My supervisor waved her finger an inch from my nose, berating me and scolding me like a child. I remember saying, “You don’t have to speak to me that way.” She quipped, “Actually, I do.”
When she failed to read an email detailing my whereabouts, she thought leaving me a screaming voicemail was the best way to find me. When I dared speak up in a meeting I’d planned, she interrupted and flung papers at me in front of the team.
I have worked for some of the world’s biggest companies and in the PR agency world—often all-white spaces. Over 10+ years in corporate America, I had incredible bosses and colleagues, both men and women, but I have also worked with people who, through constant aggression, made every day a struggle. As a Black woman, I am not alone in this.
Therapy encouraged me to compartmentalize these moments for my own sanity. But the truth was as clear then as it is now: none of this would have happened if I were white.
Today, the racial injustices that have been cornerstones of the Black experience are fiercely in the mainstream focus. But whenever cultural conversations about racism in corporate America arise, coded and often veiled terms prevail. I hear the word microaggression to address workplace hostility, especially that related to race. The word microaggression isn’t strong enough to capture what are in fact racist dynamics and actions at work. There’s nothing “micro” about a boss screaming at me in an elevator in front of a stranger or throwing a stapler at me, just as there’s nothing “micro” about a colleague treating me differently than white male and female coworkers.
Black women are schooled to manage power dynamics, de-escalate situations to make others feel more comfortable, and know that race often, if not always, plays a role in how people respond to us. Once, I had a boss who introduced my newly hired supervisor to my white coworkers but failed to introduce her to me, even though I’d be her only direct report. The absence of an introductory email meant that when my supervisor walked into my office, I had no idea who she was. I’m convinced that my boss didn’t “see me” at this moment and frankly didn’t care enough to loop me in. When I brought the situation to his attention, he told me I was being sensitive.
Then my training kicked in.
I told my boss he’d created an awkward situation for my white, female supervisor. Only then, when I’d framed it this way, did he offer his profuse apologies. Some would see this apology as a workplace win, but I found it utterly damaging. My pain needed to be related to a white person’s discomfort to be valid. This is not a microaggression—it’s a major one. It is one that can set off a domino effect of escalating aggressions. In my case, this one overlooked introduction set off a chain of aggressive behavior from my new supervisor that colleagues saw but often ignored.
During her first week, my new supervisor set up an introductory lunch meeting, which should have been standard and harmless. I was so excited to have someone new to learn from that I went against my gut and let my guard down. I assumed we would be on the same team. I shared what I needed to be successful at work, the work I enjoyed the most, my work style, and more.
After that meeting, she had the playbook for how to make me miserable at the office, and she did. She moved quickly to strip me of the work I loved, insisted on altering my work style, and made me dread going into the office. As Black women, we must stay guarded, and often don’t push our talents to the forefront, so we aren’t perceived as a threat. I learned never to be so comfortable again.
Never being able to let your guard down at the office is exhausting. In addition to performing well on the job, Black women are analyzing and contextualizing every encounter, and code-switching, while trying to process how this all shapes our professional development. Years of almost perfect performance reviews didn’t shield me from racism or disparate treatment. I internalized these negative encounters and aggression and even passive-aggressiveness. It affected my confidence. I woke up every morning fearing how I would be treated.
Ending the silent treatment
Colleagues witnessed the aggression I faced, but never quite knew how to step in and help me. People approached me in private to apologize for what I was going through, but they weren’t ready to expend their work capital to help me. It was always my responsibility to process and report abuse and wrongdoing, and when I did, I became a threat. Too often employees are silent bystanders witnessing workplace aggression. That has to change. Companies need to create a culture that encourages individuals to speak up in the moment and condemns bad behavior.
Last year, McKinsey and Lean In’s Women in the Workplace, the largest study of women in corporate America, found that Black women “face more barriers to advancement, get less support from managers, and receive less sponsorship than other groups of women.” Black women “are far less likely to feel they have an equal opportunity to grow, they are less happy at work and more likely to leave their company than other women are.”
I am triggered when I see so many corporations, startups, and venture firms expressing their support for the Black Lives Matter movement. We have reached what could be a turning point in the fight against racial injustice, and it’s not enough for companies to post, “We stand with the protestors and the Black community” on social media. Companies must acknowledge that racism exists in their walls, do a comprehensive internal accounting for racism, and devise meaningful plans to move forward that are more than a PR opportunity.
Corporations must look in the mirror, listen to feedback from employees of color without punishing them for their honesty, and fundamentally change their structures and practices to respect and advance Black talent. Corporations must nurture Black talent while they have it, and employees must call out racist aggression when they see it. That is how to be an ally. Had even one of my colleagues spoken up about my treatment, I would not have felt so isolated.
Unchecked behavior and bullying pushed me and so many others out of corporate America and into entrepreneurship. What begins as small but significant oversights of racism drive highly qualified, ambitious Black women away from a space where we deserve to be.
Chanel Cathey is the founder and CEO of CJC Insights, a strategic communications and public relations agency headquartered in New York City. Chanel is also on the advisory board for the Wall Street Journal’s Women in the Workplace Series.