A month ago at work, a white man physically threatened me. He wanted to know my name so he could report me, so he came close to me and followed me into my work building and repeated his request. His goal was to intimidate, because maybe I intimidated him.
It started because I couldn’t hear my co-workers. We were returning from a trip where we had seen an exhibit that discussed the explicit manifestation of racial bigotry and how it was perpetrated by those meant to govern and protect. We used the words that we are comfortable using in the safety of our offices, words that I had temporarily forgotten are triggers for the outside world.
“White privilege” is not a term up for debate among my co-workers. “Systemic inequity” is the basis of our discussions. The analysis that drives our work is an understanding that racism is the cause of negative life outcomes for folks who look like me.
With this conversation going on, I asked the driver to please lower the volume on the radio. He responded rudely. He was not going to do so. I let it go. I was in the first row of four in a van and nearest the driver.
Another co-worker brought up that she couldn’t hear those of us in the front of the van, and I told her that the driver was not going to turn down the volume, so we would just have to deal. He responded that he had indeed said that, that he needed the music to focus and that he was driving us where we needed to go.
At some point he engaged me again, saying that I was the loudest person in the van and that I should go in the back. I felt the kind of anger that would lead to an impulsive response. I quieted it. I asked him for his name. He threatened to kick me out of the van, said I could take the subway.
My co-workers and I were all shocked at how fast and far things escalated. I asked why the discussion needed to go there. Not really waiting for an answer, I told him that I no longer wished to continue the conversation. It ended. The rest of us continued our discussion all the way back to home base.
When we got back to my work building, I exited the van as fast as I could and headed straight to the building. So did he. That’s when he came straight up to me, following my pace, to ask for my name. “I’m not telling you my name,” I said. He persisted.
My co-workers yelled for him to leave me alone. He was close enough for me to smell him, but I didn’t smell anything. The only sense I had about me was the sight that led me into the building. The only thought I could process was that it was getting late and I had to pick up my son. I felt his rage next to me; it was indignant, immediate, irrational. I put my head down, out of fear, out of surrender — I was not engaging.
What happened next was a lot of processing — through reports, the retelling, cc’ing department heads and supervisors. I went back to my office to type out a report about the incident. I was fine, I kept assuring anyone who asked. My composure was proof that the driver was the irrational one. I was fine.
Six years ago, a white male boss bullied me. He was the executive editor of AlterNet, a left-leaning magazine. He shot down any idea I had that explicitly discussed race, made me feel like I was incapable of doing my job and that I should be grateful that he had even hired me. When he fired me, he did so over email.
My co-workers accused him of sexual harassment in an article published in BuzzFeed in December 2017. I applauded their bravery, saw this as a victory. I had not been sexually harassed; I was fine. I quietly wondered why no one asked me if I had been harassed.
I hadn’t kept in touch with them, but we were friendly. Did they determine that I hadn’t had a similar experience, that I didn’t have a complaint to launch? Did they decide that I or others didn’t want to share space in exposing our former boss?
Opportunities were scarce for me as a young black woman and journalist. Don Hazen offered me a job after we had lunch at a café and proposed $5 more an hour than I was getting at my current gig, saying that I could keep that one as well.
I had two part-time jobs, at two progressive magazines. I was building my career. I was grateful. My co-workers were mainly women, beautiful women, at various stages of their careers. I was tasked with launching a section on activism, alongside a more experienced co-worker.
On our company retreat, I urged that we focus more on race. I wanted to make public the internal pull and tug between Don and me when I would pitch something about race.
I felt alone in that effort, the only black writer on staff, for a magazine that rated views over quality. The effect often made our normally pleasant cohesive staff unsupportive, if not outright competitive.
The idea that I was incapable seemed to echo from Don to the other editors. I worked harder, I put more stress on myself. I ignored the unanswered pitches from Don and wrote to the other editors. I purposely decided to be bold and unintimidated.
I lost my job.
That my strong stance and eventual dismissal were equated is difficult to prove. This is the first time that I am aligning my boldness with my eventual removal from the position. I knew that I had stopped being cute, that I was no longer easygoing.
Don wavered between disenchantment and micromanagement. My hours changed indiscriminately. I was told that racially charged topics like the killing of a black man in San Francisco were too much for me to handle, and then too much for the site to take on.
He nitpicked about my headlines, the timing of my blogged pieces, my ability or power to assign pieces to other writers. I had to cc all my communications with the other editors, and they had to approve every single thing I intended to write. The message of my incapability turned into a fact.
With Don, my response—to talk louder, to stand my ground, to carry on despite—was met with my removal.
With the driver, my response—to continue talking, to carry on despite—was met with a physical threat.
For six years, I believed the story that Don told, that I was bad at my job, that my bark didn’t match my bite, that I wasn’t worth it.
When I said that I was fine after the incident with the driver, I hid from my co-workers and myself the terror I felt leaving the building and that I have since felt going near it.
In both instances, I sat in the shame of being too weak, yet too loud; too seen, yet not worth the time or effort; too much, with too little return.
My co-workers at AlterNet were able to expose the abuse they received. They expressed their vulnerability in the age of #MeToo, joined their voices in the chorus of mostly white female victims, and were supported, if not outright celebrated.
I was part of the group that celebrated them, supported them, pushing back the urge to ask why wasn’t I asked, why wasn’t there space for the type of harassment that I received?
Perhaps there isn’t a word for it or a defined movement to describe the type of racialized, gendered terror that black women face.
Salma Hayek wrote at length and in great detail about the terror she suffered with Harvey Weinstein. After turning down his obvious sexual advances, she said, he bullied her as he directed her, made her feel incapable of doing what she said she would do, and tried his best to tank a project.
Although I find Hayek highly problematic in certain instances, particularly where black women are concerned, I felt an instant familiarity with what she described. It was as if my assailants had already been turned down in an obvious sexual realm and decided to pursue another course.
It is so easy to believe the story of inefficiency when you are too grateful for an opportunity. The gratitude is like a stretched rubber band, an extending of a benefit to reach someone who is not usually in the purview. To ask for more is stretching it more; to be loud about your convictions is to bring it to a breaking point.
This is learned behavior. You stay quiet about your pain because there is only this band surrounding your opportunity, protecting you from being completely shut out. You want to stay in, so you surrender to the consequence; you believe the story being told about you, because there is no space for anything else. No other story could be considered.
Here is my story. I am not the strong black woman either I’ve told you I am or the world has come to expect. I deserve the protections that are given to my white counterparts and my male counterparts.
If my affect suggests otherwise, if years of history and “bearing it all” have made you think I am superwoman, understand that it is all a myth.
I deserve the support of my co-workers, my community, my higher-ups, when my safety is threatened. I’m ending the internalized rationale that I am fine in order to finally counteract the usual response to my neglect.
The “strong black woman” myth lays the groundwork (in part) for the high maternal mortality rates, doctors ignoring their patients’ pain, and the death of an activist dedicated to seeking justice for her father to the denial of her own pain.
I am not fine. This is not fine. All is not well. Saying so doesn’t make me any less of a mother, a black woman, an activist, a fighter for justice.
Here is my pain. What are you going to do with it?