Do Black Lives Matter in the workplace? Colleagues should do more

Seattle Ferguson Protest Photos
A protest at the University of Washington on Nov. 25, 2014, after Ferguson, Missouri, Police Officer Darren Wilson was cleared in the fatal shooting of Mike Brown. (File photo by Jama Abdirahman)

Many employers in Seattle say they are committed to diversity and racial equity in hiring — but despite endless talk of inclusion and representation, numbers don’t lie.

But it’s not just the lack of hiring that oppresses black people and people of color, but also the lack of empathy for people of color in the workplace, who have to come to work pretending to be unaffected by events such as the recent violent “Unite the Right” rally in Charlottesville.

As a black woman, I have been watching it happen for most of my life. But the situation came to a head for me three years ago.

The day in 2014 after a grand jury decided that Ferguson Police Officer Darren Wilson would not be indicted for the murder of Mike Brown, I walked into my workplace on campus with a tension in my back and through my shoulders I couldn’t explain.

I watched the coverage with my then-6-year old son the night before. He was trying to understand what had happened and why.

After a few minutes of listening to the news, my 6-year-old had determined that the police officer who killed Mike Brown wanted to be “more powerful than him.”

My son’s words were stuck in my head. The whole situation was stuck in my head. I had nothing to say as I entered my office. I just went straight to my desk and began to get settled.

One of my co-workers came out of her office per usual to say her cheery “Morning!” to me. She was a sweet Jewish lady — very kind to me and always helpful. She asked “How you doing?”

I found myself faced with a decision. I could have lied through my teeth and say, “I’m good.” That’s what we are conditioned to do most of the time. Or do I tell the pure unadulterated truth and say, “I am disgusted.”

Somehow I managed to say “I’m pretty upset about this Darren Wilson nonsense. I watched that damn press conference last night.”

“What is that?” she asked me.

“He is the cop that shot Mike Brown,” I said.

“Hmmm, who is that?” she replied.

My paradigms shifted that day. My chest tensed up.

Was I shocked? No, I was not. I was angry.

Mike Brown was killed four months prior and was all over the news. The city of Ferguson literally had been on fire. I was not prepared to have people walking around me with the privilege of not only being unaffected, but simply not knowing about it at all.

I gave her a look and asked her, “How have you not heard about this?”

As I explained to her the details of what happened to Mike Brown and the reaction by the Ferguson city officials, I saw her face drop. I saw her shake her head in disbelief and when I told her that I had to explain why this happened to my son, a young black boy only a few years older than her own, I saw sadness in her eyes.

No, I’m not good this morning. I’m just trying to keep it together.

I have been one out of a handful of blacks in many settings for almost all my life. I had felt that alienation before, but this time I was tired and so sick of being forced to assimilate to office chatter with shallow meaning. I was either going to speak out on how I felt, or put that “Leave me the F alone sign” on my forehead.

This feeling of being ostracized has happened time and time again. I literally been one out of two or three black people an office that employs thousands.

Since that day that Darren Wilson escaped charges, I have felt more and more alienated at my office. Police shooting after police shooting, acquittal after acquittal, and, of course, the election of 45.

I have become conditioned to lean myself up against the wall inside the elevator as it ascends to this 9 to 5 world where everyone has the unspoken agreement that racism doesn’t exist unless a higher up talks about it.

I was reminded again after Charlottesville. Coming into work after those events, it was a silence so great you could hear a pin drop only to be disrupted by talk of the impending eclipse.

I noticed on Facebook that a few alums of the University of Washington were pleased to see that the President Ana Mari Cauce had sent out a letter stating how contemptible and horrific the display of white terrorism was on the University of Virginia’s campus. But for me it simply wasn’t enough. There had been a similar right-wing rally in downtown Seattle, which had still gone unacknowledged.

What would have been enough? I would have prefered: “This type of activity is against our code of ethics and code of conduct and any person choosing to affiliate themselves with these groups has no place in our community here. It will not be tolerated and you will be terminated/expelled.”

Why didn’t she say that? This is what people need to hear. This is what I as a black woman need to see.

I would have liked to see something similar to the decisiveness that Cauce expressed in her letter about President Donald Trump’s decision to end Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals (DACA).

“I want to reassure every affected person that if DACA ends, the University of Washington will do everything within its power to minimize the disruption to your lives and education,” Cauce promised the Dreamers.

