Your natural disposition is neutral. You aren’t overtly preppy, but you also aren’t sullen. When you go into work sometimes you say good morning and sometimes you don’t. You don’t think anything of it because you are focused on your work. During the office meeting, they discuss a new policy that they are implementing. You ask questions with a neutral face to better understand the policies. Later on, you receive a message on slack or G-chat requesting a meeting. Your manager thinks you’re mad. She asks is everything is ok? You reply yes, and she notifies you that some of your coworkers complained that you seemed upset today and felt intimated by you at the meeting. You think about your interactions with them, and nothing is out of the ordinary. Yet, because you were not overly polite, you were labeled mad, intimidating, or aggressive. So, you walk away from that meeting confused but well aware that your white coworkers are acutely aware of you and will interpret anything other than extra smiley as aggressive. This is a microaggression.
Existing at work can be one of the most laborious tasks for women, but more specifically black women. According to the Mckinsey report, out of all of the women, black women experience the most microaggressions. In conversations with other black women about work, topics are often a game of how you can outmaneuver your work colleagues so that you may have a peaceful work environment. Or how can you best address this microaggression? Or how can you approach your boss so that she addresses and change her biases? We’ve heard so many stories about the struggles black women have at work. Yet, we never ask, who is it coming from? And what are these tactics?
Though white men, black men, and black women also have the possibility of making work life difficult. More often than not the most discussed and most contentious relationships in the workplace with black women are white women. White women have a particular type of microaggressions where they can escape their misogynoir by weaponizing their femininity and victimhood with crying. They can evade responsibility and use womanhood as a banner to show solidarity when in reality they are actively sabotaging black women. They can also use anti-black racism and stereotypes to paint black women as aggressive and white women as fragile. Below I’ve outlined tactics that white women use in the workplace to sabotage and microagress black women at work. This list isn’t only relegated to white women, but they are common tactics white women have used in the workplace.
1. Encourage you to speak for them
During your first week of work, you befriend a white woman at your job. She sits down and begins to overshare. She tells you about her life story, while you offer nothing in return. She tells you how unfair life has been to her and though it may or may not be intentional, she has created a story to get you to empathize with her and render her of incapable, child-like, or too broken to speak up for herself. Now, you feel compelled to protect and speak up for her in meetings because she’s had a hard life, and as a result, you’ve created a toxic environment for yourself because you are calling out a problem that is not yours.
2. Discouraging you
One day an opportunity shows up, and the manager thinks you would be a great fit for the opportunity. He announces it in front of the office, and immediately after your colleagues come to you and talk about how much the previous person complained in the position, how it leads to nothing, and how much time it will take. You start to get discouraged and think maybe I should reconsider this position. You talk to the boss about your concerns and you mention that your colleague warned you about these things. Your boss goes hmmm… that’s odd, (blank) asked for the position after I had decided already to recommend you. You realize that your “friend” was planting seeds to get you to let go of an opportunity.
3. Using Racial Stereotypes
Your work colleague chats with you during lunch and sees that you are receptive to her sob stories. So, every day she comes to your desk during lunch and complains about her life and divulges that she is in so much pain. However, she barely if ever asks you about yourself. She blatantly does not care and soon you realize that she has relegated you to the mammy caretaker role. You’ve allowed her to tell you unprofessional stories about their social life and now you coddle her at work.
In the same scenario, instead of being receptive you uphold your boundaries and tell her that while you love talking to her, some of the topics you discuss are inappropriate for work. She backs off but is offended that you didn’t allow unregulated access to you like the mammy. So, she tries to paint you as an angry black woman. She surveils you, reports the info to your boss, and tries to get the office against you. You are a black woman and it is not hard to corral people against you. Your stereotype is the aggressor, so the implicit biases people have will come to the surface, and soon with the rumors and lies she spread around the office, the entire office is irritated by you and you have no clue why.
4. Diminishing Your Credibility
Today you were chosen to present a marketing plan to the company in a public meeting. The girl who also went for the job you got is there, but you think nothing of it. After the presentation, you leave time for questions and answers. She raises her hand and asks you questions that are not truly related to the campaign. You note what she is doing and understand that she is doing her best to make you look incompetent in front of the superiors. You then decide to always be on point and are stressed by the amount of additional work you have to do because you dared to take a role that a white woman thought she was a better fit for.
