A response to racial gaslighting and racial insensitivities in American workplaces
By: Nicole Johnson @proud2bamover @nicolejmove
Dear White Americans,
In the midst of racial tensions our workplaces are worthy of consideration and critique. It begins with the feeling you have shared with your Black friend. The one that begins with, “This doesn’t sit right with me”. We are in a good place; at one time that feeling was nowhere to be found in the hearts of some of your ancestors. But now, we are here in a new generation where I call many of you my friends. As Frederick Douglas did after achieving his freedom, I too will share my story after finding my freedom some odd years later. My story is deeply connected to the feeling you might be having these days. In the midst of this turn in the civil rights movement, when have you said to yourself “This doesn’t sit right with me.”? Stay in tune with that barometer. Asking yourself this question is your opportunity to exercise participation in justice.
Dear un-edified Black people,
I know you are tired. I pause here to consider whether I need to explain the reasoning behind your exhaustion but I fear that will tire you as well. Instead, I take this opportunity to edify you. Edify is the word I select for this never-ending work because it is a generative word and one that is non-threatening. To ask a people to edify us is a radical, spiritual concept that they cannot deny. For everyone deserves edification. To edify is to uplift morally, spiritually or intellectually. We are in need of edification due to the heinous crimes committed today against our people. Edification in this context is not to be mistaken for imparting enlightenment of some sort. Black people have successfully fostered culture, art, commerce, prosperity, and many other things despite our unjust circumstances. Instead, I am referring to the downtrodden spirits many of us possess due to the endless negligence, misunderstanding, and lack of effort from white moderates (who say they stand with us) and the stupid nature of the white racists that still live today in America. As I said, I know you are tired and I hope to edify you with this essay, giving you tools to begin defending yourself.
This particular part of my story begins in my bed when I first experienced what has now been described as symptoms of Post Traumatic Stress Disorder. I have been experiencing anxiety throughout the past month due to microaggressions and racial gaslighting that I suffered at my 5th place of work, post-graduation from college. One night, I began hyperventilating in response to a text message I received from a neighbor. I saw this text at 2:00 AM, four hours after it was sent. I awoke to a very general message that read, “are you awake? I’d like to get something from you”. The next morning, I came to find out he simply was looking for bug spray.
This neighbor is a good friend of mine. He is extremely supportive of my growth and has been supportive for 12-13 years. He is my former high school Drama teacher, married with two kids. He is a white man, but I had no reason to feel I was in trouble. No reason to justify the anxiety. In unpacking this with my therapist we came to the conclusion that I was missassociating the anxiety. In that moment, I was feeling as if every white man or woman who has ever needed something from me was there in my room at 2:00 AM. This has happened multiple times in the past few months.
This fear is indicative of the pressures I feel in American workplaces as a young African American female. As I tell these stories I will omit names and company titles. The purpose of sharing this information is to help Black people defend themselves and encourage white moderates to begin the necessary work of dismantling the policies, structures and systems that they benefit from and perpetuate. We can do this together in hopes of alleviating some (not all) of the anxieties we feel as Black people in America, specifically in work places.
It is imperative to know that racial gaslighting and racial insensitivities in the workplace are sometimes difficult to detect, but the ramifications show up in our mental health. These issues are also difficult to report, difficult to record, and often swept under the rug by people of all races. Often, it is easier to simply move on.
This generation is suffering from racism in a different way than our forefathers. It is a combination of physical brutality, psychological disorientation, confusion about our allies, the erasure of Black people, lack of resources and opportunities, institutional racism in education and housing, brute bigotry, and omission of representation, in addition to a variety of unique factors that are associated with each of our family histories, physical, financial, religious and other intersectional factors of our identity. The intersectionality of it all, creates the pressures that will break us, eventually. Before I share the details of my story, my purpose now is to warn us about that breaking point.
We are a resilient people and a loving people, but I am not sure what happens when you break us mentally. The behaviors of white moderates and unconscious racists in America today are setting us up for a catastrophic mental breakdown. You will hear crying in the streets as they did in the walks toward the south, where Black Americans were chained yet again for another 70 years of slavery before the Civil War. The moaning will be unbelievable, as this generation of white people has never heard the cries of broken Black Americans in droves.
