How Our Workplaces Generate a Culture of Fear: Part 1

Welcome to my blog about how white supremacy culture shows up in our work environments. In my first post, I explain why I created this in the first place and what I hope to achieve through exploring the intersection of white supremacy and workplace culture. Today I’m diving in with the big one. The mother of white supremacy culture and conditioning: Fear.

It’s “the big one,” so I’ll be dedicating a few posts to it.

I thought I’d start by examining some of the less obvious ways that fear seeps into our work environments through a few fictional scenarios. These stories are based on recent experiences that were shared with me by others, reflect some of my own experiences, and start to illustrate some of the more stealthy ways that our workplaces enable and even support a culture of fear, turning our jobs into way less interesting versions of Game of Thrones. 

Scene from the TV show, Game of Thrones. A powerful white woman stands high above ranks of soldiers standing in formation.
Maybe some (most?) of your jobs have felt more like this.

Scenario 1: Invisible hierarchies and alliances

You’ve been at your new agency for a few months. It’s generally going great, but there’s a couple of people who always challenge your opinions and generally seem hostile toward you. You see them after a meeting talking in a concerned manner. They glance toward you. You know they have been with the company for a long time and have the ear of a few executives. Do they simply not like you? Do they feel threatened by you because of some other invisible alliances within the organization that you haven’t been clued into yet? What information are you missing about them, this situation, or the organization? You prod a few people at the company who you consider allies to reassure yourself, but you feel anxious, paranoid. 

Scenario 2: Rearranging the king’s court—AKA “Restructuring”

You have almost 10 years at your company. Year after year your performance reviews are excellent. You come to work one day to discover that the executive your team reports to has changed. This executive has a reputation for being brutal, difficult to work with, but you don’t think anything of it because you’ve been there so long and have a good relationship with your boss and team. A few weeks pass and suddenly your boss tells you he’s assigning you to a less important project. You try to stay motivated, but the project doesn’t challenge you, and you’re starting to feel paranoid—why were you pulled from the most important project your team is working on? Then one day you receive a meeting request with your boss and someone from HR. Your heart starts racing. There’s a pit in your stomach.

Scenario 3: The emperor isn’t wearing any clothes

You’re at a highly admired start-up, working on an important project that has suddenly become the most important project to the young CEO. He assigns his Chief of Staff—who is also young, inexperienced, and was originally hired to be his Executive Assistant—to start sitting in on meetings for the project. You can tell that she is paranoid—trying to deliver for her boss but knowing that she is deeply in over her head. A project update meeting with the CEO does not go well. She begins thrashing out at the team. You, in particular, draw her ire. Her abusive behavior goes on for weeks as the project nears its deadline. A few people reach out to you quietly offering their support, but you know that she has a direct channel to the CEO—that he trusts her over all the other experts on the team. You know she is pinning the blame for any perceived failures or disappointments on you. You start having trouble sleeping at night.

I could go on. For every one of these scenarios there are at least 100 more I could share. And I must confess, I am ashamed of the times when I have pushed downstream the pressure that I was facing from people with more power than me. I am not proud of how I treated others during those times. I will come clean on some of the ways that I have participated in this abuse in a post dedicated solely to how white women uphold oppressive systems in their workplaces. It’s because I have experienced these pressures myself that I understand precisely how they work. 

And let’s also not forget all of the less stealthy, more blatant forms of discrimination many of us face in our workplaces that generate a fear and paranoia that we carry with us into every job. I have stories, and I plan to share them. I hope others will share their stories of blatant racism and sexism in the workplace. We need to share these stories because we need to know what we’re experiencing is not our fault, these are not isolated experiences. We need to see how they are part of a system of oppression that needs to be radically challenged right now.


Employment at will. 

black leather rolling chair beside orange wall photo
Photo by Florian Schmetz on Unsplash

The three words that remain in the background of our consciousness every day when we show up to work. We need to be grateful to have a job, grateful to have our employers pay for our health benefits so our spouse can continue to receive their life-saving medication, grateful for the 401k matching so someday we might be able to retire, grateful that we can afford a vacation or down payment on a house this year with our bonuses, grateful we can afford to live in a neighborhood with a great school district. And now, apparently, after the absolutely abhorrent decision by the US Supreme Court, we need to be grateful that our employer will pay our costs if we were born female and need specific medical procedures. 

It’s interesting that the same employer most likely also donated money to some of the very conservative politicians who supported this right being ripped from us in the first place. It’s also interesting how these employers get a nice PR boost out of our rights being taken from us while also gaining more incentives to dissuade childbearing people from starting their own businesses or working for smaller companies—real generators of self-empowerment and economic independence. Or how they make sure not to offer too much support, or the kind of support that might actually make a real difference in our lives, lest they upset the shareholders. Interesting, indeed, to see how these corporations are so willing to save us from an insufficient social contract, but only as long as we are their employees.

If we speak up, then what could happen to all of these things? To us, to our families? Is it worth it, or should we just ignore yet another abuse and just press on to our next meeting, then spend our evenings and weekends frantically applying for new jobs, all the while knowing deep down that the next job will most likely be no different in the end. 

We begin to develop a sort of corporate Stockholm Syndrome, where we look at our employers as some sort of benevolent protectors, bestowing upon us comfort, safety and protection. The same protections that should be part of public policy, enshrined by our institutions, but after decades of corporate-funded lobbying have been stripped away from us, only to be given back to us by those same corporations as long as we remain employed by them. 

If these jobs treat us so well, then why are so many people desperately trying to find a way out? 

