wants me dead. Here. In this building, in this place I sit more than anywhere else, there’s a human I regularly cross paths with that has designated me strange fruit.
Police were called. I gave a statement to the officers who came to the building, dutifully answered questions such as ‘are you transgender so did that note make sense,’ and met with a detective for ‘biased crimes,’ who ultimately asked me if I had written the note against myself. Nonononono.
Why couldn’t I get help? A guarantee of protection? Did they not see what I saw? My desperation was increasing, clawing at the surface. Was anyone out there, besides me, who got it? I didn’t know where to turn and most days continued in a topsy turvy loop of confusion.
I continued to follow up with the Director of my department and the Associate Executive Director, who we were told handled HR matters, since we had no real HR department or staff. They’re looking into it. Working with IT, the investigation continued but in the meantime did I want to work from home? Did I want cookies? They had never dealt with anything like this before, and couldn’t give me any details of what “investigation” meant to them.
What are you actively doing to make a safe work environment for people of color? I pushed back, it’s not my responsibility but your’s. Telecommuting was not a long term solution, and held no one accountable. My emails would read something like:
On 8/20, my first day back in the office, there was a note calling me a nigger, and threatening my life with a lynching and a strap. I don’t expect you to know the effects of this, or to understand the historical and generational trauma that comes with having to navigate the world as a Black woman in a country that was founded on anti-Black racism. But let me give you an example: since receiving the 2nd note, I have been physically ill every day. Every day. I’ve had a sore throat and can’t keep food down and I don’t think this is a coincidence. Every day since August 20, I have thrown up (at home, work, and on the bus), choked on food, gotten an anxiety attack at least once a day, and have nightmares about lynchings and death. And yet, I’m expected to come into work every day and be productive, while someone in this office clearly thinks I should not be alive. I’m not working from home because 1. It’s not a solution to the problem; 2. It’s not my burden; and 3. I don’t like telecommuting.
My emails fell on defensive eyes, and responses were either non-existent or after my follow-up emails, explained that they were looking into it, and the cookies were offered because they were trying to think of things that brought them relief when sad.
I didn’t need the comfort brought by food-attached memories. I needed safety.
They had already moved on, decided it wasn’t significant enough. My voice didn’t matter because my Black life was never equally important to them.
I quit, and didn’t look back until I was in a therapist’s office.