“There’s a seedy way in which racism affects your mental health. Racism in the workplace doesn’t look like it did decades ago. It’s not separate bathrooms and water coolers or openly used racial slurs. It’s subtle, quiet and deceptively polite.
Racism is even more dangerous when the experiences of people of color are denied, ignored or dismissed. Worst of all, it’s not considered in the company’s incorporation of diverse recruits so that the right support and information will be available to help them succeed. Here in lies the false view of a “color blind” approach to diversity and inclusion.
Ofcourse, I didn’t understand it at the time, but I remember the very first incident of microaggression that affected my mental well-being. It was a few months into my new position at the World Bank. I quickly came to realize that it was a very rigid layered bureaucracy, full with fear as it was constantly restructuring and reorganizing. Office politics is more akin to Game of Thrones, and here I was, Sansa Stark without a kind prince and sold off to a life of misery.
I became the charge of someone Management assumed would be able to relate to me since we shared a similar profile. No one warned me about her ambitions. She had two new recruits on her team, me: Afro-Caribbean female, lawyer, hired as staff; and a consultant: white European male, finance background, hired as a short term position. I overheard her complaining to the chair of the meeting that she was saddled with the task of training both of us. She had a preference, and he was such a great fit. I knew where I stood. I mentioned my discomfort to my Manager. He said we would get along great. How wrong he was.
I stuffed my feelings of inadequacy this had generated deep inside.
One day, there was a major meeting of the Board with a large turn out. I walked upstairs with a senior officer and the new consultant, although short term positions were not allowed in Board room activities as these, he was ofcourse an exception. Listening to them, I noted that they shared a similar profile, and they related well. You see, they were from the same country, and the senior officer had referred him for this opportunity. I believe this is what a powerful nationality based sponsor relationship looks like.
As we entered the crowded space, the two men ahead sat as if they belonged, and she welcomed them warmly. She also welcomed our Manager who was behind me. As I began to lower myself into the seat, she interrupted that conversation to ask me politely if I could go sit in the back.
By then my buttocks had already connected and I jumped up to escape the lava beneath me. I quickly moved to the hidden chambers, and overheard my Manager say he would go also to clear space. She protested, saying that he was the boss and had a right to stay. I didn’t turn back, I told myself that I didn’t feel embarrassed. I told myself that those around us who saw it unfold did not think that that was humiliating. I told myself to ignore the other empty seats.
As I sat in the booth in the back, trying to process what just happened, a sense of danger and anxiety rose to such deafening high levels, I didn’t hear as someone else entered the booth. My Manager joined me, he was red in the face and stuttering. I knew he knew what just happened wasn’t innocent. I didn’t feel like making a difficult conversation easy for him. He mentioned race and I responded with academic research on the difficulty of inclusion. He acknowledge a point I made, that I would be disadvantaged without mentoring and face many opportunities lost. We watched as the other fellow was introduced to everyone around. I saw how afterwards, he was pulled into conversations and shared jokes with those in the seats of power. Those I should have met, but didn’t.
What I’ve never admitted to myself until now, what I’ve never said, not even to my therapist, is that it hurt. It hurt then and it hurts now. Back then I didn’t know what it was, but I did mind. Recently, this memory resurfaced as a nightmare. I had pretended that I made it up, that there’s nothing to infer because she was also black. What I later learned was this was a text book case of racial microaggression. I was explaining it to a friend, an African American. Silently, she started to cry. She seemed to have some insight or pain that I never saw and for the life of me I couldn’t understand why.
She said, “Too many times black people have been made to sit in the back of the bus. You worked your ass off to deserve that chair, that space, that opportunity at visibility. Honey, don’t you see? You were robbed.” How right she was.