For Black Women who have Considered Quitting when the Whiteness was Too Much
A love letter from a former Director of Diversity, Equity & Inclusion
I was raised on abundant Black love by a doting Black family. I have incredibly vivid and fond memories of seemingly endless hugs and cuddles, being told of my remarkable beauty, and being showered with praise for my intelligence. I was raised with agency. I could challenge authority, even as a young child, and always knew that I would be listened to. I was taught that I was joy personified, and that I should shine my light as bright as possible- everyone else could pull out their shades if needed. I was a Black and carefree child who knew that I would be whoever I wanted to be. From the very moment I was born, love was intentionally infused into my spirit.
Despite that love, in every version of my childhood dreams of success, I saw myself in a predominantly white workplace. Whether it was as a lawyer or professor, I knew that success would mean earning a high position in a white environment. And as I migrated into the professional world, those dreams became reality.
After college, I spent a few years teaching in Baltimore City and DC public schools, before landing in the private school world. I chose to join private schools in the role of Director of Diversity, Equity & Inclusion to make a difference. My college life included fighting the power at a predominately white institution, and I assumed that doing so in a K-12 setting, on behalf of kids, would be fulfilling. And, as an added bonus, working at a wealthy, elite private school meant climbing what was, in my mind, the ladder of career success. I was at one private school in this role for two years before moving to another independent school to take on the same position.
When I transitioned into a predominately white workplace, it was abundantly clear that the whiteness of the institution was not just in the people, but the culture. Success was associated with a certain look, talk and dress- all of them in alignment with whiteness. I knew, somehow, that dresses from J Crew and Banana Republic fit the bill and that, for some reason, acrylic nails and fake eyelashes did not (though I wear both anyway, because I’m my mother’s child 😂). I knew that the Black power fist tattoo on my back could be shown under no circumstances. And I knew, without it ever needing to be said, that my locs would be lonely in these workplaces.
Luckily (heavy on the sarcasm), I knew how to survive in these predominantly white professional spaces before I entered them. This should come as no surprise, given my background. Though I was raised in Black love, I was adjacent to and striving to emulate whiteness from as young as I can remember. Indeed, I was taught not to just exist in white spaces, but to conform to them.
Whiteness was ever-present. I knew, even before beginning grade school, that I had to get relaxers for my hair to be deemed presentable (shout out to Just for Me and long hours in salon chairs). I knew in middle school that white guys weren’t going to date Black girls, and that lighter skinned girls were viewed as more attractive. And I knew in high school that coming to school in Blackface wouldn’t result in any form of accountability, a fact I learned when a friend of mine came to school painted Black from head to toe in order to be my spirit day twin (she was allowed to stay in school the whole day without washing it off- circa 2009, no less). In college, I knew that frat boys could drink while underage and commit sexual assault with impunity, but that I would be warned that I could lose my degree for advocating for the fair treatment of Black students. I always knew that simply existing meant sacrificing a part of myself- whether that came in the form of blatant racism, or in fighting to be seen, heard, and valued.
What I did not realize was how much of myself I would have to give up to see success in the white world. I didn’t realize how many times I’d have to watch Black women’s eyes fill with tears after yet another racist incident. Or how many times I’d watch white people be excused for their blatantly racist tirades and micro-aggressions, while Black people were let go for “not being a good fit” (coded language for either holding the institution accountable or for just being too Black). I didn’t realize how many times I’d have to listen to racist excuses about not being able to find quality Black talent (at institutions located in majority Black cities), while the organization refused to evaluate its culture of racism that every person of color was privy to as white people stood by in utter oblivion or denial. Or how often I’d have to watch People of Color wonder whether they were going crazy as they experienced gaslighting, discrimination, and a dismissal of their talents (particularly when they shone more brightly than their white peers- as was often the case). What was particularly painful, as someone who worked in an institution with children, is that I didn’t realize how willing white people were to hear about the occurrences that were causing Black children pain and do absolutely nothing tangible about them, all while protecting the adults who were doing the harm (note: listening is not enough- Black children deserve accountability that is not about white folks and their image).
