I am never one to lead with race. I’ve been the only black woman or one of a handful in the room for a large portion of my career, especially as I climbed the corporate ladder. Unlike some women I know, it never really bothered me. I know who I am, understand my value, and have always spoken up for myself and been rewarded for my contributions. When I wasn’t rewarded or felt marginalized in any way, I did something about it. But that has nothing to do with the color of my skin. It’s simply who I am.
I have however, experienced microaggressions in the workplace, having to do with race. Some were intentional, but with others, I can’t be sure the offender even had a clue as to how their comment or action rubbed me the wrong way because it was insensitive, low-key racist, or downright inappropriate. My familiarity with unconscious bias, allows me to understand how this could be.
But there’s one I just can’t seem to shake, and every time it bubbles up in my brain, which is roughly twice per year, since it happened in 2016, I think about my response, and I wish I could go back and call this woman out, because it was woefully inappropriate and she deserved to be called on it.
She was a partner at a company that had acquired the company I worked for, and this was probably our second face-to-face meeting. While sitting in my office as we talked and got to know one another, she disclosed that her husband had an affair. But what she told me was that he had an affair with a ‘black’ woman. For some reason, she found it important or at least relevant for me to know the woman’s race, which also happened to be mine. I was taken aback and sat up a little straighter in my seat, but continued to listen, wondering why this mattered and where it was going.
She then went on to explain that she was a beautiful black woman “with green eyes and dreadlocks.”
I wasn’t sure what she expected from me in terms of a reaction. Was that meant to soften the blow, or let me know she thinks green eyes and dreadlocks on black women are beautiful? Was I not a beautiful black woman because I had neither?
Maybe it was her way of telling me that though her husband had a black mistress, it’s only because she was beautiful and exotic (another word she used.) I had no idea why she shared that information or what message she was trying to send, if any. I thought about it later and wondered if she was letting me know in her own way that she didn’t like black women, or if she was trying to relate to me as someone who had also recently gone through a divorce, which had come up during that conversation as we were getting to know one another.
As our relationship deteriorated for various reasons over the next year, and I ultimately decided not to work for that company I couldn’t help but recall and reflect on that part of the conversation and wonder if some of her actions toward me were related in any way.
I can’t say I had strong reasons to believe that because I never saw how she interacted with other black women – frankly because there weren’t many at all in the company and we worked in different offices.
But it was always in the back of my mind. It also occurs to me that it may have never crossed her mind, because that’s just the way she described the mistress, as a black woman with dreadlocks and green eyes, regardless to whom she was relaying the story.
And in all honesty, I’ve had more than my fair share of colleagues, white men in particular, describe or reference someone to me or others in my presence as ‘black,’ in casual conversations as if it weren’t an issue at all, but for some reason, a critical component of the story. I do recall asking a colleague in private once why the person’s race in his story had been relevant, and he told me he didn’t even remember mentioning it.
I never asked anyone else after, though it has happened on several occasions. But the one I most regret not asking, is the woman scorned by her husband and an exotic green-eyed black woman with dreadlocks.
She and I no longer talk, so I never will.
But I can’t help but wonder if she’d conveniently forget having ever mentioned it.
I certainly won’t ever forget it happened.