I don’t know if I’ve never confronted racism at work, or if I just didn’t recognize it as racism. As a brown woman in white-dominant professional spaces, I think I subconsciously sold myself stories of equal opportunity and advancement. I sold myself on the idea that our worth was weighed in expertise, creative level, and professional potential. I didn’t know my skin color would be used against me by men in higher places who are so racist, they don’t even realize it. I thought I was seen as operating on the same level as my white colleagues. And while the world is evolving, I wouldn’t imagine that in my 30’s, I’d have to experience racism in the workplace.
Last summer, I was working as an editor for a magazine focused on young women’s interests. The founder and CEO of the magazine was hosting a summer event at the magazine’s two-story, East LA office. To better execute the event planning process, she brought in her husband who was a retired, successful event planner in Los Angeles. During our walk-through (mind you, I was hired as an editor — one who edits, not plans events) one of my colleagues suggested extending the invitation to the surrounding neighbors, to avoid noise complaints. In a display of complete ignorance and disgust, the event planner, my CEO’s husband, said: “I don’t want Jose and his fourteen kids mingling with my guests.”
In a room full of 5 women, three of them women of color, one of them who identified as part of LGBTQ community, this rich, white man made a racist remark during one of the most turbulent moments in history and if he thought it would go unnoticed (as I’m sure it has in the past) this time, he was very much mistaken.
The remark hurt me but I knew that in order for the impact of the remark to affect not only me but all present when it was said, I had to handle the racism in a smart and strategic way:
Allow Yourself to Feel
Whether it be an action or a comment, when confronted with something hurtful, the mind and body go into fight or flight mode. Our system is inherently designed to naturally respond to anything we may perceive as harmful. Almost automatically, we want to react. I recommend removing yourself from the physical space where the racist comment was said and taking a moment to digest the harmful words and how you feel. If the first thing you do is react, there is a possibility your reaction will come from emotion (reasonably so) as opposed to a strategic approach. While you have the right to an emotional response, you also have a responsibility to educate the racist. Basically, put them back in their place. So, find a safe space where you can feel what you need to feel, then quickly strategize how you want to move forward.
After the remark was made, I left the office, went home and wrote a lengthy and detailed email about what occurred. In the email, I made sure to mention who was present and I made sure to quote the things that were said verbatim. Additionally, I made sure to include how the remarks are harmful to a cohesive, safe, and thriving work environment and how it caused a hostile environment. Businesses, corporations, and professional settings are well aware of the mistakes made during work hours, in the office, and will work with you to avoid a lawsuit. But in case a situation escalates, proof of correspondence is crucial for any case. Make sure that everything that is said, or promised is written on paper. Lastly, make sure to always include your HR representative on all emails. Even if the email sent back to you does not CC your HR department, add them.
I know that your natural response will be to cuss the racist out, to put him in his place, to unapologetically tell him about himself and check his ignorance. However, to make sure you are being heard, you have to speak with composure and you have to speak from a place of demanding change, not only fighting the current circumstances. To do this, make sure you address your boss or manager with respect. Additionally, make sure to address the racist using his first and last name and his title. Don’t be afraid to include emotion — this not only addresses how you feel but how it has potentially made others feel. Your safety, both physically and emotionally, should be a priority in any environment— particularly your work environment.
Demand a Mediator
If you are asked to attend a meeting regarding what happened, and if you are working for a good company, you should be asked for a meeting (no respectable employer will handle something this serious solely on email). When you agree to a meeting, make sure you do so with conditions. Remember, you are entitled to feel safe and protected. You also want to make sure that the meeting will be purposeful—taking both your experience and what can be done to improve conditions into serious consideration. To ensure that the meeting is not just a matter of covering their basis, but indeed to actively improve the leadership and environment of the company, make sure to ask for a mutual mediator to be present. This person has to be impartial to all parties involved and is solely there to listen and help maintain a progressive meeting. Additionally, ask that the meeting be recorded. Feeling attacked, in any capacity, in the workplace is something that should be taken seriously and how you handle it should speak volumes on how serious the issue is.
In my situation, I made sure to make it clear that I would not return to work unless this was going to be handled immediately and correctly. Meaning, I had a huge say in how this was going to be handled. As a victim of a racist comment in the workplace, I demanded that my need to feel safe again be met under my conditions. This included that I never work with the said person ever again — in any capacity. That the group who was present at the time receive a verbal apology, and that the company goes through “sensitivity training.” While all my demands were met, I know that the company followed the protocol. Nothing changes in the physical if the heart continues its stubborn, unreasonable ways.
I’ll keep this one simple. You have no obligation to stay in any space that does not treat you with respect and dignity. If the people around you are not embracing your culture, your race, your background, you are being oppressed. Consider leaving.
Share Your Experience
Following my experience, I only shared what I went through and what I learned about this specific company with people close to me. Almost a year later, and I am barely publicly talking about it. My hesitation was (and please double check) that there was a chance I could be sued if I spoke in detail about what happened. Because of the DNA I signed, I am legally obligated to withhold from talking about specific details. Review all documents you have signed and if you feel comfortable, talk about your experience. This way, we are not only looking out for one another but also bringing awareness that racists shameless roam— sometimes while receiving paychecks.