Every morning, you notice that your colleague looks at you and take notes. You find it odd but you don’t say anything because you aren’t exactly sure what’s going on. Later your boss pulls you in the office and explains that your colleague has been writing the times in which you come in daily. You are shocked by this because you had no clue you were being surveilled by your colleague.
6. Befriending you to enact revenge
You all had a group meeting and noted a discrepancy in your colleague’s work, you noted it out loud thinking it is better for the team to know because that error could drastically impact your work. Your colleague sees this as a challenge and after the presentations begins to play nice to get your guards down. Eventually, she starts to ask deeply personal questions and tries to pretend that she exploits the company to see if you admit you exploit the company. If you agree or admit to it, she tries to use joking words as evidence as to why you should get fired.
7. Befriending your boss to enact revenge
In the same scenario, she decides to befriend your boss. Soon your boss has a slightly hostile attitude towards you and you realize she’s been telling him untruthful things about you to diminish your character.
After the sabotage, revenge, and the malicious attack on your character, you ask to have a meeting with HR, your boss, and her. In that meeting, you lay out all of the receipts. You show how and why she’s been malicious to you and you ask why. She speaks and then breaks down crying. She blames her relationship. She tells you how stressed she’s been and that she didn’t know she was directing her anger towards you. Your HR manager and boss indulge her and let her off easy. She gets to keep her job but has to take implicit bias training. You truly see how white women’s tears can protect them from accountability.
9. Playing Confused
You find out that your work colleague has been saying negative things about you throughout the office. So, you ask her about it directly and try to see if there is a problem that needs to be resolved. She acts confused as though she had no idea what you are talking about. You can’t push her anymore to admit it, but you note the game she is playing.
How to Navigate the Waters
1. Remember they are adults. If they can apply for the job, interview for the job, and negotiate the salary, then they can speak up about the work conditions and how they are displeased with it.
2. White women are not truly your friends. Most times they use kindness to get information from you. If you talk to her and see she’s constantly prying, then you will know her intentions. Also, if you truly connect test her out constantly to ensure the intentions are pure.
3. Realize public opportunities are often the time where they want to demonstrate that you are incompetent. So, always be prepared for those opportunities. Also, know how to answer a question in a way you can shift it to a topic that you’d like to discuss. Or know how to redirect conversations or insults so that you can say what you need without leaving the conversation feeling embarrassed.
4. Use white men. White women do not often challenge white men. So, if you have a difficult message to give ask your trusted white male colleague how to deliver the news or if he can be there to back you up.
5. Build allies in the office. Go to the volunteer activities. Often that helps you bond with your co-workers. Make friends with your boss first and if you cannot make friends with him create a team of people who you know will work on your behalf.
6. Read the HR book thoroughly.
7. Call it out early. Do not wait until you are about to explode, address it early. My favorite strategy is to ask HR how to maneuver a situation with your work colleague. This is an inadvertent log of what is going on, and also shows that you were pushing to solve the problem not exacerbate it.
8. Know that you are always being watched. It is an unfortunate truth, but white women are extra aggressive with black women at work. They use all sorts of underhanded tools to get you back. Not only that, but you are also highly visible because you are black, so anything you do will stick out in a predominately white environment.
9. Do not be afraid to say no. You aren’t obligated to do anything outside the scope of your job. You can say no to things that are included in your job description too. Saying no will not create as much chaos as you think it does.
Most black women learn these lessons after their first full-time job. They talk to other black women and compare notes about their experiences. They often ask other black women how to handle certain situations. However, groups outside of black women or younger black women are acutely unaware of the behavior.
For centuries white women have chosen white supremacy, patriarchy, and their own interest over their womanhood. We’ve seen it with the history and presence of white women in the Ku Klux Klan . The disregard of the voting rights of black women in the suffragette movement. Finally, in the 2016 election where despite the mounting evidence of racism, sexism, and xenophobia, over 54% of white women still voted in favor of Donald Trump. Pair the history of diversity initiatives in the workplace mostly benefitting mostly white women. The data that show white women holding 32.5% of all management positions, compared to only 3.8% of black women. Finally, the data that shows black women experiencing the most microaggressions out of all of the women, and you can understand how a hostile workspace for black women is created. Since structural changes are slow or aren’t happening at all, I say we name the culprits and arm the victims.