How Our Workplaces Generate a Culture of Fear: Part 2

This is my second post on how our workplaces are designed to uphold white supremacy using fear as a tool to create silence in the face of abusive cultures, systems, and practices. In part one I explore some of the ways fear shows up in the workplace using a few relatable scenarios, and I begin to unpack my own fear. If you’re new to my blog and are totally lost, you can find my first post here.   

In light of the recent US Supreme Fascists Court decision overturning Roe, I really just *can’t wait* to start talking about white ladies and our role in upholding the system! But right now I have a lot to say about how fear is used to control us—but don’t worry! It’s allllllllll connected.

Rachel Dolezal saying "I definitely am not white."


How white supremacy fear impacts how I show up at work

I recently participated in a 4 month anti-racism cohort for white people. During one of our sessions we were led through an exercise to practice how we would respond if we were the boss of a Black employee who was confiding in us about the racist treatment she received within the organization. Our model for this exercise was a role-playing demonstration between Aiko Bethea and Brené Brown, where Bethea is playing the part of a Black employee telling her white boss (Brown) about how she was ignored by her white colleagues while delivering a presentation that she had spent months on. 

Black employee in a meeting with a white manager
Photo by LinkedIn Sales Solutions on Unsplash
“The main problem nowadays is not the folks with the hoods, but the folks dressed in suits” —Eduardo Bonilla-Silva

While listening to their role playing I began to feel anxious. I was having a panic reaction at the thought of this exercise. I typed in the chat that I didn’t feel empowered to help in this situation because I too had faced situations similar to Bethea’s character, but never received the kind of support from my white male bosses that Bethea received from Brown. In fact, I was often made to feel that I was the problem. That the situation wasn’t that bad, that I was blowing it out of proportion, or I was simply told just to let it go—that I needed to learn to “choose my battles.” 

One by one nearly all of the female-identified or queer members of this cohort began to respond that they felt similarly, that they too had not received adequate support confronting discriminatory workplace behaviors. The facilitators asked me to speak more about what I was feeling to help me process what I was experiencing. A flurry of pain, fear, self-doubt, and anger that I have been carrying around with me was unleashed. Through that pain I slowly discovered what has been holding me back from being a true ally—I, too, felt powerless. 

I suddenly recognized that, as a woman, I am holding onto a crushing fear that I won’t be supported or believed—a fear that has been validated many times. If no one has my back, then how am I ever supposed to help other marginalized groups? I realized that I don’t trust this system, but even worse—I have learned not to trust my own lived experience. 

It was a completely disorienting experience, but as time has passed and I have sat with this idea—that I have believed the gaslighting I received in these workplaces that made me feel as though I was the problem—I’ve begun to better understand how these systems operate, how they maintain power.

“I am no longer considering the comfort of white people at the expense of the critical mission of justice. I’m committing to being more courageous in speaking the unflinching truth about my own lived experiences, risking all of the consequences that may come, in an effort to feed the revolution.” —Jenae Holloway

There have been plenty of times that I have tried to speak up for myself and others, calling out inherent problems in the workplace that were either blatant discrimination or behaviors that were the result of an unchecked toxic work environment. Each time I was told to “choose my battles,” that I was “too angry,” and couldn’t I just “be more positive” or come to the table with a solution to my problems? Once, after discovering the massive extent of gender-based pay discrimination at a sports company I was working for and trying to unite all the (mostly white) women to do something to address it, I was even shunned by several of the women who were most impacted.  

In a more recent incident, an old, white male executive chose to take a more junior white male with him to an important client presentation instead of me—a director, and the person who had led the project—telling me that he thought the client would respond better to a man. While I absolutely called out the discrimination on the spot, my colleagues sat by speechless, but later, one by one, came to me quietly, outside of the ears and eyes of the executive, with words of support. 

This is how it works in “nice white environments.” Politeness and discretion is expected in response to blatant discrimination by a person with more power within the organization. Me being openly angry at having been so blatantly discriminated against was more out of line than him discriminating against me.

