This Woman’s Work III: A Foreword

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!

This Woman’s Work: Part I

At least we aren’t handmaids….

living in the fictitious, but eerily and oddly relatable -given the current state of things- Gilead in post war America. A country taken over by men, using divine law to subjugate women and the poor into servitude. Of particular disturbance is the work of the handmaid. The “lady in waiting” each leader, or commander, with an infertile wife employs, her sex and womb for room and board. Her job, to birth children for the couple, in the way of Rachel’s handmaid Bilhah in the Bible. Luckily it is confined to the Hulu menu of great acting that is hard as hell to watch. A twisted dystopian This is Us. Even as I applaud Offred’s attempts to escape on the edge of my seat, I can’t help but wonder how she will ever be mentally and emotionally healed.

But when we cut off the tv, and really look at the lives of working women… much of what is portrayed and endured by Offred, the Martha’s, and Aunt Lydia is applicable modern day, we just pick our own clothes and keep our same names. So much of our reality in the private and public workplace is controlled by men, who take license to act in ways very similar to fiction. In a recent study, 38% of women reported being sexually harassed at work. (1) We all know this reality creates lifelong traumas from which many of these women forever suffer.

Imagine now, the lives of Professional, Black, and educated women… who come with their own set of very real and very intersectional concerns, race and culture based traumas, and historical wounds. From blatant racial discrimination to patriarchy, and everything in between… the lives of sistas who collect a paycheck are fraught with issues that not only create trauma but cause us to relive unhealed and past trauma all the time. But at least we aren’t handmaids…

When 100 random Black Women working in professional (non blue collar or service industry) jobs with at least a college degree were surveyed (2), the results were not shocking but definitely painted a bold and unquestionable picture of the professional lives of these women. 71% indicated they had experienced discrimination at their job. 79% felt race, gender, or both contributed to negative attitudes about them at work. 72% indicated they had been talked down to by a man, and 65% reported hearing offensive comments about Black people at work. Clearly, Black Women are subjected to pervasive racism and sexism in the workplace.

While Black men are seen as far greater victims of racism, and sexism is generally identified as a White woman’s issue, it is the intersectionality of these issues that are the bitch that Black Women go toe to toe with daily. Since these intersectional concerns are not shared simultaneously with most groups and not as pervasive for other women of color, we often get labeled as having bad attitudes or being “angry” for no reason at all. When in fact, our reasons are front and center. We will always be Black and always be female. When combined with the naturally occurring childhood and adult traumas, most of us have never fully healed from, intersectionality in the workplace is a beast most of us are not properly prepared to handle, but must handle nonetheless. But at least we aren’t handmaids…

Take Kelsey, a teacher in the suburbs of the inner city. Kelsey grew up with demanding parents who made her feel her best wasn’t enough. Not only did she live with the “you have to be 10x better” lesson most Black children learn about themselves in relation to White children early on… her own familial demands were hard to bear. So in both her professional and social life, Kelsey overextended herself. She went above and beyond the duties she was paid for, spreading herself too thin, and not even acknowledged for her efforts. While she was definitely the best teacher in her school district, the most reliable daughter, the most loyal friend, the most steadfast wife, and all with the best twist-out west of Woodward… she brought with her the pain of being labeled “not good enough” to a workplace that didn’t appreciate her skill and hard work. Her employers, in the business of educating, which she was stellar at, had no problem taking advantage while never giving her the props she deserved!

Black Women are often the diving board for other people’s dreams and success…and systematically limited from realizing our own.

Jessica is similarly reminded of childhood conflict with other Black girls when she’s harassed and mistreated by Black Women in the office, the real life Aunt Lydias, and the abuse she’s experienced when spoken to in a patronizing manner and set up for failure at the hands of Black men at her job. It’s as if they are overseers for the powers that be, preparing her to walk the green mile to her professional fate, because she’s not a “good gal.” Constantly under his eye. Jess has to quell her fight response every single time… and since her mouth is much mightier than the sharpest sword, she just straps on her invisible muzzle to secure the bag… at least until something better presents itself.

So many sistas I know have taken pay cuts for peace.

Maya is haunted by her own family’s experiences with mental illness, and their failure to heal or even acknowledge it, when she encounters children and their parents struggling with emotional disturbances in her role as a school psychologist. So much so she has a visceral reaction to the work. Have you ever been traumatized to illness… I know a gang of sistas who have.

Like Maya , Monique faces the same trauma related setbacks when she handles family legal issues in private practice. Guardianship and power of attorney processes remind her of the pain her family put her through when a loved one was no longer able to care for herself. Jumping hurdles over familial patriarchy, youthism, and the “White is right” brainwashing that many of us have accepted as fact, is yet another hump we must traverse.

