In the wake of the scandalous Lizzo lawsuit, let’s debunk the myth that working in a BIPOC-led workspace can’t be fucked up.
When I got a job at a company that was lead by a Black womxn I was so excited. It was something that I had never experienced before. Sure, I’d had some good jobs since I began working at fourteen. But none of my bosses looked like me. They were always, as the kids in the neighborhood where I grew up would say, white bread white. Straight from some suburb where everyone was Caucasian (or Caucasian passing), everyone had a good job, and everyone had a nice house.
These white bread bosses would come into the inner cities to these non-profit or social justice jobs to prove maybe to themselves or to the world that they weren’t racist or ignorant. Yet there was this huge chasm between these bosses and their workforce filled with the culture, the language, the history, and the communities that they didn’t know. Most of the time these white bread bosses wouldn’t work to close that chasm by learning or taking the time to understand where they commuted to everyday. So days would go by filled with conflicts, misunderstanding, prejudice and judgment. Soon enough the white bread boss would go back to their white bread suburbs complaining about the inner city job that ‘just didn’t fit’; someone else from a similar background would fill their empty vacancy and the cycle would start all over again.
I thought my first job led by a Black womxn would have none of that. My recruiter was an out non-binary person which made me, a queer person, feel a false sense of security. We conducted everything in the hiring process online through email, phone calls, or Zoom. So I didn’t get to actually see where I would work until after I signed the job contract. The address of where I was to report to work was sent the night before. I saw the address and realized to get there would be a bit of a challenge.
Now, before I signed the contract I specifically asked and was asked about transportation to and from work. I tried to casually ask over and over through out the interview process if the job would be accessible. I didn’t want to let on that I had mobility issues in case they were biased, but I also didn’t want to struggle once I got the job. I don’t have a car and the city where I live is semi-friendly to that; some areas have access to public transportation and some don’t. I’ve had to turn down jobs in the past that were just inaccessible. If I were a healthy and fit person the address where I was sent to work would’ve been no problem. But as a person who has trouble walking sometimes and often uses a cane, it was anything but.
With no car, and with the job in the suburbs I would have to take the train. Which had a lot of handicap-friendly stops under construction at the time. So I walk a mile to the train (With a cane), take the two stories of steps to the train (With a cane), take the train, get off the train, walk up two stories of steps again (With a cane), and then walk a little over a mile to reach the building where I would work (With…..a….cane). Did I also mention the scorching hot southern sun? I was soaking in sweat when I finally reached the building that had NO RAMP to the main door and would require me to either walk another half mile around the block to get to the ramp in the back or walk another story of steps to the door. I had mere minutes before I was due to report and didn’t want to be late, so I chose the steps.
Keep in mind while I’m struggling down the block and up the steps I actually passed by my boss that I was traveling to meet for the first time, twice. She passed me and threw me the sympathetic but pitying glance that most people get when they walk with a cane in public as she did a power walk on her break with a latte in hand. No southern hospitality greeting or shuffle to the left so I, the person who had trouble walking, wouldn’t have to accommodate HER on the sidewalk. She didn’t realize who I was until I entered her office a few minutes after her with sweat stains down my most professional casual top and eyeliner running down my face from the heat outside.
“Oh!” she said in a startled sort of way with a tinge of embarrassment. Was the embarrassment from our interaction moments before or for the realization of this person she just hired who traveled with a titanium stick that wasn’t just for fashion? I noticed it but didn’t question it as I quickly tried to push past the awkwardness and just get right to work to prove my worth in spite of my handicap appearance.
That first day was a big indicator of how my time at that job would go. Yes, the company was led by a Black womxn and all of her senior officers were either womxn too or people that fit into some minority group. However, the faces of upper management and middle management were largely Caucasian; people that knew each other from college or previous jobs and hired each other. And most of these people were not from the communities they were serving. I waited for training, and waited, and waited. It was just assumed that because the company was lead by a Black womxn with so many new diverse employees, and the goal of the company was to reach these diverse communities, that somehow without clear training on what to do in many scenarios things would just work out.
People at the company did try…in the beginning. Accommodations were suggested and made. Shortly after starting the job my boss did suggest I work from home and put me on a team that did so. An ASL interpreter was hired to be at every meeting so deaf employees could participate and not just get notes as they had from meetings in the past. But then people in middle management started to suggest ways to do business that just didn’t work.
Not paying attention to the areas they assigned us to work and often assigning queer or Black people to work in areas that were sundown towns in the rural areas of the south. When those queer or Black people wanted to complain it was always unclear who to complain to or who in management could understand the problem. There was no clear chain of command in many departments. The Black womxn that I was so eager to work under was never around and whom I only saw once. With upper and middle management often taking the lead it was the white bread scenario all over again.
The miscommunication and disarray between levels at the company became so well known soon enough all our competitors knew about it. As a way to punish us for not hitting goals that we were unable to reach because of the chaos within the company we as employees were given even higher goals to reach. Every two hours we were required to stop to have these quick calls with the whole team where we would each say how well we were doing in order to incite jealousy and competition. Those who didn’t hit target marks were openly ridiculed and taunted in front of the entire team. I didn’t need jealousy but support and clear direction; something unfortunately I never got no matter how many times I asked.
The day I quit that job was one of the happiest of my life. By then we all secretly knew the company was trash and wouldn’t reach any of its original goals. I ironically turned in my notice and went to a Lizzo concert that evening to celebrate my freedom. Crazy right? So here I am several months later recalling my own experience and disappointed to learn that Lizzo’s camp was doing the exact same thing.
Listening to interviews from those named in the Lizzo lawsuits I see many similarities between myself and them. I listened to their stories about those faces in management that weren’t diverse and felt a tinge of déjà vu. The moments when they were scared to confront fellow BIPOC that weren’t working as they should made complete sense. I read the statements about the long work hours immediately understanding why those girls would sacrifice so much; I naively did the same thing.
Working for or in a BIPOC-led space might get rid of one -ism, but you still have all the other -isms. With racism not at the forefront you might think that everything is ok and your workplace will be safe. However there’s still ageism, ableism, sizeism, sexism, etc. that can be just as antagonizing and discriminate with a power that makes people feel left out. Being Black or Indigenous leader doesn’t magically make all of those things go away.
Speaking to all the managers, directors, leaders, and CEOs from minority communities…do better. Don’t just sit there and let business continue as is. Living your life you have a unique perspective that your blonde-haired blue-eyed coworkers of ivy league legacy do not. You know what it’s like to experience prejudice that not only hurts your feelings but can have the ability to impede ones ability to make a living. I really hope in the wake of this lawsuit against Lizzo we focus less on the persona she built around love and inclusivity. That was just a brand. Focusing more on the fact that behind the scenes all the regular biases of a toxic workplace were still there and happened in spite of Lizzo being a Black womxn.
If you don’t actually work to make the spaces you’re in to be inclusive for everyone, your workspace is just like those diversity college ads. You know the ones I’m talking about. Where the college photographer searches for that BIPOC person on the campus in a sea of non-minority faces and takes like twenty photos of them. And even though the campus probably has a minority percentage below 10% in every flyer, brochure, online ad, and presentation you see that one BIPOC face the campus photographer searched so hard for. Which insinuates the campus is way more diverse and liberal than it actually is. That is a façade that not only tricks people into a false sense of security but puts the lives of those most marginalized in our society at risk.