We’ve been trained to keep these cries to ourselves, they are heavy and erupting from our chests like large waves. I have never experienced such devastation as I have in these recent nights. For I am crying about our country’s hypocrisy. I am crying at how our critique of the United States continues to go unheard, and how we are unable to collectively admit that the United States continues to betray its promise to Black people. How we have not risen up yet is a testament to the God that many of us believe in. This God tells us that vengeance is not ours. You all must thank that God, for He is the only being conditioning us to remain a loving and peaceful people.
White people must understand that these feelings that we experience are not due to their overt racism, but to their unknowing lack of effort, unknowing negligence, unknowing oversight of the Black experience in America. Many of the white institutions that I work with are still unaware of the inequities we face on the daily and how they, individually, contribute to the perpetuation of such aggressions. How is it that in 2020 we still are learning? It is an embarrassment to our education system and our high-tech society that we still do not understand the injustice designed into our policy, systems, and culture that hinder Black people from thriving. You also lack the emotional intelligence to empathize with and imagine what a Black person might be struggling with or what we need today for a healthy life. Even when we speak out about our feelings, it is as if the story does not move you. As if you are still paralyzed and unable to understand how to help us.
I must admit, helping us would require you to do something about that “unsettled feeling” you have in your heart. You must act in ways that are contrary to your own livelihood to liberate a people that have built this country for you and your ancestors. So yes, we do request that you try your best to consider us instead of yourself during the latter half of this year (and for the rest of your life?). I will tell you my story again and again until you understand that my storytelling is not for your pity and your consideration. I tell my story to propel you into a new life. Change behaviors, change structures, change systems. Utilize your power. We are owed such change.
Many of you know me as a peaceful person, but I am yelling as I write this. For today is Sunday, July 12th the anniversary of one of the bloodiest and most violent insurrections in American history. The New York Draft Riots lasted from July 12th – July 16th, 1863. The horrors of the first day culminated in the burning of the Colored Orphan Asylum, which was located on Fifth Avenue between 42nd and 43rd Streets. I will visit the block of 42nd and 43rd on 5th avenue to pay my respects. Children died on that evening for no justifiable reason. I can feel them in my veins. Please go visit that block and then reach out to me. I will answer questions, I will have discussions about how this same unjustifiable hypocritical American racism shows up today in new forms of white moderate negligence, oversight and lack of effort.
These offenses are cut from the same cloth. If you are not vehemently for us, you are against us. Use this time to figure out how you can do more than clicktivism and actively change the circumstances that Black people face in America.
Now I will begin listing the instances of racial gaslighting and racial insensitivities that I have experienced in my workplaces. Remember, if you witness these things, that is your window to participate in Justice. There are things you notice that aren’t on this list and they don’t sit right with you. You’re probably right. Say something. Use your imagination. If you don’t hear of these things, Black people will also do better to share our stories so that you can hear them clearly. That being said, if you hear one story you can always imagine that there are more.
To the un-edified Black person, I share my story and share it boldly. I will tell the truth of my circumstances for I am not afraid of anybody. You must all begin to tell your story. If we all told our truth, we would have a never-ending book of American offenses that are morally unjust, unethical, and a testament to the continued betrayal that we experience in this country. With every offense, I yell betrayal. For this country is not some mindless machine, it is made of people who somehow absolve themselves from these offenses and shrug their shoulders. When in fact, individuals could utilize their minds to consider ethics, to consider their wrongdoing or the ongoing damage of their silence.
Share your story Black person. Share it loudly and never stop. For they have done too much to this people of ours. The consequences of bad behavior begin with exposure.
I have detailed one experience for your consideration below. I must admit that this is the worst of all of my experiences, but some fashion of this has happened in all of my previous jobs… Workplace microaggressions are difficult to report because they exist on such a large spectrum of racial insensitivity. For Black people, when we encounter an instance like this we must illuminate it. Only then we can begin to lessen the impact and potential of other racial insensitivities, crimes, and racial gaslighting in our workplaces. Reader, do not condition these ideas. Try your best not to say “that wasn’t that bad”, because that is the attitude that led confederates to justify and fight for slavery.
