Updated: Jul 25
Written by Amira Davis
In an ideal world, the workplace should be a haven of professionalism, respect, and equal opportunity. Unfortunately, that is not always the case. Racism continues to rear its ugly head, leaving lasting scars on individuals and tarnishing the essence of diversity and inclusion. Today, I want to share a personal experience I had with a supervisor who used racial slurs under the guise of storytelling and also subjected me for years to various microaggressions. I share not because I want people to feel sorry for me, but because I want to share that while so many people say racism doesn’t exist anymore, it still does. I’ve had so many more experiences with just the general public that I could share, but that’s not my point. I want to share how this experience affected me both mentally and physically because when you go to work every day, you should be able to spend your time working and not worrying about what is going to come out of someone's mouth next that is derogatory about your race (not just about yourself, but others as well). You shouldn’t have to worry that your ability to be promoted will be hindered because people directly above you have implicit biases or are just plain ignorant. These encounters taught me firsthand about the damaging effects of workplace racism, not only on my self-esteem and self-worth but also on the overall work environment. This blog will be my discussion on confronting racism in the workplace.
A previous supervisor of mine had a conversation with me quite a few years ago. During that conversation, she used N-word three (I remember the exact number) times. Since she was my supervisor, I could not go to her with my concern, and I would not have felt comfortable speaking with her face-to-face because she was a massive grudge holder. I did what I was supposed to do in that situation and went to HR who did speak with her. When I did so, my concerns were brushed off because the supervisor told HR that she was merely "telling a story" and did not mean any harm. I knew at that point that our relationship would never be the same (and some of you may say, of course it won't be the same, you turned her in………but should I not have? Should I have just grinned and bore it?)
Feeling isolated and anxious, I reached out to other co-workers about the issue. Even though they felt her behavior was inappropriate, their responses seemed to me to be dismissive. Some excused her behavior, suggesting that it was "just the way she is" or that she was "ignorant in her thinking." I was beginning to think I was going crazy and couldn’t understand why or how anyone else could think this was okay. To me, it became apparent that racism was being brushed aside, undermining any hope for a fair and inclusive work environment.
Instead of taking immediate action, I was told that my willingness to be cordial and speak to my supervisor implied acceptance of her behavior. I will be the first to admit, not every encounter we had was a horrible one, but I always knew in the back of my head what her true feelings were. What people don’t realize is that sometimes, in order to “survive” in a workplace environment such as this, we need to “play along” or they will find a way to get rid of us. Even though I was a multiple year Award Club winner based on my job performance, I knew she would (and did) try to find other reasons to, in her words, “make sure I was being accountable” for my productivity. (I was very aware of how much she did not like me, as other staff members told me numerous times.) Knowing this, I always needed to keep my guard up while at the same time being cordial. I would send her texts about things that I knew she liked, and try to engage in conversations with her about things she enjoyed, but I always knew her true thoughts about me in the back of my mind.
The racist behavior I endured from her was not limited to the use of racial slurs. Over the years, I also encountered numerous microaggressions from my supervisor, disguised under the guise of innocent comments or jokes. Again, when I raised concerns, hollow justifications were offered, further undermining the gravity of her actions. This pattern of dismissive behavior left me feeling unheard, invalidated, and deeply disrespected.
Over time, the continuous exposure to racism and microaggressions in the workplace took a toll on both my mental and physical health. The stress and anxiety that accompanied each encounter gradually eroded my self-esteem and self-worth. The constant fear of retribution, the feeling of isolation, and the inability to escape from this toxic environment left me feeling trapped and powerless. Experiencing racism in the workplace firsthand had a profound effect on me. Beyond the initial shock, I was left questioning my own worth and place in the organization. It created a toxic atmosphere, making it difficult for me to perform at my best (even though, again, I was a multiple year award-winning top performer nationwide) and hindering my professional growth. The constant reminder of my supervisor's ignorance and insensitivity eroded my confidence and left me feeling isolated.
