As a Black woman, there are so many assumptions, generalisations and insults that I’ve been faced with in the workplace. It took me a while to fully understand why certain words or comments would also rub me the wrong way when they made other people (namely white people and Black men) laugh.
I’ve often asked myself whether I’m just being overly sensitive or overreacting when I sit at my desk seething from the things people felt so comfortable saying to me that were downright derogatory and offensive.
In my book, ‘We Are The Ones We Need: The War on Black Professionals in Corporate South Africa’, I wrote about a white girl I went to high school with who mocked me about the size of my lips, saying I should be using the jumbo Pritt stick instead of lip ice. The whole class laughed.
Only to later realise that this behaviour doesn’t end in high school. It’s accosted me many times in the workplace and I know I’m not the only one who has struggled with being diminished, disrespected and humiliated by people at work, school and play.
Just this past weekend, I was out at brunch with a friend and there was a white woman who was there with her two big dogs. She had leashes, but they weren’t attached to the dogs. In a public space. Her dogs kept walking and running around the tables and she would, would very minimal effort, try to get them back to attach the leashes.
Eventually, she got one dog and tied the leash. The other dog was not about that leash life and she just stood there watching. At this point, my friend and I are on edge, because we are not about that dog life. Also, keep your pets to yourself, for heaven’s sake! At some point, this dog comes up to our table and begins sniffing my friend’s body quite enthusiastically while the owner just watched. My friend then says, “Please take your dog, I can’t. I was bitten by a dog earlier this year.”
This woman sauntered over to get her dog and said, “Just relax. Get over it. I’ve also been bitten by a dog and I got over it. It’s not a big deal.” She never apologised. Never looked up at my friend. Never acknowledged the anxiety that she had created with her dogs.
I felt the steam in my ears and my blood pressure spiking. My friend responded to her and told how unnecessary and inappropriate her response was. This woman still tried to justify herself. I then hopped on and said, “No! This is a public space and you are not going to subject us to your dogs against our wills. And you will not justify your BS actions.” KEEP YOUR DOGS TO YOURSELF.
Aside from my fury at this woman, was the compounded fury of knowing that this is the lived experience of Black woman that repeats itself over and over again. So, please:
1. Do not tell us to calm down because your experience is different.
2. Do not try to water down our experiences to erase our pain or discomfort or our truth.
3. Do not tell us that you “didn’t recognise us” because we changed our hair. All this does is confirm that people refuse to see us and seek to erase our presence, contributions and humanity.
4. Do not refer to us as uneducated, unruly caricatures based on the trash TV content you use to fuel your “ghetto Black woman” fetishes. The very content that exists because of the abuse and oppression of Black women.
5. Don’t ever be harmful to us and then tell us to relax or not be rowdy. You will no longer be shielded from the consequences of the harm, humiliation and disrespect you shovel on us.