In addition to my role at the workplace detailed below, I am Founder & Creative Director of Javanna Productions M.O.V.E., a non-profit arts and education effort that provides community leaders and students with the resources to address social issues creatively @proud2bamover. I began the effort 10 years ago in my junior year of high school. For the past five years, I have always worked a separate full time or part-time job in the arts, education or city government to sustain myself financially while encouraging the community leaders in M.O.V.E. All of my employers are always aware of my social justice work with community leaders and have approved of my continued participation. In several instances, including the one below my employers have supported my efforts and even collaborated with me or introduced me to new community leaders in need of support. The company where I experienced the following racial insensitivities was my fifth place of occupation post-college. I recently left that job after six months of employment and have experienced this same sort of early departure from racially insensitive workplaces several times since 2014.
Racial Insensitivity and Gaslighting
These events began with a phone call.
Nicole, I think you are distracted with the movement and your MOVErs and I need you to reign it in.
This is my 14th day of work without a break. I have a large workload this week. And I pay other people to do what you are seeing on social media for MOVE.
the supervisor laughs out loud
I have some concerns about my workload and some racial insensitivities I’ve noticed in the workplace.
After sharing some of these insensitivities, SUPERVISOR responded with this;
“This has nothing to do with race”
“My intention is what is important, and how you are receiving it is incorrect.”
“This has nothing to do with race.”
“I’m woke as fuck.”
“This has nothing to do with race.”
“Why does me saying ‘I’m woke as fuck’ trigger you?”
I mentioned again my workload
“I’ve given you so much support”.
Please list those efforts.
You have a day off soon and I’ve hired a new assistant for you.
Those are all things I deserve. They are in my contract.
You agreed to do half pay
No I did not. You told me due to COVID I could not receive my full pay (this only changed when I compared my workload to that of another staff member who was making a full time salary at the time)
You are talking a lot about micro aggressions, and being paid less and I just don’t have time for it, I’m trying to run a business.
Great I’ll be putting in my two weeks now or I can leave tomorrow whatever you prefer.
These are examples in which the SUPERVISOR practiced tokenism. On Black Out Tuesday I woke up at 8:30 am to have a conversation before work at 10:00. I suggested that we participate in the Black Out Tuesday activities to which he replied…
- “I don’t believe Black Out Tuesday will do anything for the world.”
- “We are doing something different, educating people through our online content.” We did not have any planned content. He was referring to me hosting impromptu conversations on behalf of the company.
- “98% of businesses are not participating in Black Out Tuesday.”
By the end of the day, due to what I would describe as guilt and pressure from clients, our company suddenly decided to participate in Black Out Tuesday and I:
- Jumped onto an Instagram Live with two minutes notice to explain Black Lives Matter.
- Hosted four conversations about how to become a better ally with clients who showed up for our online programs on Black Out Tuesday.
- Cancelled or found substitute instructors for four programs on the schedule because industry professionals were respecting Black Out Tuesday and were not able to participate.
- Sat in a team meeting that began with, “Nicole, since you are the only Black person on staff we want to check in with you first. Tell us how you are feeling.
The second instance in which SUPERVISOR practiced tokenism and devalued my opinion in the workplace;
- SUPERVISOR scheduled a Facebook Live session with [XXX] and two organizations with white staff representatives. Unbeknownst to SUPERVISOR, he scheduled this session on Juneteenth. He was unaware of the holiday.
- Once he learned of the holiday, SUPERVISOR asked me to conduct the live session because he feared it would be inappropriate if he did. I was the only person of color actively on staff at the time.
- On the morning of, I suggested that having me on the live feed is tokenism, that we should avoid it all together, and instead, place me on a live stream a different day so the company and I could revere Juneteenth.
- I expressed this to SUPERVISOR over a text conversation that lasted 15-20 minutes. He told me that my suggestion was not correct. We jumped on a 30 minute phone call where he explained that I needed to do the Facebook Live event.