Racism doesn’t need protection. Black people do, from its virulent effects. From my time in predominantly white institutions, I learned that I ultimately just didn’t realize how deeply committed to maintaining the status quo the people in charge actually were.
And while the pervasive nature of whiteness did not break me, I am perpetually left wondering who I would be had I not spent so much time conforming to the system or fighting against it. Who would I be in absence of whiteness? How much more of myself could I be without the omnipresent white gaze (Toni Morrison)?
I am choosing to live myself into the answers to these questions (Ranier Maria Rilke). And the first step on this journey came a few weeks ago when I resigned from my role as Director of Diversity, Equity, and Inclusion- a senior level administrative position at a predominantly white private school. My reasons for doing so are listed below. May they serve as a pathway toward more honesty, freedom, and embracing “Black dignity in a world made for whiteness” (Austin Channing Brown).
1. I don’t fundamentally believe that I owe white people anything. Racism is not my cultural inheritance and therefore not my problem to solve.
Black women have always served as the United States’ moral compass. We orchestrated (from the sidelines) the Civil Rights Movement. We launched the Black Lives Matter and the #Metoo movements. And we’re being counted on to save the country from the hell that is Donald Trump. All of this while being more likely to die in childbirth, being underpaid in the workplace, and dying at record rates from breast cancer, heart disease and more. Racism is literally killing us- and it is not our burden to bear.
In fact, we birthed the population that built this country and are owed reparations (Brittany Cooper). My rejection of predominantly white working spaces was to say, as The Nap Ministry states so eloquently, that rest is a form of reparations. Black people, women in particular, cannot continue to save white folks from themselves at our own peril. I found myself in a constant state of stress and trauma as I dodged micro-aggressions, waited on the next racist incident to occur, began grinding my teeth in my sleep, and watched leaders choose not to hold white people accountable for their racist actions. Quite often, acts of racism were excused as ‘taking time’ to remedy, when, in reality, what was needed was courage. Racialized stress isn’t just stress for Black women- it’s a matter of life and death. White folks don’t deserve to have that much power over me.
Note: While I held a position that expected me to “teach white people how to be less racist”, this burden is not unique to folks in the Director of Diversity, Equity and Inclusion role. Indeed, any Black person in a predominately white workplace has, at some point, had to explain an aspect of their identity or humanity to a white person. Black people are in their workplaces to do their jobs. Expecting them to also teach about racism is… well, racist. And should come with additional compensation.
2. Per Audre Lorde’s The Master’s Tools, I realized that the institution would have to literally destroy itself to actually value Blackness.
Predominately white spaces were not intended for Black and Brown folks to thrive. Quite often, their success is literally dependent on the subjugation and intentional exclusion of People of Color and people who are poor. This phenomenon exists everywhere from corporate America to the nonprofit world. From schools to healthcare. The foundation of this country is inherently rooted in anti-Blackness, and in order to see a different organizational outcome, we would have to dismantle the institution and seek to answer questions such as:
“Was this decision made with Black people’s wellbeing in mind?”
“What has the organization done to promote Black joy and freedom today?” (Pearl Cleage)
“How is the organization rectifying the harm that it has caused to Black folks? Is it willing to seek to repair that harm?”
“How is the organization accountable to Black folks, of all backgrounds and varying viewpoints, in the present moment and long term?”
“In what ways is the organization centering and protecting whiteness? What systems are needed to replace and undo the current racial hierarchy?”
In order to answer these questions effectively, white folks must grapple with themselves and the harm they’ve caused. And that brings up a whole lot of feelings that somehow end up back on the laps of Black people (namely, Black women) to acknowledge, hold, and mitigate at the expense of their own wellbeing. Nah. Refer to point number one.
