A Modern Day Tale:
“…but there is no gate, no lock, no bolt that you can set upon the freedom of my mind! ” -Virginia Wolf
It was 2018, I was working in a federal government office, where I had worked since 2004, amid moves and changes in everything from job title to the way I logged into my computer. People had come and gone, and I was still plugging away. My workplace had transformed from this very robust, albeit disheveled and disorganized office, like the set of Barney Miller, to this very sterile building. It was cold, soulless. Clean and neat, but like a psychopath, it lacked a genuine personality and flavor. It wasn’t even vanilla. Very often my spirit felt held captive.
Welcome to Dystopia.
Culture and diversity are kaleidoscopes. No matter which way you turn, there is rich color and a soundless rhythm you can still feel in those same places music makes move. Some White Americans are devoid of culture, so they latch on to the fallacy of the American Dream as their identity. When one can only see themselves as important through a lens of monetary and positional success, money and power become the things that mean the most to you. Similarly those of us who embrace our many cultures, I for example am a Black woman, of the hip hop generation, educated, urban, and a Detroiter, have an identity beyond the tools use to subjugate most of society… money and power. Most of the White people that I know and consider friends are very cultured… whether that be spiritual, regional, ancestral, you name it. And in this cold and sterile environment, cold and sterile White men had infiltrated this once robust and diverse group of people. Money and power trumped (pun intended) public service, employee development, and humanity.
In practice, these White men wanted me to turn over my brain to their whim… and I wasn’t built that way. I am of the “Mama Said Knock You Out”, “Knuck if you Buck” generation of Black women with a killer side eye, a big ass brain, and a deadly vocabulary. So as they tried to force us into servitude, held us down and forced disciplinary action and termination down our throats, I refused their poison. Instead of gouging out our eyes, they made us watch our ancestral sisters walk the green mile, cardboard box in hand, to remind us of our punishment should we disobey.
It was a pure mind fuck!
While this wasn’t unique to any particular women in the office, Black women were on the front lines. It was almost like they hired newbies to remind the old school folks just what would happen to us if we were bold. A few days in the door, and the writing on the wall was clear… do our bidding or get sold. I watched them come and go like barren slave girls, sold off, cast off. And although I knew their pain, I could at least find solace in the fact that the powers that be were threatened by my big ass brain and deadly vocabulary. I also knew that I was more competent than anyone above me, and being the smartest person in the room is a sign to find the nearest exit. You are the prey.
My daily experience seemed like a cross between films I had seen on the gestapo and life on the plantation. Overseers watched over us and used bullying, threats, harassment, and discrimination as whips upon our backs. I got paid a nice sum, so it wasn’t the horror of involuntary human subjugation, but it was inhumane all the same. To shield themselves, our overseers did the bidding of the powerful… and no one seemed to do it with more enthusiasm than other Black people. A Black woman in particular. The personification of self-hate.
A self-proclaimed minister and counselor, she was so blinded by feigned power and control, she could neither see nor feel the sting of her own abuse. Her own personal demons lashed out at us, all younger, more aesthetically pleasing, and well liked. She was Black and cracked… and not with the beauty of kintsuroi but with the fury of karma. If you didn’t kiss her ass she disliked you more, and if you did, it was only a set-up to stab you in the back. She used stereotypes to paint us as loud, lazy, Black girls with bad attitudes. Behind closed doors her White friendly smile turned into a self-hatred scowl and her fake endearing voice turned into a Newports and Colt 45 growl. She thought she was keeping us in line like a den mother, but in all actuality she just proved that Black people can be racist towards one another. She was the antithesis of freedom. Her presence was the penitentiary.
The workplace was not a place for me to develop my talents into skills, and serve my country. Instead, it was the realization of my intersectional position. My race, my sex, and my race paired with my sex, along with my age, after 40, became these identities that both made me proud and also served to marginalize me into professional pariahhood. I felt alone. I started to share my experiences out of necessity, so I could see if anyone could feel me and maybe help me navigate this space.
“Your silence will not protect you.” -Audrey Lorde
Suddenly, I had a hundred other examples and stories and anecdotes from Black women who assured me I wasn’t alone in dystopia. Soon, every group of Black women I came into contact with had discourse that would read like an anthology on the plight of sistas on the modern day plantation. I was swimming in a sea of support, and it made me realize that like Kimberlé Crenshaw before me, there didn’t just have to be one Harriet to lead us through the maze of patriarchy, racism, sexism, ageism, and colorism to freedom. I too could be in that number.
Come with me on an exploration of how Black women experience the workplace, and how despite our trauma, we continue to succeed and elevate with style and grace. Only through the sharing of information, can we expose how limiting these practices are to corporate America with the creativity and innovation Black women bring to the table. We must take our seats at the table armed with our manumission papers. We must free ourselves. Furthermore, perhaps just one somebody will refuse to participate in this exercise of inhumanity, drop their weapons, and free themselves from dystopian thought. We don’t have to join them to beat them!