Being Young, Being Brown, Being Woman in the Workplace
I am usually the youngest professional in any room I enter. I walk into the workplace, the conference, the office and suddenly every identity I hold close to me feels vulnerable and most visible. I am often forced to hide my age or lie about my age to assure that my voice will be valued and taken seriously. I often have to put aside other parts of myself, like my brownness or my womanness to protect my positions and my reputation in the workplace. So, when a co-worker says something sexist or racist, when microaggressions are being flung at me, when my work is exploited because of my age or biases about my gender, I’ve had to make a choice. A choice about when I can speak up and when my family’s financial survival is most important.
I’m not the only young, brown woman who feels this way either or has to protect herself in these pretty inconvenient and unconventional ways. Young, intelligent, brown women everywhere experience this to some extent. We get pushed out of the workplace for wanting agency, for wanting a voice of our own, for wanting to be safe and feel valued. The double standards we are constantly up against end up chipping away at us and making us feel small, incomplete, invisible. I had a co-worker write a painfully long Facebook post saying that Black people were at fault for Trump being voted in as president because they didn’t come to the polls in as high numbers as white people and that because of this, they needed to stop playing victim and be accountable. Mind you, white women are mostly responsible for Trump Being in office. Also, mind you, this co-worker was someone who would never understand the obstacles black folks face when trying to get to the polls, the history of obstacles that have been in place, and this co-worker was a very wealthy white woman who would never know anything about living in poverty or living in a world where no matter how you vote, your abuse never shifts, your life never seems to be at ease.
We would all guess correctly if we guessed that she never suffered in the workplace for these comments and assertions about black folks. In fact. It never posed an issue because no white person who was served by our organization, took offense to the ignorance. Not surprisingly. But when I wrote a piece for Three Token Brown Girls on gentrification, and mentioned ‘white people dancing’, I was reported to my employer and called in to have a meeting where I was shamed, talked about in the room as if I wasn’t there, told by our board President that my actions would cost us donors, and that a social media policy would now need to be in place because of this ‘issue’. Because most of our constituents were white, it made sense that they would only take seriously anything that discouraged their white constituents from participating in programming. But when it came to racism that targeted people of color, it didn’t matter. We rarely serve people of color anyway. And that’s how it went. I remember writing my resignation letter that night, in preparation for the day where I would have enough courage to get out of the sunken place.
something did shift in me once 2018 came around the corner. It was as if I woke up one morning and stopped giving all fucks about my reputation, about preserving my job space or surviving financially. Maybe it was just that I finally had become so sick of being exploited, paid unfairly for the amount of work I was doing, and tired of being the only brown face in my workplace, period. I realized that so many women of color, who are usually expected to do all the work and pick up all the pieces for organizations and places of employment, stay in these jobs either because they are low-income and need to get paid or because they aspire to be something bigger and believe this is just a stepping stone on their path to living their best life. But for me, I decided that even though many of these things were true for me too, I wasn’t going to continue staying in unfair, unjust situations. I wasn’t going to continue working in spaces where the biggest reason I stayed was out of fear.
When the Centre for Community Organization (coco-net.org) shared this picture on their website, it went viral on social media. Women of color everywhere saw this and spoke up about their own stories of struggle in the workplace. We were finally being reflected when so many times we have felt alone in these situations. I, for one, had remembered moments where I did feel like I must be overly sensitive or overreacting to things I was hearing and the ways I was being treated, but when my friend sent this photograph to me, everything came together, all of the little pieces of myself that I had compartmentalized for workplace safety and acceptance, they all came together and surrounded my being in that moment.
I started speaking up for myself in my workspaces. I resigned from that job. I challenged a keynote speaker on equity issues in the non-profit sector. I spoke up about equal pay, about the pushing out of women of color in the workplace, about being young and being seen and valued despite biases, about being a mother and how the workplace treats mothers, or people in poverty, or people with illness.
Somethig profound happened to my being and it hasn’t been as glamorous or fun or exciting as maybe it sounds. It’s been scary and uncomfortable and sometimes unsettling, but it’s been necessary and I hope it’s been impactful. What I know is that my work is not done. This work is never done and if anyone ever thought that they could silence me or get rid of me, they were very, very wrong because I am not going anywhere.