Young Black Women often carry our race and gender as badges of pride, bridled to our education and talent, that others often see as a threat. Thinly veiled disrespect, even at the hands of our own people, is commonplace in these instances.

In addition to these very real issues we carry with us from personal experiences, Black Women have a very real historical reality that makes navigating the workplace, often dominated by White men and a much more protected space for White women, painful. You might not be like Monique, Jessica, Kelsey, or Maya, but perhaps you are just Jane-, yep Jane is Black- who is reminded of her ancestor’s enslavement, involuntary servitude, and the hurt and pain of Jim Crow, lynching, systematic racism, and her own ancestral trauma in her workplace. Jane took on union work as an act of service, but living out the modern vestiges of White supremacy is a very real source of trauma.

For Jane, it isn’t her personal experiences but our collective reality that wells up in her soul when she listens to the stories of her co-workers, women spoken down to and inappropriately propositioned by the men in her office. Qualified people of color being passed over for opportunities they are the most qualified for, and Black overseers serving the supremacy by setting up those with whom they are in competition. Like Jane, so many of us hold this history in our bosom, and in an oppressive workplace, it’s realization mimics asphyxiation.

The very real wounds that Black Women cover, depriving of air, so they can scab over with our own protective shield and heal by our own strength, have a way of seeping when we face stress in areas of our lives that we take personally. For the woman who has gathered together more student loans in her name than prayers, vacations, or shoes… her career is a very important part of her life, and the very real fact is that it often serves as a reminder of her most tragic memories. Therefore, it is imperative that she deal with and heal from those tragedies. Whether through therapy, meditation, prayer, or some combination of healing mechanisms. You see… we may not be handmaids, but we have wings, and we only activate them if we lay down our burdens, under His eye.

Praise be.

(1) stopstreetharassment.org

(2) karyndeshields.com

Black Women are Unicorns

Black Women are magical

We are at the bottom of the totem pole but we don’t age, don’t crack… cuz crack is wack, and we were the definition of lit before DTJ used the word and buried it from our brains eternally. I guess it wasn’t enough to take “whoop there it is” and “my bad” … although neither of those were as well liked as “lit”… but whatever!  Upon our wooden shoulders we carry the weight of all the burdens that everyone else piled on top of us, but despite it all,  we keep a fresh beat!

Whose got it harder than us?

No one. But we are among the most highly educated and the lowest paid for our skill, value, knowledge! We are the most worked, often keeping a home, mate, kids, job, and maybe even school and several other obligations to organizations and caregiving on lock!

Internally, in the Black community, our bottom rung status is challenged, often! I once was talking to a Black male co-worker about my plight at work as a highly educated, experienced, and God forbid opinionated and proud Black Woman… and his comment… “Stop doing that Black Woman Stuff, just be a woman!”

Jigga what? Jigga who? And NO, I am not making that up. Needless to say I spazzed on his ass, but it was after work at the bar so I didn’t do it in front of company!

Similar topic, and another Black male commented to me, “So Black Women have it harder than Black men?” Hmmm let’s see. In the street my body gets unwanted attention, at work my mind doesn’t get enough respect, and you are asking me this crap…. so?!????! I acknowledge your plight even though it is not mine, acknowledge mine even if you don’t understand it.

Trust me brothas, we do such a good job at caping for y’all… all the time… I think sometimes you forget that while you were picking cotton, we were picking cotton, having babies in the field then attaching Little Chicken George to our nip to gets back to picking more cotton, and then having to visit Massa and his ole shriveled dry ass for some late night slavery. You got it bad. We get it. But let’s not have a competition in hard knocks. Mmmkay!

Externally, we are invisible. Unless it’s our hair, our ass, our style, or some negative stereotype… very little else seems to make waves. It’s a fight of the stereotypes that personally I’m not going to engage in… but that doesn’t mean it’s not there. We aren’t hard working in the home like Hispanic and Latino Women, we aren’t smart like Asian women, we aren’t princesses who need to be rescued or brutish, Sarah Huckabee Sanders type, White women.  Unless of course you are Beyoncé… and then y’all go apeshit!

We are entering a time in history, American history, where humanity is being pushed aside by power. If you believe in the value of all human life, evaluate your personal spot on the totem. We can accomplish more when we break down the power hierarchy and acknowledge each other’s unique skills and talents as humans! And if that fails…

Black Women, be Beyoncé…“Pay me in equity”