Open Letter: What It’s Like to Deal With Microaggressions at Work

Open Letter: What It’s Like to Deal With Microaggressions at Work

By Elaine S. Combs

“I can be Black again.” 

That was the statement I shared with a coworker, telling her how grateful I was to be a part of Black Love Inc., an organization that celebrates Black excellence, Black love, Black families and the Black community. Although I am still relatively new at my current organization, where I work in the entertainment and media industry as a social media manager, I already feel like my full authentic self. 

But that was not always the case. 

Being a Black person is not easy, especially in corporate America. It’s something Black scholar, writer and activist W.E.B Du Bois classified as the double consciousness: the internal conflict experienced by colonized groups in society. For me, when it came to the workplace, that looked like code-switching, straightening my hair and being too afraid to speak up due to microaggressions.

When it comes to microaggressions, NPR defines them as the everyday, subtle, intentional—and often unintentional—interactions or behaviors that communicate some bias toward historically marginalized groups. As someone who has experienced them, I have felt small, hopeless and afraid, and it took me a while to muster the courage to speak publicly. 

For instance, to remain palatable to my white coworkers, I would often switch from one vernacular to the next. In meetings, I would put on a corporate mask, and I was always cautious of my tone of voice and would adjust it according to the workplace culture because I was afraid of being the “angry and loud” Black woman. When I would meet with coworkers, I was careful of sharing my personal life, and if I did, I would only share generic details so I would seem professional and responsible.

However, thankfully I no longer have to deal with microaggressions and I can finally be seen as a human again. At my new job, I am valued, celebrated and respected. I am a part of an organization that I believe in wholeheartedly. My teammates are amazing, and so is our leadership. When I interviewed for my current role as our social media manager, our CEO asked me why I wanted to leave my previous role, and I candidly shared that I missed being Black. Because our organization serves the Black community, I can embrace my culture and I feel like I am contributing positively to our overall mission to celebrate and explore Black love 360 degrees 365 days. We are still growing as a team; however, our leadership has made it clear that even as we grow, love and transparency will always exist as our core values. Several green flags have been presented at my new organization: weekly office hours, transparent team calls and wellness days. I appreciate my new work environment, and I am encouraged to speak honestly and practice self-care.

At my previous organization, I was the only Black woman on the social team, and although my coworkers were cool, I still felt like I needed to hide a part of me. At first, I was eager to work, however, I quickly realized that I wasn’t a good fit. I tried my best to perform well, but after experiencing several unsettling moments, including microaggressions, having my ideas stolen without proper credit or compensation, and blatant tokenism, I fell into what I would like to call working depression. I tried my best to hang in and make the best of where I was. However, I realized life is too short to work somewhere where I am miserable. So I was proactive and began to join networking groups, updated my resume, searched on LinkedIn and applied. I landed an interview and started my exit strategy.

When it came to the workplace, that looked like code-switching, straightening my hair and being too afraid to speak up.

During my exit interview I spoke with HR and shared my concerns. I even offered resources to help attract Black talent. However, the issue wasn’t attracting talent; it was retaining it. 

Although racism in our country is still here, I have an optimistic outlook on the future. I believe that my gen and the next will be able to break out of the racist haze we’ve become accustomed to living in. In business, diversity and inclusion are essential because they foster innovation. You do not want people to all look and sound the same, and you do want an environment that promotes diversity, equity and inclusion (DEI). I realize that every time I open my voice or share my experience, I can bring awareness to the issue and hopefully bring change. 

One way allies can show up is by educating themselves on Black History—learning the bitter truth of our nation and understanding that we haven’t progressed as much as we would like to think. The only way to truly embrace our differences is by listening, learning and unlearning. 

Microaggressions can be unlearned, and whether they are deliberate or not, they affect all of us. Black people are not monolithic. We are not caricatures; we are real human beings who laugh, cry and feel. I challenge all of us to look beyond ourselves and understand that our humanity is what connects us, and it’s our responsibility and civic duty to respect each other. 

The next time you feel the need to tell your Black coworker they are “articulate” for a Black person, please do not. Respectfully. The next time you feel the need to touch your Black coworker’s hair without asking, stop, pause and reconsider. The next time you find yourself mimicking stereotypically, remember that Black people are not all the same.

To the next-gen of young Black women entering corporate America, do not dim your light to make other people comfortable. Show up as your full authentic self. Do not be afraid when you encounter workplace discrimination. Take that time to foster a relationship with your HR department, advocate for DEI training within your organization, and it’s okay to leave if it becomes too much to handle. You deserve to work in an environment that respects and honors you as a human being.

With Love and Light,

Let’s Talk About Microaggressions At Work And How To Deal With Them
Why I Asked My White Coworkers To Call Me By My Middle Name
13 Women On The Real Emotional Toll Of Code-Switching At Work