- I suggested that I could read my Juneteenth Poem. SUPERVISOR had a problem with my usage of one word in the poem: guilt. He spoke to me for another 30 minutes about how he was in an uncomfortable position as an ally.
- I tried to compromise. I told SUPERVISOR I did not need to do the poem or I could rewrite it and he struggled to decide. We started the live feed without much of a plan besides me reading the history of Juneteenth.
- He told me I should read up on the history so that we don’t get ‘dragged’ if I say something inaccurate.
- I complied and then SUPERVISOR proceeded to have an interview with me availing himself of ‘being a good ally’ who is ‘open to learning.’
- SUPERVISOR concluded the interview with “I love you.” I said, “I love you too”, even though I thought this was the worst idea, especially as it unfolded publicly.
- We brought on white staff members from other organizations and I sat on the live feed asking small questions for an hour. I was a prop.
- SUPERVISOR messaged me privately on the live feed and asked me to only read the second half of my poem. The part where I did not mention guilt.
- SUPERVISOR thought using the word guilt would make the company and all partners involved look bad. SUPERVISOR did not want to jeopardize our business relationships.
On Monday afternoon I received a call unexpectedly from SUPERVISOR. He asked if I had time to chat, but this was not a planned call. Mind you, I had put my two weeks in at this point. I wasn’t sure what it was going to be about. He began by sharing his experience. I let him speak for about 10-15 minutes before asking questions.
SUPERVISOR said to me:
“I’ve been holding a lot of resentment towards you this weekend.”
“No one has ever quit, just like that before.”
“I don’t want to be angry at you so I wanted to share my perspective.”
“Something from our conversation really stuck with me, when you said “you did not feel safe in the workplace it made me very angry because I try to really make this a supportive place for you”.
“As a white gay male I’ve been through a lot.’
“I came from nothing, everything I have with this company I worked hard for.”
“The Black people I have spoken to this weekend think you believe I’m coming from a place of privilege.”
I clarified by saying, “No, I’m quitting because of your behavior the past three days speaking to me on the phone.”
SUPERVISOR continued… “I’ve been through everything, you name it, as a Caucasian gay male”. He mentioned rape and continued to describe his life-long struggles.
He said his life has been really hard but he still goes to work, so it’s hard for him to empathize with people who are having a hard time with stuff. It’s not that he does not care.
I asked him to clarify why he was sharing this and he expressed, “Honestly I’m just calling you to get this off my chest because I don’t want to harbor any anger”.
I asked him if he thought my life as a Black female might be difficult. I asked him if he thought I was exaggerating about my struggles with the company and the leadership. He said no; he believes I’m entitled to feel how I feel and that he understands that I also have gone through difficult things as a Black woman.
A bit confused then about the purpose of this call, I asked, “so how should I go about telling my story to the world?”
“In whatever way you wish. I cannot control you or your story”, he said.
“Ok, great. So you don’t have any thoughts about how I would share my experience here at this company with the world?”
“What do you mean?”
“Well I don’t understand how you want me to share with the world how all this went down, i.e. why I’m leaving the company”, I said. “If you were FOR Black and Brown people, you would share and rectify the mistakes you have made in this workplace. If I shared the truth would it embarrass you? Would it hurt your brand? What happens when clients ask for me? Do you lie and tell them I left for a better opportunity, erasing me from your story entirely? Or do you tell them the truth about why I left?”
SUPERVISOR said, “I never even thought you would share this information. If you did, I would lose all respect for you. That is not professional. That says something about YOU if you shared this information.”
“All I would be sharing is the truth of my life. Are you scared that the truth of your behaviors are going to get you in trouble?”
He continued to get angry at the prospect of me sharing the information with other people and continued to say things about my character.
“Why would you do that Nicole? As your friend I would think you wouldn’t do that. You are so FOR everyone and the people, and for giving people opportunities, that is totally against who you are.”
“I would do it for justice and accountability”. I asked, “Did you not think there were going to be consequences for what you’ve been saying to me for the past three days? There are ramifications for bad behavior. Why didn’t you think about this when you were yelling at me in our previous conversations? Did this ever cross your mind that I could share the truth of my life with people?”
