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Sisters Keeping Each Other Down In The Workplace

By:Chareen Ibraheem

I don’t know if I was inherently born different or if it was the stigma over me that Black females just didn’t get along. I can recall at an early age, there always seemed to be a never-ending rivalry with my Black female counterparts. As innocent as it seemed at the time, it was small things like sharing a new doll or admiring another’s curls or braids, only to see the next time we had “playtime” one of us or both of us copied each other’s hairstyle or gotten that doll we just saw the other one have.

To take it a step further as we got older it was all about who had the fliest Pumas or the latest Guess jeans.  It went further to include who was the prettiest, who was dating who, and who got into the Ivy League school or HBCU. It was as if we were taught from the womb to be “better” than our sisters because the opportunities for us were scarce.

The list can go and on about the endless competition among Black women in which I always seemed to be one or two steps behind. Whether it was my hand me down clothes in elementary school or out of date jerry curls in the late 90’s as a sophomore in high school, being out of step throughout my life found it’s way creeping into my adulthood.

As an adult I entered the corporate world of suits and ties, flirty skirts and short dresses, as well as chats and giggles about the previous night’s episode of Seinfeld by the water cooler. Over time I got used  having an occasional smile sent my way if my white counterparts felt the need to do so on that peculiar day. I would observe all of this as I casually pushed my mail cart along making sure not to bump into anyone on purpose.

The offices I worked in were usually filled with high-level executives. This was my day for many years, and although I had completed my college education and held two degrees, I wasn’t working in my field. Instead I was at the servitude of countless temp agencies “hoping” to get that big break, looking for that right open door. I found myself being cut out of the loop of what I had worked so hard to achieve, and working for someone else.

Again as with my Black counterparts I was the odd man out, in a sense you can say I was part of the “system” too. The “system” that no matter how hard you try keeps Blacks out. Of course it’s not an obvious sign that says “No Blacks Allowed” but it’s in the air, the room, the fake smiles, the flip of the “straight hair” that look when you’re a new temp at the office. That playful friendly condensing looks in a “normal” conversation.

I often wonder if we really have advanced as far as we say we have and the answer is no, we haven’t. When I think about this, my favorite television show Underground comes to mind. The responses based on a scene where the house slave gets rid of the field slave for the sake of her children were so different. I completely understand that the house slave did what she thought was best for “survival” reasons, but the actress portraying the house slave stated she would never condone hurting another sister.

I was pleased that this sister got it, but so many of us don’t. I understand the need to survive but when it comes to downright dirt underneath a sister’s fingers to “survive”, I wonder. I can handle the secret or overt white racism (as is the case now). I think we as Black people have been trained and taught how to handle it all our lives, even among ourselves to a certain degree.

As I said before we all have a role to play in this “systemic” structure called racism whether we realize it or not. My role as the usual “temp girl” mostly recently exposed me to a whole new level dealing with this issue. This time it was by stepping into a predominantly white law firm where only a few black women worked. Maybe it was culture shock, because the part of the region I am from is very multi-culturally diverse.

As I first entered the law firm, I immediately sensed the racially tense atmosphere. I counted very few Blacks in my department. For me it couldn’t  get any humiliating than the job

I was given, which was sorting through old dusty files, and keeping the ones that were needed and discarding the ones that are not. All this is done from an extremely small work space, where I was surrounded by dusty boxes.

In the department, there were three white women that were clearly disgusted that the agency sent a “Black Girl”. The supervisor I was under reminded me of a plantation overseer because of her quick nervous mannerisms and deep intimidating, somewhat soft  voice along with saying things like “Honey you’re not doing the work right, or I need you to lift those boxes honey.” The boxes were basically more than 25 pounds.

When I finished sorting though the files, I also had to push them to the shedding room and dump them. While doing all of this, I would run into my Black co-workers, who were already a permanent fixture in the firm. That old familiar feeling came to me seated in the pit of my stomach. Three of these Black Co-workers had claimed their territory as females many times do. I encountered several different hierarchy types that are many times found within the African American community.

I came up with nicknames for each of the women based on the roles that they played. Sadly, I often encountered the HNIC, she held a rather high position at the firm, and constantly came on my floor in a cheery overly friendly way, as a way to make sure things were running smoothly. Still holding that “Don’t mess with a sister” attitude, her usually enjoyment was chatting rather loudly and “sisterly” like with Uncle Tom.

I say Uncle Tom because she often held her head down when passing white co-workers in the office, and only spoke if spoken to in a soft voice. She would often wait passively in the area were I worked, to get a ride home with a white woman in the department who was constantly harassing me on a daily basis. Often times Uncle Tom would witness one of the white co-workers harassing and yell at me as a question was asked.

Her and HNIC would laugh and watch as I struggled with the heavy files. Although they would sometimes pretend to be laughing at something else,I knew otherwise. I referred to the last of the women as “Snake” because she acted the like the “home girl” in the hood trying to be polished up just because she wore a fancy suit and managed to get a job at a law firm. She’d often say, “Hey girl” in that fake smile sort of way and moments later, she would talk with her white co-worker and side eye me in a subtle way and move away as if I had leprosy.

My experience at the law firm was eye opening to say the least. My three Black co-workers knew of the difficulties I experienced with the white co-workers, but it was the survival of the fittest all over again. I often wondered what it was about me that caused these women to act this way. The whole experience made all my memories from childhood come flooding back to me.

I began to wonder what the deal was with me and other Black females. Maybe it was my braids that I neatly wore that were in need of a redo, or was it my clothes?  I would have tried to fix those things but the amount that I was making part time at the law firm wasn’t enough to buy new clothes, and  on top of that I was struggling to pay my rent so I didn’t slip back into homelessness.

These women cared nothing about me. Times are hard and I guess they had a “Gotta do what I gotta do mentality.” Perhaps the jobs for people of color are more scarce than they were in the past and it’s even harder now, and the furnace of racism has been turned up several notches, or I was probably considered the weakest link, being a “temp”, or it could have just been that crabs in the barrel mentality when it comes to getting ahead that’s always there lingering in the minds somewhere. I would say to my Black sisters, take time to be kinder, more accepting, and less judgmental, because we are all just one pay check away from being the next Black Temp Girl.

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This article couldn’t have popped up on my Twitter feed at a more appropriate time! My master’s project is on tension between African American women in the workplace. Great article!

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