The laid-back nature at a new start-up company (2015) seemed fun at first until something became quite frequent: microaggressions disguised as banter. The role involved writing all content on their website (100+ pages), uploading images, and doing a lot of research on different cities. I also had to build up their social media following. Fresh out of uni, I knew that work experience and improving my CV were needed, so I took on the challenge.
– a statement, action, or incident regarded as an instance of indirect, subtle, or unintentional discrimination against members of a marginalized group such as a racial or ethnic minority.
I’ll start with my own experience. On the day the manager sat next to me for our weekly social media chat, I received some “feedback” that didn’t sit well with me.
“Sawiya, I like the way our website is looking. Could you just change one of the images on there?”
“Sure, what do you want me to change?”
He sighed as he sat down, almost as if he knew how bad he’d look in the next couple of seconds.
“You see the banner on our homepage?” I watched as his hand slowly hovered over an image of a black man in one of our banners.
“Here’s the thing. I love the image – it’s great but.. I just feel like some of our customers won’t like it. Do you know what I mean? Obviously, I don’t have a problem with it.”
“I don’t understand.” I said, interrupting his “I’m Not Racist But” speech. I really wanted him to clarify because I didn’t see this coming. it was just a normal picture. There were loads of different images of people on the website. Why was he so specific?
He twitched. “Look, what if someone who is racist – not saying I am – comes across our website? I just don’t want them to feel uncomfortable.”
I sat there and just stared at him.I was speechless. Instead, I didn’t respond, looked at my laptop and he eventually walked away, thinking I was just going to get on with it.
So many questions were going through my head. I’m definitely more of a thinker and at times, I let things marinate in my mind before realising how fucked up the situation really is. I sat there for the rest of the day, just thinking:
“Your customers are racist, huh? How do you know this?”
“How could you come up with something like that after looking at the website?”
“… YOU must have a problem with it and you want to hide behind non-existent ‘racist customers’ that we’ve never dealt with.”
“Okay, so what if they are racist? I need to get the hell out.”
As I sat there, contemplating whether I should close my laptop and call it a day, I watched him as he continued joking around with the other colleagues, making himself some tea, and dancing along to the radio. A spring in his step! Like he didn’t just tell me black people will stop clients from working with us!!
Yes, I was the only Black, Muslim, Ethnic Minority, Other in the room. It was a small team of us at one table. Did I want to smack my new laptop across his head? Yes. Did I want to confront him and explain how problematic his feedback was? Yes. But something was telling me not to make a fuss. Not to ruin the vibe in the office. It’s sad that I didn’t want to be that person who complainsed a lot. Plus I definitely felt outnumbered to even get some sort of support. From that day, I felt my mood and motivation change drastically. I didn’t change the picture and he never brought it up again.
“To onlookers, the reaction to a microaggression may seem disproportionate. ‘Why is that person so angry? I meant it as a joke or a compliment.’ But the person is not just reacting to what happened today. They’re also reacting to something that happened five days ago, five months ago, or five years ago.” Uppala Chandrasekera, Director of Public Policy at the Canadian Mental Health Association. [BBC, 2018]
I also remember the day I was called “ghetto” too. It was a random conversation about sunglasses that started after my former manager walked into the room showing off his new ray bans.
My fellow colleagues tried them on and giggled as they passed them around, complimenting one another. I didn’t really understand what was so amusing and exciting but I knew he was eventually going to ask me to put them on. We were a team of 6 at one table, so as you can imagine, I was forced to participate.
“Sawiya, let’s see you try them on!”
“Okay…” I said, slowly putting them on.
He instantly threw up gang signs. “Yessss Sawiya… you look ghetto!” and laughed.
The weirdest thing about that situation is how no one else in the room even batted an eye. The ray bans were worn by every single person and I’m the ghetto-looking one? That passing comment was overlooked and again, it just played on my mind. That’s the killer, you see – with no awareness of the meanings and effects of what they say, it will just get overlooked. But I clocked everything. As time went on, I genuinely felt different in that environment.
This was during the time I was applying for a visa to move abroad. I sat there for the following months, right in front of my managers as I applied for jobs. I saved up however much I needed and left. Fast. They were gutted that I was leaving just as things were getting busy. Did I feel bad though? No.
Now… over to you:
I asked my online peers to share some of the microaggressions they’ve encountered at work. Here’s what they had to say:
“When I was in teachers college, a fellow peer and I had our teaching practicums at the same school. When we met with the principal for the first time, we had to bring in our police checks. He held mine to the light to see if it was real, but not for my fellow white peer. I was shook. But I also let him know that he can’t play me like that. I worked my butt off in the classroom and when he found out I was called into the school board for an interview, HE was shook.”
The following comments were said to the same person:
“Shay’s food is amazing, not too ethnic.”
“Omg when you straighten your hair, you look European.”
“Wow, is that your sister? She’s the brown version of you.”
“Do you photobomb often as an Arab?”
“Not all of you are Muslim in the Middle East. You learn something new every day.”