At this point, the conversation flipped. He wanted to know what he was missing.
He said, “I heard you say a few things the past few days… you were mad that I laughed at you, you were mad I didn’t give you enough time to think?”
I responded with, “SUPERVISOR, I have told you this story three times already and each time you didn’t hear me. I will not say it again.”
These are just excerpts from my experience. Although this conversation is solely my perspective, I offer it to you to illuminate the reality of my life and the lives of many others. These aggressions are alive and well. Justify SUPERVISOR’s actions in whatever way you wish and doubt me if you must, but telling my truth is a part of the work.
This, in fact, is the largest part of my disbelief in the White America that refuses to see our setbacks and the inequities we face. The truth of my life somehow threatens some White people and hinders them from being considerate. The type of consideration we are owed should line up with the vast inequalities we have faced due to hundreds of years of betrayal. Hundreds of years of such terror should offer us a wonderful life today. But instead, in the midst of this turn of the civil rights movement, many of us are riddled with anxiety, mental health issues, lack of considerate employment, and a bunch of allies that don’t know how to care for us.
I left the job, as I did many others in the past, due to these pressures, aggressions, and inconsiderate behaviors. White people, right now in history I repeat: you are either vehemently for us or against us. This crossroads in humanity has happened too many times and I believe this generation is interested in making THIS moment the last time we ask you to consider our history. You choose if you are for or against us. Please change your behavior accordingly so that we know who to commune with and who to avoid.
If you choose to stand with us, I have considered giving you a step-by-step guide to help you better line up your day, but I fear that will lead you to an unsustainable method of civic engagement. You must personalize this journey. It must be a new birth from the womb of your personal value system, leading to a new lifestyle founded on valuing and caring for Black lives. This personalization will allow your allyship to manifest in a way that only you have been designed to carry out. Your circumstances, your windows of opportunities, your relationships can only be managed by YOU. We cannot help you design your allyship. But I must alert you to the necessity of shifting our culture.
We are the generation that believes in equality. We were born into its possibility. Now we must fight for equity so that our children’s children can arrive into a world where equity is the new normal. Equity for the Black Community is the pursuit of the complete realization of the Black struggle and ensuring the corresponding policy, societal, and economic response to provide us with necessary resources and consideration for full prosperity, no matter how grand.
We all must educate ourselves in a way that is similar to the way you educate yourself on the newest tik tok trend, your personal craft, your higher education. We must collectively do this or we will suffer through another generation of anguish and anxiety. I highly suggest watching Henry Louis Gates Jr.’s six-part documentary series to better understand the trajectory of the Black experience in America. People of all races, allow the truth of Black stories to shift your soul. And then, just as you commit to your personal development, decide if you can commit to the edification of Black people.
I conclude with a poem.
Ya’ll gonna break us. We are a resilient people.
We show up every day and push through it all despite the pain.
Despite the generational trauma and the
stench of enslavement that rides on our hearts.
We grew up in fear, parents tellin us to be prepared,
for you won’t make it in this world as a Black person if you don’t armor up.
They’ll come at you from all sides in every way…
gaslighting, brutality, jails, schools, work places, on the
side of the street, in your car. Wherever you at, they come for you.
They come for your hair, they come for your mouth,
they come for your heart and then mama told me despite it all, stay high.
We are a peaceful people.
Black people have always been a peaceful
people but you’re gonna break us.
See the system. I explain again and
again is what causes my guts to bust. The system is
what tells us our American worth. But our Godly worth says
otherwise and we find it hard to find solace between the two.
But you’re going to break us
when you tell us it’s not about race.
When you tell us you’re making that stuff up.
When you tell us all lives matter.
When you’re silent.
When you can’t show up.
That’s gonna break us and we’ll chalk it up to the system
that you are a part of, benefit from and can credit your ancestors for.
Remember we came here in ships, packed down there without understanding of what was happening. We were separated from our families and dragged through never ending enslavement.
Separate but equal lynching
The pressure down here below crushes our souls. We are the same people from the ships, be careful with us.
If you are interested in sharing this essay on your publication please email firstname.lastname@example.org @proud2bamover