3. Abundant Black joy and freedom are not an expectation in predominantly white spaces. I reject that. Black joy and freedom don’t exist in contrast to professionalism.
I could count, daily, how often I had to censor my words and hold back from telling the full truth so as not to be viewed as an angry Black woman. I could feel myself existing in two spaces simultaneously- there was the raw version of me, and the version that tried to put my qualms into a package that would be best received. This has meant that my existence at work was almost entirely on white terms. And it’s not that these white spaces were necessarily different from the spaces of my childhood. However, as a professional, I was choosing to be a part of these environments. I had to question why I was still choosing whiteness when I knew that I could not fully experience joy in abundance if I could not be my full self. That full self includes speaking without a filter about the things that cause harm, being loud and laughing often, and believing that Blackness can and should exist out loud in all spaces. Blackness on full display is professional- and natural hair and acrylics are, too.
4. Speaking my truth and setting boundaries inspired others to do the same.
What I’ve found since I chose to leave my position is that what I felt in predominantly white spaces was not an anomaly. So many people have reached out saying how much they respect my choice. I feared that I would lose partnerships and connections in the field, and, instead, the opposite has happened. People have told me about how they’ve set boundaries in their own lives as a result of my actions. They’ve told me the ways in which they’ve been more courageous in telling the truth. And so, I’ve recognized that the truths we hold are not just our truths. They are others’ as well. And sometimes, only when we live those truths aloud do we give others permission to do the same. I am constantly reminding myself that the choice I made was not a result of my deficiencies, it was the result of my strength.
5. Sisterhood reminded me of my worth.
The beauty of Octavia Butler and Toni Morrison is that they challenge us to exist in worlds that center love and joy without the onus of code-switching or dimming our lights. I believe that work can and should exist in that space. And I believe that it is possible because of The Wells Collective. In them, I have found abundant laughs, an understanding of my love of Juvenile’s “Back that A** Up” (and a willingness to play the acoustic version during the trainings we lead 😂), and the acceptance of the truth in its raw form. I choose to believe that more of these spaces- that fill me up instead of tearing me down- are possible. And I hope that all Black women and girls believe the same. Indeed, our changing the world depends on it.
I want to emphasize that I understand that leaving a job during a pandemic is a privilege that most do not have. I understand that many do not have the option of employment in spaces that are not predominantly white. Still, I believe that fundamentally, from wherever you stand, you can choose yourself and can reject white supremacy. So, whoever you are, wherever you are- I hope that you act courageously in the direction of your truth. I hope you choose to live a life that is reflective of the most authentic version of yourself. And may that version be as Black and bold as ever. But, first and foremost, may you choose to believe that it is possible.
Love and light, y'all. Always.
An Additional Note:
For anyone who may be in a similar place of reconciling self, workplace, and your racial identity, I am listing below the reasons to leave that I crafted before choosing to resign from my place of employment.
This work requires me to give too much of myself
This work no longer brings me joy
As a result of my work, my integrity is on the line
I am on a team with people whose actions and words indicate that they devalue my humanity
The institution will not firmly stand up on my behalf
At work, I have to explain my right to exist to people, regularly
I feel like I lose parts of myself in doing my work
At work, I feel as though I am tasked with protecting white supremacy and complicit in anti-Blackness
At my place of employment, vulnerable people (i.e. children) are being harmed
At my place of employment, I am not protected or valued in the ways that others are
I am morally misaligned with the work that I am doing
As a result of my employment, I am complicit in not telling the full truth
In my position, my expertise is being puppeted more than it is being tangibly respected
At work, I am being made to bear racism as my own burden, though it is a system that I did not create, do not benefit from, and experience everyday
At work, I am becoming desensitized to the level of racism in the institution, and becoming more tolerant of its existence and effects
I am anxious about discussions or interactions at work because I’m not sure if, when, or how my humanity will be denied
The title of this piece is a reference to Ntozake Shange's 'For Colored Girls Who Have Considered Suicide When the Rainbow is Enuf'