Working While Black: My Boss Wanted Me To Put The Firm Before My Family
As told to Veronica Wells
As a child, I could never understand why my mother and grandmother loved The Color Purple so much. But the older I get, the more I understand how that movie spoke to so many experiences Black women face, not just in this country, but around the world.
The other day, I realized I was living Sofia’s story…without the incarceration.
Here’s what happened.
I worked as a paralegal at a law firm. It wasn’t my ultimate end goal or anything, but I enjoyed the workand it allowed me to pay the bills. And it didn’t hurt that my immediate boss and I got along pretty well. We generally had our little pow wow sessions in the morning, chit-chatting about what happened the night before, what our husbands have done to get on our nerves, what we watched on television last night, who was getting on our nerves in the office, etc. It was cool. My boss was something like my work wife. Hearing some of the horror stories from my friends about their bosses and the situations and shenanigans they have to deal with, I felt very fortunate to be in a place where I didn’t encounter any of those issues. I felt blessed not to have to deal with a racist boss.
Notice the use of the past tense verbs.
All those good feelings flew right out the window when my son got sick. At 18 months old, he suddenly developed asthma and was having attacks back to back for a couple of weeks. I was scared and the doctors decided to keep him overnight for observation. He was released two days later, only to have another asthma attack while he was at the daycare center and I was at work. I immediately jumped up from my desk, grabbed my keys and ran into my boss’ office to tell her that I was headed to the hospital because my son had had another attack.
I will never forget the look on her face. It was an uncomfortable, disappointed, twisted face. I didn’t have time to stop and analyze it though. So I made my way down the hall and to my car.
Two days later when I came back into work, instead of the normal chit chat, my boss walked right past me and into her office. Hours later, just before the work day was over, she called me into her office to talk.
“Shanice, things are going to be really hectic in the office the next couple of weeks. And I’ve tried to be lenient and understanding with you having to miss so much work lately because of your son’s illness. But I’m afraid, in the future, should he have—God forbid— any more asthma attacks, you won’t be able to just pick up and leave.”
Immediately, my blood started to boil. I’m not a temporary or hourly employee. I earn a salary, with sick days, vacation days and PTO. In the time I’d worked there, I took one vacation and I only missed half a day of work because I left on a Friday afternoon. Not only was I entitled to those days off, it wasn’t like I was lying to her. My son truly was sick. And while I enjoyed pal-ing around with my boss everyday, there was nothing and no one that was going to keep me from him as he was in the hospital, struggling to breathe.
I wasn’t just shocked by the declaration that I couldn’t miss any more days, I was disgusted by the fact that this woman who pretended to be my friend, who often talked to me about her own family life, could be so callous and and uncaring when it came to my son and his health.
Before I could even answer her, I thought, this is how Sofia probably felt when that White lady wouldn’t let her go home and be with her children and family for Christmas…except worse. I wasn’t asking for a holiday. I was asking to be my my son’s side while he was scared and fighting for air, for his life.
But unlike Sofia, I had the power to speak up for myself. I told her very calmly.
“You know I have been an excellent asset to this company. You’ve told me so on numerous occasions. Even with the days I’ve already missed due to my son’s illness I still have plenty of time off if you add up my PTO, vacation and sick days. Those are days I’m entitled to based on my contract. Furthermore, while I like this company and like working for you, it does not even begin to compare to the feelings I have and sacrifices I’m willing to make for my son. If my very necessary absence has become a problem, perhaps it’s time I consider moving on.”
That’s when she started mumbling and fumbling.
“Oh, well…I didn’t mean to…of course your son comes first…I just…”
To this day I couldn’t tell you what she said.
By the grace of God, we were able to get my son’s asthma under control and I didn’t end up having to miss any more work. But the damage had already been done. And from that day forward, I knew that at the end of the day, I should not regard this woman as my friend. I started looking for employment elsewhere. And thankfully, it wasn’t long before I found another position at a company that appears to be more accepting of family matters and emergencies.
But I learned a great lesson from that experience. Every “work wife” is not your real life friend. And just because your coworkers aren’t racist, it doesn’t mean that they won’t test and try you in other ways, attempting to inadvertently force you to prioritize their business over your family. It might not be blatant, in your face racism but it sure as hell reminded me a lot of slavery.
Veronica Wells is the culture editor at MadameNoire. She is also the author of “Bettah Days.”