At the beginning of my career, when I was still new to teaching, I had an encounter with my first angry white student. Upset about his low participation grade, the student requested a meeting with me after a number of e-mail exchanges and heated conversations after class. I had marked him down for his constant disruptive talking in class — he interrupted me so often during lectures that other students had complained to me about him. What I hoped would be a fairly short exchange took an unfortunate turn when he raised his voice and said that he felt he was a minority in a classroom “led by a Black woman.”
Years later, at a different school, I spoke passionately during a faculty meeting about the killing of Michael Brown, who was shot by a police officer in Ferguson, Missouri, in 2014. Afterward, I overheard a senior colleague whisper-yell to another faculty member: “Everyone’s tired of what she has to say, and she should just be grateful to be here.” Later, as I cried about the exchange to a new work buddy, he consoled me with the explanation: “We’re just not used to people like you here.”
I remember these moments whenever I answer that loaded question: “What do you do?” It’s as if I have committed an assault when I respond, factually, that I work at an Ivy League institution. It’s a double whammy when I say my credentials are also from said Ivy League. It’s as if my résumé has personally insulted them. I must answer delicately even though in reality, I am the only one truly affronted by these interactions. I’m the one who’s asked if I feel safe driving back from a faculty department party in an all-white neighborhood — a fair question when white people call the police on Black people in the “wrong” spaces. I’m the one who has to deal with racism in my own neighborhood, like the time my mother was visiting me and someone called her a racial slur for parking in the wrong space. I didn’t let her visit after that.
Now, it is almost 2021, and students still tell me I’m their first Black female teacher in college. Depending on who’s looking, I am either an inspiration or a damnation. Black women like me face the highest instances of discrimination at work. In a recent survey conducted by Essence, 45 percent of Black women reported that they experience racism the most at work.
I worry that many white people — both co-workers and employers with good intentions — crane their necks a little too hard to look at overt instances of anti-Black racism out in the world, rather than paying attention to the sinister covert acts happening inside their own workplaces. Sure, it’s a nice touch when well-meaning white folk put Black Lives Matter signs on their lawns and tell their Black colleagues how sorry they are when another one of us is shot and killed. But are they also using their collective power to address the fact that it takes the typical Black working woman 19 months to earn what the average white man takes home in 12 months?
Of course Black women report the workplace as the number one space of hostility — it’s the logical end to a journey from childhood. According to the most recent data from the US Department of Education, Black girls were suspended almost six times more than white girls, while Black boys were suspended more than three times as often as white boys. In Boston, the number of disciplinary cases involving Black girls was 11 times more than those involving their white counterparts, with the rates of expulsion even more strikingly disproportionate between Black and white students, especially among girls.
By the time white adults graduate and enter the workforce, they are already primed to view Black women as less than and unwelcome or simply in the wrong place. By the time a Black woman has entered spaces dominated by white people, she has endured so many battles that what some might call “attitude” is actually just exhaustion. I struggle to write this without suggesting Black women are strong, bottomless wells of endurance: I assure you we are not.
The workplace is the last stop, not the start. The stripping of our power started long before we were in the workplace and, perhaps, that was intentional.
I’d like to think the solution lies in the problem itself. The craning of the necks needs to stop, and folks should look right in the mirror at themselves. We don’t need more workshops and speeches. Everyone needs to focus on retaining Black people already in the workplace — looking at how we thrive and what it means when we leave. If the retention of Black women is poor, then managers should be held accountable.
My advice to white people who want to be part of the solution is simple: Prioritize the Black women in your workplace. Listen to what we say and listen when we say it the first time, not the hundredth. Don’t be defensive. When we say something is racist, believe us. And then move forward with that message. Supporting us means speaking up — so we aren’t alone in calling out racism and injustice. Make that something worth getting used to.
Linda Chavers is a writer and a lecturer in African and African-American studies at Harvard University. Send comments to firstname.lastname@example.org.