At the end of last month, a bunch of people learned about something that black women already have a ton of expertise in: discrimination. Twice in the same day, two impressively qualified, prominent black women were subjected to the same kind of stupid gender-based racism that many black women have experienced at the hands of countless Annes, Susans, and Bills throughout the history of the modern workplace. First winner of the "disrespected by a white man" lottery unceremoniously held at the end of March was Congresswoman Maxine Waters, who was the target of consistent dumbass Bill O'Reilly, a man most notable in my mind for getting trolled by Cam'ron on his own show. After Congresswoman Waters waxed oh so eloquently in defense of those whose political stance is resistance against the Cheeto-in-Chief, O'Reilly chose to respond by attacking her physical appearance, saying she looks like James Brown. A masterful rhetorical stroke from a man who looks like a Ziploc bag filled with half-eaten mayonnaise sandwiches. He even has the nerve to work at a job where he exposes his pasty face to the American public.
- Bill O’Reilly
Later that same day, Sean Spicer, chief manbaby for the Cheeto administration, spoke to White House Correspondent for American Urban Radio Networks April Ryan as if she was a child. "Please stop shaking your head" Spicer said, as if this is something you can actually say to an actual adult human being possessing decades of professional expertise in their field of work. Of course, as is expected of people who are systemically wronged, Ms. Ryan remained composed and professional in the face of condescending disrespect by a man who knows better. Ryan, you'll recall, was first publicly disrespected by the current president, who made the age-old white-people assumption that all black people know all other black people and have the ability to ask other black folks for favors on behalf of whiteness.
This kind of disrespect is old hat to black women, who, for some reason, are the recipients of about 70 percent of all the unmitigated gall in the country.
Because this disrespect and discrimination is so common, black women across the country held a day-long discussion about it using the #BlackWomenAtWork hashtag on Twitter and Facebook, which was started by Brittany Packnett, a black woman who works on behalf of marginalized and oppressed people all over the country. #BlackWomenAtWork allowed these women to highlight true stories of work-related ill treatment at the hands of colleagues, managers, and society at large. The women participating in the hashtag discussion shared experiences where they were assumed to be underqualified for their positions, asked to perform menial service tasks even when they occupied high positions (or, in many cases, were managers!), and, of course, subjected to racial comments and improper physical contact. It's like Solange didn't even make an entire song about not touching black women's hair. Y'all don't listen.
Those of us who are not black women need to get it together. There are a lot of things that black women are not. Black women are not your best friend (unless they have explicitly said so). Black women are not your "sista girl." Black women are not your maid or your stool pigeon or your Nubian queen or pets for you to touch without permission. Black women are not possessed of some inhuman amount of willpower that somehow makes them better able to endure stupid microaggressions. This is a good general set of rules to keep in mind for black women who are your personal acquaintances, but they are very necessary for you to remember when you are encountering black women in a work setting.
Black women are human. They usually work exponentially harder than the rest of us do, thanks to the super delicious cocktail of racism and sexism that they face on the daily. So when you encounter a black woman at work, remember that she has probably worked a lot harder than you to reach the same position that you've reached. Remember that she's had to run a gauntlet of stupid comments and assumptions about her ability and outright discrimination since childhood. Remember that the weight of that gauntlet never really goes away no matter how accomplished she is or how much of a hardass she appears to be. Remember that this black woman has license to react to any crap that we subject her to in any way that preserves her sanity, and she doesn't have to be nice about it. Remember that none of us, not you or me or the president of the United States, is owed black women's labor, their time, or their kindness.
Troy L. Wiggins is a Memphian and writer whose work has appeared in the Memphis Noir anthology, Make Memphis magazine, and The Memphis Flyer.