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  • Writer's pictureNyo Malek

Black Women’s Journey Facing Racial Discrimination and White Supremacy in the Workplace

Today marks the International Day for the Elimination of Racial Discrimination. The United Nations General Assembly chose March 21st to honour the 69 people who were killed by police during a peaceful protest against apartheid in Sharpville, South Africa.


Similar to the apartheid state, racism is ingrained at the individual, organizational, institutional, and systemic levels of our society. Within the organizational level, racism can be seen in the treatment of racialized individuals in workplaces and takes the form of racial inequalities being reinforced for both formal and informal norms. Defined by Tema Okun and Keith Jones, professionalism is rooted in white supremacy culture due to whiteness being centred systematically and institutionally. 


When you are a person of colour whose identities are intersectional, navigating these systems in your daily life in workplaces that have inherent barriers at every level can be highly challenging. During this International Day for the Elimination of Racial Discrimination, we dissect the phenomenon that plagues women of colour, but especially Black Women: "Pet to threat." 


Coined by Dr. Kecia Thomas, Professor Juanita Johnson-Bailey, and Professor Rosemary Phelps, "Pet to Threat" describes the change in treatment Black women (and men) undergo in the workplace, from being viewed as likeable and non-threatening to being seen as a threat due to displaying ambition or assertiveness. In an MLT research study, 50% of Black alums shared that a white mentor or sponsor who once supported them later undermined them. 


The pathway of this phenomenon in the workplace can be seen with the Centre for Community Organizations tool called The "Problem" Woman of Colour in the Workplace. The tool follows a flow chart of the woman's experience, beginning with her entering a new organization and being welcomed by white leadership as the tokenized hire. 


When hired as tokenized employees, women of colour can be provided with low-level work to support team activities outside of their job description. Although these activities support the team, when their white and male counterparts receive projects that propel their career growth, this is ultimately a harmful action.


Coined by Dr. Kecia Thomas, Professor Juanita Johnson-Bailey, and Professor Rosemary Phelps, "Pet to Threat" describes the change in treatment Black women (and men) undergo in the workplace, from being viewed as likable and non-threatening to being seen as a threat due to displaying ambition or assertiveness. In an MLT research study, 50% of Black alums shared that a white mentor or sponsor who once supported them later undermined them.

Once the true circumstances of the workplace materialize, the woman is faced with repeated injury and microaggressions when trying to point out issues in policies and asking for accountability. The response from the organization is often a denial of racism with the responsibility of fixing the problem lying with the woman of colour. The woman is then retaliated against by the organization, with them labelling her as the problem and targeting her, blaming the issue for being 'communication' or her not being the right 'fit.'


The woman of colour is now left in a state of suspension, with one option of doing nothing and staying in a toxic workplace, leading to adverse mental and physical health outcomes. Or if she does say something, she fears retaliation from management and human resources, often resulting in intimidation, blocked access to career growth, and ultimately ending in resignation. 


If you are an organization, you may think, what can you do to support Black individuals and women of colour? 

 

Listen to your Black and women of colour employees who voice their opinions on ill-treatment in the workplace. MLT's study found a difference in perception, with 50% of employees feeling undermined by mentors in private but only 25% of white colleagues perceiving this was the case. 


Practice active allyship by standing up for colleagues who are being undermined. Disrespect for these groups often occurs in group settings. Say something; there's power in numbers. 


Remove the scarcity mindset from your vocabulary. There's room for everyone to prosper and grow within their careers. Your Black and women of colour colleagues deserve the opportunity to succeed in their career paths, too. 


What can Black individuals and women of colour do? 


Have allies around you, both within and outside of your organization. You need your team to support and uplift you mentally and spiritually.


Set Boundaries: you spend one-third of your day in the workplace. Choose how much you will engage in the organizational battlefield and save the rest of your energy for yourself.


Advocate for yourself, but choose your battles. If the organization becomes too toxic, leaving to preserve your mental health is an option, too. Should you need to further your advocacy, consider connecting with a human rights lawyer or the human rights commission of your province. 


During this International Day for the Elimination of Racial Discrimination, do your part and help us end the racial discrimination Black individuals and women of colour face from Pet to threat.

 

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