This summer has been an interesting one. Before it started I wasn’t really sure what I wanted my plans to look like, but I knew I had to be working. While I was studying abroad this past semester in Namibia, I spent hours a day searching for internships and summer job opportunities. I hunted for jobs that were going to boost up my International Development and Social Change experience as well as get me far away from my home in Maine. I went through Skype interview after Skype interview as I tried to balance the 6-hour time difference. I managed to land on a couple of reasonable jobs; nothing that was my first pick, but really great summer work. But after having spent almost 5 months out of the U.S. and away from familiar things, I made a choice to stay in Maine for the summer and work. This has been my first full summer in Maine since high school, and besides babysitting jobs, volunteer work, and stint bussing tables and making milkshakes at Johnny Rockets, this was my first work experience in Maine.
So, I picked back up a job that I had started working during the winter vacation before studying abroad. I work at the information desk at the airport. I landed on a second job working at the foreign exchange office, also located in the airport. I was ready to play it low-key and devote my summer to saving up for the upcoming school year. I was ready for the challenge of juggling two work schedules as well as maintaining my sanity. I was also ready for the airport to become my second home. But there were certain things that I hadn’t anticipated: racism and sexual harassment. Even though I work in Portland, the major city in Maine and not some rural small town, I did expect some racism. I expected the same micro aggressions that I had faced when growing up in the state. What I was not prepared for was the extent of racism and sexism in the workplace that I face now.
My jobs are customer service based, so I interact with a lot of different people. In the beginning I had people avoid eye contact with me. They would refuse to talk to me and only addressed my co-workers (who are white). People would actually just stare at me without saying anything and then just walk away! Other employees working in other areas of my workplace wouldn’t hold the same daily small talk with me as they would with my colleagues. I felt strange and isolated. Right off the bat, I felt a tremendous need to prove myself. I had to prove that I wasn’t like the stereotypes of black people that they created in their minds. I arrive early to work, I am eloquent with my words and careful with my speech, I focus on how I look in the work place and how I conduct myself. These may seem like given habits for anyone to go by in a work environment; but for me, as a person of color, I work extra hard at these things to feel some level of acceptance. To make white people comfortable. But then as the summer has gone on, my discomfort has continued to intensify.
I hear comments daily that degrade immigrants and people of color. Some of the comments that have been directed to me have been, “you’re cute for a black girl” or “you’re so lucky you get to live in this country and not scary Africa.” I have been called Buckwheat. (This is in reference to the character on the “Little Rascals,” who represents the caricature image of black people in the early 20th century.) This comment was made in observance of my “nappy” hair. Most recently I was interrogated about where I come from. Although this was not new to my ears, it still hit me like a prodding iron to the skin. The conversation looked like this: (If you are friends with me on Facebook, I’m sorry that you have to read this dialogue again.)
Man: “Where were you born?”
Me: “I’m from here.”
Man: *looking stunned and confused* “Where’s here?”
Me: “Gorham, Maine. Where are you from?”
Man: “I’m from here. Aren’t you a Somalian? You look like those Somalians.”
Me: “No sir, I’m not Somali.”
Man: “Isn’t that funny? You must get that all the time!… There are lots of Somalians working here, huh?”
Me: *getting visibly angry but trying to keep my customer service composer* “There are people from Somalia, Ethiopia, Sudan, Albania, Greece, Germany and a bunch of other places all LIVING and working here. And no, sir, it’s not funny to racially or ethnically profile someone because you think all black people look alike.”
Man: *staggers away looking dumbfounded*
Man: *comes back 15 minutes later* “You know what, I’m sorry. I wouldn’t be able to sleep at night if I didn’t say that.”
Me: “It’s fine… Actually, no it’s not fine. I’m not going to say it is just to ease your conscience. Don’t be so presumptuous just because you see brown skin. *puts customer service smile back on* “Now, if I can’t help you with anything I kindly ask that you move away from my desk.”
Soon after that interaction, a man stopped dead in his tracks and asked me if I was the only black person in Maine because he hadn’t seen any “blacks” on his flight.
As if that’s not bad enough, I’ve also had horrible situations of sexual harassment. On a regular basis there are older men that come into my work place and make different sexual advances and comments toward me. They stare at my breasts. They examine my shape as if I were Saartjie Baartman on display. Once while I was having lunch at my desk, a man asked me if he could have some. When I ignored him he said, “It’s a good thing you have nice legs,” and proceeded to tilt his head and try to look up my skirt. Different male employees continuously make inappropriate comments on my physical appearance and ogle at my body. I had a really severe situation where an employee old enough to be my grandfather would come by my desk every day and tell me how attracted to me he was and would express how much he wanted me and how he wanted to take me places. He would talk about other women’s bodies to me. He would always try to get me alone and try to hug me so that he could touch me. My coworkers told me that they had experienced similar interactions with this man but they had ignored it. I was even told that he occasionally grabbed women’s butts. I couldn’t tolerate this. I wasn’t going to wait until it escalated. I was forced to report him and he resigned before a case could be filed against him.
It’s infuriating that as a woman of color I have to face all of this. How am I expected to want to wake up in the morning and take hours and hours of this? I dread going to work because the energy to deal with these situations has been drained from me. It’s one of the most helpless feelings having to tolerate racism and sexual harassment because I have to make a living. It’s not like I can’t work. I have worked in a variety of places with different work environments from the corporate level to grassroots, but I have never experienced anything like this. This work experience has really slapped reality into me and the extent of racism and sexism has made me realize that this is what many women of color face everyday. The male entitlement, exotification, and degradation. The feelings of inadequacy, otherings, white privilege and ignorance. The blatant racism! Both of my bosses are two of the nicest and most considerate people I’ve worked with. They aren’t the problem. If it were it would be easy to cut ties with the jobs and go somewhere else. But when it is customers who are impacting my work performance, it’s a difficult to call it quits – as customers are “always right”!
This doesn’t only happen in Maine. Because there is ignorance everywhere, I feel like I’m just expected to suck it up and deal with it. Bite my lip. Become the strong black woman who never cracks like I’m expected to. Be complacent. Be dutiful under any circumstance. But if I’m supposed to spend half of my life working, I know these interactions will kill me even quicker as I feel my blood boil. The tensions in my very body from this experience has taken its toll on me even before I begin full-time employment! Am I waiting to become another “excess deaths” statistic?
So, what are my suggestions on dealing with these issues? Okay, here it goes: Don’t work. Leave the country and live on a secluded island. Somewhere tropical. But if you’re like me and can’t do that, fight back! Stand up for yourself. Educate people about why they’ve made you uncomfortable because you deserve to feel safe and confident in your work place. Handle situations tactfully and effectively. If your boss can’t stand by you protecting yourself, then maybe that work situation isn’t meant to be. But this is something I’m still trying to wrap my head around.