Working While Black: Subtle Ways White Women Oppress Black Women At Work

March 9, 2020  |  

Though we don’t often address it, white men are not the only ones responsible for maintaining inequity in the workplace. There are white women, both knowingly and unknowingly, who act as gatekeepers and beneficiaries of white supremacy and white privilege. Oftentimes, the offenses are subtle. So subtle, that if you mull over them enough, you’ll begin to second guess yourself and question your perception. And in many cases, it’s not until Black women from various professional backgrounds begin telling their stories that we pick up on trends and realize we’re not crazy and we’re not imagining things. Here are three forms of covert oppression that are not typically called out.

They condescend

While working as a college student, I once had a white female supervisor ask for my finals schedule with no further context. It was a fairly random request because she had never concerned herself with my testing schedules in the past. I let her know that the semester hadn’t actually begun yet, but when it did, I would send her the dates of my final exams. When I collected the syllabi from all of my classes the following week, I sent an email with the dates. I was not prepared for the passive-aggressive reply, which essentially told me that the dates alone were useless and that she needed to know how my finals would “affect business.” Apparently, what she had actually wanted to know was whether I needed time off to study — something I had never asked for in the past. I reminded her that all she asked for was my testing schedule and she proceeded to tell me that I needed to begin thinking “macro” as opposed to “micro” in order to be a “good” employee. In reality, she had done a poor job of communicating her expectations as a manager but proceeded to insult my intelligence and work ethic instead of acknowledging her shortcomings.

They weaponize their perceived fragility

I personally know of a Black woman supervisor who was called into HR because one of her white employee’s filed a complaint against her. The supervisor had spoken to the employee about her chronic lateness and spotty attendance. The employee perceived the conversation as intimidation and “bullying.” After that, the white woman was transferred and promoted in a new department.

Almost every Black woman can recall a time when a white woman they addressed in a professional manner cried in response because she felt as though she was being picked on or targeted. It’s also necessary to note how some white women use the phrase “bullying” to describe their interactions with Black people in professional spaces, even though the behavior exhibited is no different from that of other races. Unfortunately, white women tears in the workplace often result in the minimization and erasure of Black experiences.

They silence

It wasn’t until year two of graduate school that I actually stopped to notice how often white women interrupt their Black colleagues while they’re speaking. My moment of revelation came during a group assignment in class. For the life of me, I couldn’t understand why this woman continued to talk over me as I spoke, but it was evident that she believed that whatever it was she was trying to say had more value than what I had to contribute to the group. I quickly noticed that I was the only person that she repeatedly interrupted. I was also the only Black person in the group. The ordeal made me hypersensitive and I quickly noticed a trend of white women who have a tendency to overtalk and interrupt Black women in academic and professional spaces.

Sadly, my experiences are not my own. A 2018 Harvard Business Review article on the challenges women of color face on the job concluded, “for the most part Black women don’t expect to be able to bring their full selves to the workplace and still get ahead.” That means until these subtle forms of oppression are acknowledged and corrected, working Black women will continue to be shortchanged.

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