In 2001 when tennis star Serena Williams and her father were a target of what she says were racist taunts at the Indian Wells tennis tournament in California, she vowed never to play in the tournament again. She was just 19 years old at the time, and coming face-to-face with such in-your-face bigotry was major for Williams.
“This haunted me for a long time,” Serena Williams writes in a recent op-ed for Time. “It haunted Venus and our family as well. But most of all, it angered and saddened my father. He dedicated his whole life to prepping us for this incredible journey, and there he had to sit and watch his daughter being taunted, sparking cold memories of his experiences growing up in the South.”
But now Williams has announced she will return to the tournament, which takes place March 9-22. And, Williams is partnering with the Equal Justice Initiative, an organization that provides legal representation for individuals who have been denied fair and just treatment in the legal system.
“There are some who say I should never go back,” Williams writes on Time. “There are others who say I should’ve returned years ago. I understand both perspectives very well and wrestled with them for a long time. I’m just following my heart on this one.
“I play for the love of the game,” she adds, “and it is with that love in mind, and a new understanding of the true meaning of forgiveness, that I will proudly return to Indian Wells in 2015.”
Williams isn’t the only Black person to face racism on the job. Racism in the workplace is alive and kicking, unfortunately. According to Jennifer Rubin, an attorney with Mintz Levin,derogatory name-calling is still a frequent problem. In fact, the n-word “has been a continuing source of confusion for many HR professionals for years—depending on the race of who utters it, to whom and in what context. But the reality is that the word is a slur regardless of the circumstances or the races of the people involved,” she told the Society Of Human Resource Management.
And the way you deal with racism in the workplace can change the course of your career.
Steps To Take
If you come in contact with overt and continuing racism on the job you need to document it. “First, begin to create a paper trail. Write down a chronicle of the facts of what happened (keep the emotion out of your paper trail). Keep records of any relevant emails or documents. Next, consult with a civil rights lawyer. He/she can advise you on the best next steps,” Ann Jenrette-Thomas Esq., the CEO of Esquire Coaching, a coaching and consulting firm for lawyers and other business professionals, tells MadameNoire. “Often, you will be required to speak to the HR department and exhaust all internal proceedings before you can get a case resolved in court. A lawyer can steer you in the right direction and ensure that you preserve the best possible case. If you get a favorable resolution without having to go to court, that is a bonus.”
Flee Or Fight?
When dealing with racism that can affect your career, there are three routes you can go. Stay on the job and ignore the situation, stay on the job and fight the situation, or, as did Serena Williams, you can just outright leave.
Before you decide on the path, ask yourself a few questions, says Jenrette-Thomas. Among them: How amenable is your company to supporting its employees on these matters? What might the long-term effects be if you fight the matter and remained at the company (e.g., would you become further alienated)? How much personal support do you have within the company? Outside of it? Would you be able to find a comparable position (or better) at a similar type of company? Would you be willing to fight this for a few years? If the case goes to litigation, a resolution may not occur until several years later.
If you decide to fight, be well prepared and take actions to protect yourself and your career. “You should never walk away or ignore the occurrence of racism because it can escalate and also could be happening to others as well,” notes Jasmin Forts, career consultant and owner of Jobbing With Jas. To protect your position on the job, be proactive.
“To make yourself marketable for internal promotions and other opportunities within your organization–stay connected to the hiring managers and make sure to keep updated information on your performance evaluations,” says Forts.
Your Next Move
A lot of times in the current workplace, racism isn’t overt but subtle, which could make it more difficult to deal with.
“Find a safe space where you can speak openly about these issues so that you are mitigating the harmful effects it can have on you. If possible, try to educate the individual(s) about how what they are saying/doing feels uncomfortable for you and offer an alternative when possible. Use humor when possible,” suggests Jenrette-Thomas. “Often, people do not intend to be racist. Their thoughts and behaviors may be a byproduct of their environment/upbringing. Using humor and educating others without putting them on the defensive will allow you to accomplish your goal of not being subjected to the racist behavior. Some people, however, are consciously racist. There is not much you can do with these individuals since their actions are intentional.”
Racism is ugly no matter how you look at it, but decision on how to deal with it is paramount.