I handle it by looking at the person until they are uncomfortable or register they haven’t said something right. If I can clearly see that they didn’t mean it in a horrid way, it’s just ignorance.
“So this was my first proper job after uni, I was interning at an advertising agency – noticeably one of 4 black girls in the company. The most shocking thing that happened was when the Creative Director approached me and said: ‘I have this young person coming in for work experience tomorrow and he wants to get into design. Would you be able to have a 20 min chat with him with any tips you have?’
My colleague didn’t say anything and at this point, there was an awkward silence – literally 5 seconds long. I broke the silence and said I’d help but I didn’t know how to and before I could say anything else, she said: ‘Oh amazing, thanks so much girls. I’ll pop it in the diary for you.’
I turned to my colleague and she said: “He’s black. Trust me, he’s black.”
“Nah, that’s too bait,” I replied. “She can’t be that obvious.”
Lo and behold, a 16-year-old black kid walked into the office the following day, crippled with shyness. He could barely look at us in the eyes. I remember he mentioned that he had learning difficulties. She couldn’t be bothered to do her job and pawned him off to the only black people in the office.”
“A few people at work were organising an annual company party and the theme was ‘circus freaks’. They put up a mood board in the kitchen of black people. I shit you not.”
“My workplace had a tradition of organising social events like going to the theatre, amusement parks, etc. On multiple occasions, I was asked if my mum would allow me to go on these trips (for context, I was a very grown 23 year old at the time).
I once told a colleague I didn’t really fancy going (because..I really didn’t fancy going) and she went on to ask why I wasn’t being allowed to go. And if I wanted she’d call my mum and ask permission on my behalf.
On another occasion, a colleague took me to the side for a quick chat to ask why I wear the hijab and what age I was told to wear it. I never once spoke about my hijab to colleagues nor did I ever see anyone questioned for how they choose to dress.
Overall being a visibly Muslim woman in the corporate world requires A LOT of patience. There is a constant assumption that you lack autonomy and agency over your decisions or that you are a sad little flower that needs protecting and coddling.”
“One day at work, my colleagues and I were having a frivolous discussion about what flowers we would be. When it came to my turn, a colleague suggested that I was a rose. Upon hearing this, a colleague (who was not involved in this conversation) decided to jump in to say that I “couldn’t possibly be a rose as it’s too Engl-” and she never finished the sentence. Instead, she googled it and said I’d fit better as a ‘desert rose’ as this was far more ‘exotic’.”
“I have friends at work who have been told their names are too complicated and asked why it has so many letters in it. One senior staff member once said in a meeting, she missed the days when colleagues’ names were simple like ‘Jones & Smith’.
I also have a friend who the only time a colleague would come and speak to her was to say “wag1 my G” (She was not Jamaican nor ever spoke in colloquial so this always confused her.)”
“The head pharmacist I work with calls me “homeboy”. That shit needs to stop.”
“A friend came into work one day with a straight hair wig on and a colleague told her how much more ”approachable” she looked now.”
“As a woman, at one point or another, I experienced gender bias and passive sexism in the workplace. The shock on my male counterparts that I was able to lead effectively, coach appropriately, and construct reports based on facts and figures and present them to senior management clearly and concisely, made me an overachiever – and not in a good way.
Being Muslim further singled me out, because for one reason or another I was hard to approach. As though my physical marker of wearing the hijab had a warning sign that read ‘stay away’; despite my wit, loud personality, and sense of style. I didn’t fit into the mould they tried to put me in and as a result, would have to answer the barrage of questions that were supposedly meant to remind me of my piousness.”
My blackness is most arguably the most defining aspect of my identity which has shaped my place in the workforce. My blackness in spaces of corporate Britain governed by the overwhelming white patriarchal systems is one of the very few instances that I am reminded that despite having worked 4x harder to get to where I am, being overly qualified and underemployed is the plight for people of colour, especially black people.
America in a nutshell:
“I experience MEGAaggression, not microaggression. I handle it by showing them my concealed weapon and it’s all good.”
People really just don’t understand the impact of their words or comments in regularly exchanged conversations in our society. A lot of the time, microaggressions are unconscious and people don’t realise the impact. I personally don’t care about whether it was a joke. People just need to be educated on what they should say or do. It’s also just as important for HR departments to take complaints seriously and not brush them off as victims being overdramatic.
I’d like to end this post with an excerpt that someone had sent me. It’s from a book called Black Power Inc – written by Cora Daniels:
“Optimism dissolves and hope shatters. It usually starts with the pace at which they are moving up the ladder – it is not as fast as they think it should be. It then turns into more. Earning respect in the office is more of a battle than they expected. Also the daily struggle of trying to fit into corporate environments that reward conformity can be trying for any group that is different. These young Black executives still succeed in the office, but their spirit has been damaged. Trapped in the cage, they become angry and fed up. The culmination of the meltdown occurs when they start asking themselves the dangerous question: What am I doing?”
Thank you to all the wonderful people who took the time to send me their experiences at work. Keep shining.