  • All the people trying to start their own businesses and become self-employed because they want to “be their own boss.”
  • Retail investors hoping that if they learn enough about the stock market, they, too, can become a Gamestop millionaire and never have to take a job they don’t want again.
  • Young, white real estate prospectors buying up housing to turn into vacation rentals so they don’t have to go back to their corporate jobs.
  • Folks trying to find ways to retire early by moving to countries with lower costs of living. 

If these jobs are so effing wonderful, then why do we hold such admiration for those who found a way to hack their way out of it?

Me: I won't let work get the best of me *3 minutes later* Me: I thought about quitting 15 times already


Turning toward my own fear

“White supremacy culture’s number one strategy is to make us afraid. When we are afraid, we lose touch with our power and become more easily manipulated by the promise of an illusory safety.” ​​—Tema Okun

Imagine, if you will, that you are me: A middle-aged, single, white woman from the lower middle class, primarily raised by a single mother who herself was raised in poverty in an abusive household; A graduate of one of the worst performing public school districts in the entire state of Ohio; A military veteran whose primary motivation for joining the National Guard was to find a way to pay for college. 

I managed to get my degree. I am really good at what I do. I have had lucrative jobs working for or with massive corporations as a creative director. After almost 20 years of experience, I have finally come to recognize how abusive, how racist, how sexist and classist most of these nice-seeming, polite-seeming, polished-seeming work environments truly are:

  • How abusive cultures and practices flourish and are woven into the fabric of these workplaces. 
  • How those practices are informed by a white male social hierarchy. 
  • How traumatizing they are for a majority of people working for them. 
  • How much gaslighting occurs as a result. 
  • How we all suffer as a result—regardless of race or gender, but it’s particularly challenging for BIPOC, LGBTQIA+, and women to survive, let alone succeed, in these environments. 

A few years ago I started experiencing health problems that I believe are related to the stress of trying to survive these work environments. While I don’t own property and have very little accumulated wealth in the form of savings, nor do I come from a wealthy family who can easily rescue me if I get into a precarious financial situation, I’m now taking a chance and living off of that resource to try to recover—not only my health but my humanity, courage and hope for a better society. To investigate the fear that kept me stuck and silent for so long in those toxic workplaces. It’s the same fear that has stopped me many times over the past few months from starting this blog. The fear that if I speak out, if I’m honest and share my lived experiences and the experiences of others, then the system might turn against me. That I might not be able to get work again, to earn money so I can continue to feed and house myself. That’s my fear, and it’s real. 

If you are in a place of better financial security than me and are afraid to openly call out the injustices, abusive behaviors, practices or systems that you’ve witnessed or experienced in the workplace because it is “inappropriate,” which is actually code for “it will cause people with more power and influence than me to feel uncomfortable, therefore jeopardizing my livelihood and security,” then maybe you can understand why the stakes feel so high for me. (Or perhaps you have become so accustomed to the punishing nature of workplace culture that you don’t even recognize it as abuse.)


I have finally come to see that fear for what it is and where it comes from. To learn to make moves toward truth and honesty despite the fear I carry with me, or at least learn to see it, understand it, experience it, and while it still slows me down, ultimately I will not let it stop me. 

Our economic system was built on the kidnapping and enslaving of human beings for profit, so is it really a surprise that we have a huge problem with abusive workplaces? Slavery hasn’t really gone away, it’s just changed forms—from the prison-industrial complex to our reliance on goods made cheaply in other countries with little to no labor laws, our horrific, inhumane exploitation of Black and Brown humans for economic gain has not fundamentally evolved. 

While the jobs I’m primarily talking about do not reach this level of brutality, the same power hierarchy exists. A hierarchy that is so psychologically destructive, that teaches us to internalize the abuse we are suffering with such skill that we turn against our own selves. That our bodies begin to break on their own in the form of premature health problems like chronic digestive diseases, early strokes and heart attacks, and mental health problems so debilitating that only medication can help us continue to function. All the while we are conditioned to be grateful that we have such high salaries, nice health benefits, and, the thing we don’t say—to be grateful that even though these jobs feel so unbearable, at least we are not the ones at the very bottom of the system. 

“Workers’ rights and civil rights are all tied together. We’ve never had one without the other.” —Eric Bunn. Sr.

The real problem though, is that underneath all of these nice benefits, we are fundamentally just as vulnerable to the brutality of the system. We have no labor protections. One false move and we could be out. 

We want to work, but we also want dignity. We want a base level of security and protection that we can show up and do the jobs we were hired to do without being psychologically terrorized. We want to be able to speak honestly about our experiences at the workplace and call out problems without fear of retribution. We want helpful feedback on how we can improve at our jobs without being punished for not being socialized in a specific (white, male, straight, CIS, upper-class) way. If someone is abusive we want to know that the matter will be handled respectfully, professionally and fairly. But most of all, we want a basic set of worker’s rights and a social safety net that protects us regardless of what these employers decide they want to give to us. The low wage workers have already started fighting to take back their rights and protections at Starbucks, Amazon warehouses, Chipotle, and Apple retail stores—through unionization. Maybe white collar workers should start looking at what working class workers are doing and take note.

I plan to explore in more detail in a later post the different ways that we can begin to take our power back, and unionization is at the top of that list, but for my next post, I’m going to continue to investigate my own fear, exploring how it shows up in my work relationships and starting to seek out the origins of my fear.

I’m curious—What stops you from speaking out at work? What are your biggest fears? What are you most afraid to lose?

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