I was fired a few years ago as retaliation against complaints of unlawful discrimination that occurred at a company I previously worked for. That termination bruised my ego but eventually the saying “What doesn’t kill you makes you stronger” became one of the most important mottos of my life.
It all started when I accepted a position at a company that leased luxury rental properties. All of my co-workers and managers were white, obviously making me the only black person that worked there. On my very first day of work, one of my co-workers asked me if I tanned. When she immediately started laughing after she asked me her question, I assumed that she was attempting to humor me. I didn’t find her question funny and after she saw the serious expression on my face she didn’t either. But I let it go and we moved on.
A few days later the same co-worker received a call from a resident complaining about something that went awry in her townhome. When she got off the phone, my co-worker proceeded to tell me about the differences between black people and “crazy” black people. I was shocked and dismayed to hear another racially offensive comment by this same chick within my first few days of employment. Clearly she was going to be a problem.
Not long after that incident, the same co-worker started calling me “Shaquita.” When I told her that my name was not Shaquita, doesn’t sound like, rhyme with, or look like Shaquita, she told me to lighten up and said that I was being too sensitive. I didn’t realize that I applied for a position that came with an added bonus of having to deal with harassment with a side of racism.
As the days and weeks went by the derogatory terms became more pervasive. There is a predominately black neighborhood in my city called Trotwood. When potential residents listed Trotwood as the neighborhood they resided in, my co-worker would call the neighborhood “Trot-hood.” She would also call black male applicants from the area “Craig.” And when I asked her what she meant by the term Craig, she said “You know Craig from the movie Friday.” From what I remember of that movie, Craig played an unemployed man from the hood that lacked aspirations and hung around a weed dealer all day. Her disrespectful nicknames and unwarranted stereotypes went too far and it was time for me to take action.
Each time my co-worker made inappropriate comments I always corrected her in a professional manner. Maybe if I would have gone all “Gangsta Boo” on her then she wouldn’t have made so many racist cracks, but that’s not my way of doing things. My professional warnings went out the window as she continued to stereotype virtually every black person that went in and out of the office and did so as though it was funny. She told me to call black applicants and to use my “black” voice to relate to them. I asked her for clarity into what a “black voice” sounds like so she started mocking what she thought black women talk like. Trust me, it wasn’t flattering. When I told her that her comments and behaviors were racist and needed to stop, she had the nerve to say she was part Native American so she couldn’t possibly be racist. I guess I must have missed the memo that exempted racist behaviors from people who could claim a different ethnicity.
Since addressing my concerns with my co-worker fell on deaf ears, I decided to solicit management’s assistance in stopping her behavior. One manager never followed up with my issues, while another manager said she would say something to the co-worker so that her behavior would stop. Unfortunately, my co-worker’s antics continued.
I sent an e-mail to my co-workers and managers outlining the racist comments and attitudes that were occurring at the company. In the e-mail I suggested diversity training as a potential solution to what was then an ongoing issue. I told my manager that I sent her an e-mail and that I wanted her to read it. She read it, asked me to come into her office, and decided to fire me five minutes later.
That experience would have left me humiliated and broken had I not known that my termination was illegal. My state’s Civil Rights Commission accepted my case, conducted an investigation, and informed me that the company was interested in offering me financial compensation for all of my pain and suffering. Their offer didn’t heal my wounds, but I won’t front, it did make a nice Band-Aid. I think so often many of us sit around and accept egregious behavior because we don’t want to look like we’re not a team player at work, or because we’re afraid of what can happen. But at some point, it’s hard to look yourself in the mirror knowing you allow people to disrespect you and your people on a daily basis because they think it’s harmless and funny. Newsflash: It’s not funny and it’s definitely not right to stand by and let people think that such behavior is acceptable. You don’t have to argue with these people, you don’t have to act a fool. You can go directly to management or just lay down the law to your co-worker in a calm and respectful manner, but however you choose to act, don’t do nothing.