As the final cherry on top, the investigation of racism (after multiple years of this treatment) was done by another person of color (I’m sure at the company’s request). This person of color worked in corporate HR (whose job it is to protect the company’s interests). They concluded that no racism existed and that it was just the supervisor saying things that were unintentionally inappropriate (pretty sure they don’t realize what implicit bias really is). The notion that conducting a "fair investigation" on a person of color would not be flawed and inherently racist solely based on the investigator being another person of color is incorrect. In order to make true progress in addressing racism, it is essential to recognize that individuals, regardless of their own racial background, have the capacity to perpetuate prejudiced attitudes or engage in discriminatory behavior. It is crucial to address and challenge instances of racism in all its forms, irrespective of the racial background of the individuals involved, in order to foster a truly inclusive and equitable society.
After taking a leave due to health reasons, of which undoubtedly some were caused by and some were aggravated by this supervisor, I underwent a few months of recovery and was now prepared to return. The week before I was due to return, I started receiving manic text messages from her, which just showed the treatment I was due to receive upon my return. After speaking with my husband and family, my doctor, and other professionals, we decided it was not in my best interests (or, honestly, the staff's) for me to return, and I submitted my resignation. I have to tell you, when I did that, a HUGE weight was lifted off of my shoulders. I felt lighter, and it felt so much better to not have the stress of her face and sarcastic, condescending voice in my head.
I learned so much about myself and others from this situation. I learned that I am my biggest advocate, and I learned who really had my best interests at heart. I also learned that if you've never been in a situation like this, a lot of people are extremely dismissive and simply don’t/can’t relate or empathize. I also learned the importance of staff training on implicit biases and racism in the workplace. In my opinion, if we start at a younger age, things may not be as bad for generations after us..
Racism in the workplace carries a heavy toll on individuals. Beyond the emotional and psychological impact, it also hinders professional growth and stifles productivity. When individuals are subjected to racism, their creativity, motivation, and sense of belonging suffer. This not only affects the individuals directly targeted but also has a ripple effect on team dynamics and overall organizational performance.
Individuals who experience workplace racism should not bear the burden alone. Allies and bystanders have a crucial role to play in calling out racism, offering support, and amplifying marginalized voices. Creating safe spaces for open dialogue and education on racial equality can foster understanding and empathy, paving the way for meaningful change.
It is essential for organizations to create a safe and inclusive environment for their employees, free from racism and discrimination. This involves establishing clear policies against racism, fostering diversity, and providing adequate in person training to promote awareness and sensitivity among employees. At this particular employer, they “pushed out” diversity training that you could fast forward through or leave playing on one screen while working on another screen, which is what everyone did). There were no opportunities for discussion, no opportunities to talk about implicit biases, communication skills, or anything along those lines. Moreover, it is crucial for organizations to address complaints promptly, demonstrating their commitment to addressing racism in all its forms.
For people who have faced racism in the workplace, it is important to remember that you are not alone. Seek out support from colleagues, friends, or professional networks that understand the challenges you face. Share your experiences, collaborate, and advocate for change.
Sharing my experience has been both challenging and necessary. In sharing, I have learned even more, the importance of creating inclusive environments and challenging implicit biases. By shedding light on the damaging effects of racism and my personal story, I hope to help people take a step towards dismantling the systemic barriers that perpetuate inequality. It is my hope that organizations and individuals alike will recognize the urgent need to actively work towards creating inclusive work environments that celebrate diversity.
There is a light at the end of the tunnel, though! This experience motivated me to take control of my destiny. While D5 Consulting Group LLC was a nice “side hustle” for myself and my family, we made the decision for me to run the business full time. This enabled me to be able to empower individuals and organizations alike to be forward thinkers. Through our work, we strive to create a culture of inclusivity that recognizes and addresses implicit biases we may all harbor. It is crucial to foster a culture where everyone feels valued, respected, and empowered to succeed.