This essay was originally published on April 28, 2016 on my site talynnkel.com.
Once again, my face stopped the meeting. Halted it completely because someone felt insecure about it.
I wish I could say this wasn’t a common occurrence, but it is. I have stopped meetings at every position I’ve held in the past ten years. It’s getting to be impressive, despite being unintentional. I’ve been told that my smile makes me look guilty, my frown is frightening, my expressionless face is intimidating, my shifting in my seat is discouraging, my avoidance of eye contact as disrespectful, and my laugh is disdainful.
And while I am sure that at some point, all these things are true, it hasn’t escaped my notice that these descriptors usually come from managers during and after team meetings…usually when they want to discuss some other way I’ve somehow challenged their authority or made them feel less authoritative. This happened so often that a couple of years ago, I started warning people about the faces I make when I’m thinking about what’s being said. At the time, I felt like I was heading a confrontation off before it became a problem. Turns out I was just apologizing for being myself and this year I’ve decided that shit was unacceptable.
No more apologies. That I felt like I had to explain and apologize for my face to avoid trouble is fucking ridiculous to me, but I did. I did it because I like paying my bills — ok that’s not true. But I do like being able to meet my needs and have a bit of fun with my income and I didn’t want that to stop. So every time someone gave me some “helpful feedback” on how I’m perceived, I internalized it and tried to adjust.
I sat in meetings with my head in my notebook, avoided eye contact, schooled my face into a non-expression, sat very still, didn’t speak, didn’t ask questions, filtered my suggestions through better liked co-workers…and found that regardless of whatever technique I employed, they still had a problem with me. I was too assertive, not assertive enough. I looked devious or bored. I didn’t offer enough feedback or I was too critical. My laugh was too loud or I seemed like I didn’t want to be there. The list of things my body language communicated to them was negative and endless.
Eventually I realized that it didn’t fucking matter what I did. Their problem with me was me. Not actually me, personally, but something about my physicality caused them to see every part of me negatively, regardless of what I did. These people were never going to like me.
For a while, I internalized that message. I figured I was unlikable…until I noticed that I made a lot of cool acquaintances and some friends every place I worked. People I spent time with outside of the office. Some of these people are still in my life a decade later. If I was so unlikable, how the fuck was I making friends all over the place?
It’s no secret that Black people face a lot of racism in the workplace. Black women also have to deal with the Angry Black Woman stereotype, where we can’t ever express anything that isn’t positive without fear of retaliation. I had to realize that this response to me wasn’t that I wasn’t good enough — it was that I was a threat to their perceived superiority. Thing is, I am good at a lot of things I try, and when I’m not, I’m comfortable admitting it. That level of self-confidence triggered a negative response in a lot of people and until I humbled myself (by apologizing or some such bullshit) they felt compelled to do it for me.
That means that in every work environment, I had some boss who tried to take me down a peg and put me in the place they felt comfortable with me. As you can guess from the first paragraph, that shit didn’t go well. And the older I get, the less of this bullshit I’m willing to entertain.
Yesterday, a young Black woman colleague approached me about her office experiences. She’s fresh out of school and facing her first wave of racist microaggressions in the workplace. I feel for her. Truly. You don’t realize the dumb shit people are going to ask you or say in front of you until it happens. And when it does, you think, “Am I making something out of nothing?” Yet, you will continue to hear and be asked things that will put your race front and center in the discussion. People will be openly disdainful and if you confront it, you will be punished. These people will not think they are racist. They will think shit like, “I have Black people on my team. I‘m liberal as hell!” when in reality, they are spouting silly ass white supremacist bullshit frequently and enforcing that shit at every opportunity.
My advice to her was, “white people do racist shit all the time and don’t think it’s racist. They will hold positions of power over you in the workplace and will enact these things both consciously and unconsciously. Your role is to define what you need from this situation and decide how much you can push back while still getting what you need. Your job is to build coping mechanisms for dealing with this. They can be as simple as calling a friend, or visiting your therapist. Sometimes, you’ll have to quit. But don’t do that if it’s going to fuck you up financially. If that’s the case, make them fire you because as long as you follow the correct steps, you can collect unemployment for a little while.”
I feel bad telling someone to dim her shine and not rock the boat, but she doesn’t have the financial support to leave her job at this time. She can work on creating that support but until then I suggested she figure out how to maintain her independence without sacrificing her self-worth, and that is a difficult dance. You will always take damage and you will always need time to heal.
I wish I knew a better way but this is the reality I see and experience. And while creating your own business, one where you don’t have to face the same attempts to disempower you, you will still face this when you deal with white people. You will be told that you won’t be trusted because of how you look. You will be told that you will always seem less than white people. You will be perceived as violent despite never doing anything to warrant that perception. People will ask you about “Black” things and be surprised when you refuse to answer. Your contributions will be ignored or dismissed, often publicly, and then implemented in the background — and you will not receive credit for them. Then, when you point out your contribution, you will be viewed as narcissistic.
This is what I face. This is just one of the struggles we as Black women face in the workplace.
Needless to say, I hate meetings. It’s hard to keep a semi-smile on your face while listening to people say stupid, irrelevant shit for an hour. It’s difficult trying to suppress your curiosity and interest in the goings on of the company because your every utterance that isn’t “that’s great! Love it!” are seen as criticism. Or your problem solving skills are looked at as a burden, not an asset. As I said, it’s not an easy space to occupy. I’ve failed several times and I will likely fail again. Until I get my independence from this environment, I’ll fail and rebound like I always have.
Originally published at talynnkel.com.