However, when it came to Charlottesville, she admitted she had no concrete plan to address hate. “I do not have a road map forward, but I do know that we must find that way together,” she wrote.

I work at the university. I walk through that campus and I get those emails. There are so few black people at this and other universities. A cluster here and another cluster there. Institutions that claim to have values supporting equity need to call out clearly these instances of bigotry and racial injustice.

How can we feel safe? Included? Covered? Valued? The saddest part is that I and many others no longer expect any improvement from our colleagues or our workplace. We just put my hours in and take it home each night and let it fester.

When will the voices and psyches of people of color within these spaces be protected unapologetically? What I have seen and experienced within these spaces leaves so much to be desired. We simply have to stop doing the minimum required in every area of race and equity.

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5 Comments

  1. Dear Ms. Johnson,

    I appreciate your article and I regret the pain of daily life for a person of color living in the 5th whitest city in this country. I feel compelled to write because I am a Jewish woman and also work for the UW. I watched and read every moment of the travesty of justice that happened in Ferguson. I certainly DO know and make a point of knowing who was Charleena Lyles, who was Michael Brown, who was Trayvon Martin, and on and on, to who was Emmett Till and before him countless others. Please know that many Jewish people identify very strongly with our African-American sisters and brothers and are not blindly oblivious to their ongoing oppression.

    With respect,
    Doris Kogan

  2. To Ms. Tierra Johnson – you are perfect. Thank you for speaking your truth.

    To Ms. Doris Kogan – I invite you to reflect on what you wrote. It sounds like you’re saying “not all Jewish women” are ignorant and then noting things you are aware of that prove that you’re not racist. This type of response to an African American sharing the realities of her experiences of subtle silent pervasive and powerful racism in a large institution can send a message of “I’m sorry you had that experience with that one white person but I promise we’re not all like that.” Which takes away from Tierra’s story and her point. In the future I suggest listening to POC and responding in gratitude and with a desire to understand more and then mobilizing other white folks to get on board and be aware of these problems and take action.

  3. Thank you for your responses. I want to emphasize that I only included this woman’s ethnicity to illustrate that it was different from my own, not to imply in any way that Jewish people as a whole do not have a working understanding of oppression and bias. I knew what her ethnicity was specifically and wanted to identify it in that way to properly represent her as opposed to simply calling her “white” I just felt that was the right thing to do. Her reaction in our conversation is not based on her being Jewish, it is based on her being able to walk through life on campus and within the work place differently than myself due to her skin color. I don’t want to be misunderstood when it comes to that.

  4. Thank you for sharing your story Tierra. It was very powerful for me.

    You’re might be upset with me for saying this, but I’ve always passed as wytppl (too many ethnicities to list), and I’m male, so I’ve been privileged enough to start up conversations about social justice issues without fear of repercussion for decades.

    In my experience, whenever a POC attempted the same conversation starter, it was perceived completely differently…and all of sudden nobody (white) wanted to continue the conversation but me. Back in the day you were just called a “conspiracy theory guy” and wytppl starting ignoring you/didn’t want to have lunch with you, whatever. The internet has changed all that. Now wytppl’s eyes are open to what they previously used as an excuse not to look, but now they’re too overwhelmed with all the truths/privileges that they refused to accept they had in the past. So they just dig their head in the sand even further, because they feel guilty for ignoring the truths for so long.

    On the flip-side, I do have hope like never before. I believe the seeds of racial justice are starting to take root in this country. That’s why there is so much turmoil. The harvest comes long after the seeds are planted, and only if they are properly cared for. The dominant paradigms of the past are now being challenged at every turn. The problem is they are so deeply embedded in our country’s culture that even those fighting them are involved in supporting them through:

    1. Religion (slavery was sanctioned by the church)
    2. Corporate acquiescence (what your article is really about – business is totalitarian by nature; they can fire you for talking politics in the office. You might want/need someone to talk to/respect your views at work, but they need to protect their livelihood. This is how corporations limit/control our conversations on justice.)
    3. Hollywood (many stereotypes that exist in our culture are just reinforced there)
    4. Professional sports (for too many reason I’m not going to get into – #boycott all of them)

    You obviously got my motor running. Thank you again for that. I’ll keep the conversations going because that’s who I am. As much as it hurts every time my “progressive friends” let me down.

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