On March 28, Democratic Representative Maxine Waters had to defend herself (again) to Fox News host Bill O’Reilly after he mocked her hair in response to Waters criticizing President Trump.
“I didn’t hear a word she said, I was looking at the James Brown wig,” O’Reilly said.
In response to O’Reilly’s bigotry, Maxine Waters tweeted, “I am a strong black woman. I cannot be intimidated, and I’m not going anywhere. #BlackWomenAtWork”.
Since then, the hashtag #BlackWomenAtWork, created by activist Brittany Packnett, has been trending, allowing black women to share their stories of workplace situations where they are misjudged, stereotyped and grossly insulted.
O’Reilly isn’t the first white man, or the first person to criticize a black woman in order to distract from real issues at hand — resentment of strong black woman in positions of power. Instead of having a discussion about Waters’ claims, O’Reilly resorted to insults by criticizing her appearance, a pitiful attempt at making her feel small.
Waters’ response to O’Reilly not only prompted the hashtag, but also encouraged me to discuss the fact that black women have to make themselves smaller in order to accommodate the fragile egos of others in the workplace.
Black women have to make adjustments that outsiders don’t take into consideration, like for example, always having to watch our attitude. We’re not allowed to be upset at work because we run the risk of portraying the “angry black girl” stereotype that others love to push on us.
In most people’s eyes these comments go unnoticed or seem irrelevant, but for black women, these actions and comments accumulate and grow, and then we have to hear people like Pamela Taylor, former director of the Clay County Development Corp., refer to Michelle Obama as an “ape in heels.”
Because people are threatened by black women, we have to shrink ourselves and virtually make ourselves meek and submissive in order to avoid being criticized and ridiculed.
My friend Jenean is a 22-year-old environmental studies major at SF State and works for the Marin Municipal Water District. She is the only black employee. While this isn’t cause for alarm, it is something some black women immediately notice in the workplace. Acknowledging you are the only woman of color at your job or in the office is like a reflex.
“It’s not just about the white students in the classroom, the white teachers, the white parents, but also, with an all-white staff, it’s like ‘oh, here’s the black intern about to tell us some stuff about nature’ and it just makes me feel insecure,” Jenean explained to me. “I feel like I’m already being judged.”
While Jenean enjoys her job, working with a predominantly white staff in a predominantly white neighborhood has made her a little more conscious about her work environment and the things her coworkers have said and done, like being shocked that her Hispanic coworker has an excellent work ethic.
“People from other races can have a good work ethic — it’s the person, not the race that makes up the work ethic, thank you,” Jenean concluded.
Jenean is one of many black women who experience insecurity and prejudice at work, and have no choice but to tolerate this environment in fear of feeding into misplaced and misguided stereotypes.
Lydia D. York is a 50-year-old army veteran who lives in Maryland. Lydia reached out to me on Twitter, wanting to share her work experience as a black woman.
Lydia was hired by a government agency to be a Medical Information Specialist, essentially a telephone operator who helped people in crisis. After corresponding with the recruiter online and having a phone interview, the recruiter requested a Skpe interview.
“We do the Skype interview and it was abbreviated, it was like she just started to see what I looked like or something,” Lydia explained. “But it was very short.”
While Lydia was hired for the position, she learned she had been hired to fill a quota, rather than for her skills.
“And then I found out they had to hire black people to get the government contract. They were up for renewal of the government contract,” Lydia said. “They didn’t necessarily need me or my talent, they just needed my color because the government was going to give the contract to whoever had the most minorities.”
Before learning about the company’s quota, Lydia noticed that her predominantly Spanish coworkers and bosses seemed shocked by her skill level.
“They were surprised that I had experience.They were surprised that I knew what I was talking about. They were surprised that I was educated. They were surprised that I was knowledgeable in the field,” Lydia said. “It was like everyday was a different surprise for them.”
Black women are more than their melanin. Aside from rich skin tones, black women are rich in knowledge and talent. So, the next time Bill O’Reilly or anyone else decides to fix their mouths to make degrading and ignorant remarks to a black woman, channel your inner Maxine Waters, and “be who you are, do what you do, and let us get on with discussing the real issues of this country.”