“We knew [my black friend] couldn’t really unleash all of the disappointment, exhaustion, and outrage she was feeling [about the murder of George Floyd] on her coworkers—not without fearing professional repercussions once the outrage had died down. My friend wrote out her thoughts in bullet-point notes in advance, taking great care to soften her language by turning words like fury into frustration and including a message of hope that betrayed her true sense of despair. She did what many Black employees feel forced to do: make their experience palatable for a fragile white audience.” —Jenae Holloway

The executive received a slap on the wrist from HR, and nothing more. Months later several women in the organization filed complaints about him for sexual harassment, which was ultimately what led to his removal from the company. I noticed recently on LinkedIn that he is now an executive at another agency. I doubt he has faced any serious consequences as a result of his behavior, meanwhile I have more psychological scars from constantly having to prove myself, to battle my way through organizations that refuse to fix systems that allow discrimination to fester unchecked, and whose ways of operating leave us all powerless to speak up to address real problems. 

I’m beginning to understand that the rules that dominate our work culture, broadly referred to as “professionalism,” are actually tools of oppression designed by white men of the upper class in order to shield them from the discomfort of being made aware of the suffering the rest of us endure under this economic system. Of course they don’t want us to discuss human rights or our own oppression at work, often labeled as “politics”—the inconvenient bi-product of capitalism. That might lead to us questioning our employer’s practices, both in the workplace and in the world, and might even lead to a calling out of some (or many) of the people leading the company. It might lead to us questioning the entire system, which definitely isn’t good for productivity—shareholders agree.

It makes me wonder when, exactly, it became “unprofessional” to discuss politics in the workplace. I would venture to guess that it was right around the time women and BIPOC began entering the white collar workforce.

“Western business professionalism is rooted in white supremacy. The practice of professionalism is shaped to advance the careers of white, straight, married men.” —Shahamat Uddin
Modern white male office worker in a meeting
Photo by Headway on Unsplash

I listen to the stories of my friends and colleagues about how fucked up all of these workplaces are. We complain, console each other, and maybe even laugh, but how absurd is it to consider that this is what we consider normal, acceptable? One former colleague, a BIPOC man who I’ve always thought of as being better than me at navigating corporate structures, recently described the prestigious tech company he works for—a company that has consistently won awards for being a “best place to work”— as being the “least awful place” he’s ever worked. He wouldn’t describe it as good, because he said they’re all awful, but this one was the least awful, in his opinion. The least awful workplace. Is that really the best we can hope for?

I am also starting to see how I don’t want to believe that my experiences and the experiences of those around me are systemic. Part of me wants to ignore it all, not say anything and move on, to get better at bending myself into a pretzel so I can be more “acceptable” and “appropriate” for these workplaces. To work on being easier to get along with so that maybe someday I can just be a teflon pan, and all the abusiveness and discrimination will just slide right off of me. 

A recent former coworker laughingly told me once about how she nearly had a mental breakdown partially as a result of the excessive amount of pressure she faced at work and how anti-anxiety meds are the key to keeping her sane enough to remain employed. LOL? What’s more sad is that it crossed my mind that maybe anti-anxiety meds could help me survive these psychologically abusive environments long enough to finally buy a house.

Part of me just wants to go to another workplace and talk about how that last job just “wasn’t the right fit”. To brush it under the rug so that I can continue to feed myself and have a roof over my head. I continue to want to believe in the system for my own survival. But continuing to allow fear to silence me doesn’t just affect me—it affects how I show up at the workplace, because if I’m too afraid to stand up for myself, then how am I ever going to have the courage to stand up for someone else or to challenge broken systems? And it’s recently occurred to me how not speaking up means that others will continue to face the same abuse. That the system will remain. 

“White supremacy is defined as a system designed to set whiteness as the default for societal norms. This means in white-led and white-dominant organizations, whiteness is the standard for office behavior, workplace values, and the criteria used to discern merit. Because all desirable qualities and skillsets are expected of whiteness, and all pejorative qualities and skillsets are expected of “non-whiteness,” people of color entering into this space inherently exist in tension with the culture.” —Caroline Taiwo 

The breakthrough I experienced in the anti-racism cohort revealed to me that my real work, as a white woman, is to start addressing all the trauma that I carry with me from this white supremacist system. The fear and pressure that I have pushed downstream onto the people who report to me because I didn’t know how to stand up against it myself. Because I bought into the idea that the system would reward me if I just took the punishment and didn’t complain. Because I took the carrot it offered me.










Investigating the roots of my own white supremacy fear

The fear has been with me as long as I can recall. It’s so entrenched in my existence that it has taken a lot of time and work to understand that it’s not me, it’s actually separate from me—something I carry with me. It’s the same fear passed down to me through my ancestors: generations of poor, lower, and middle-class white colonists and their descendants conditioned to uphold an economic system founded on brutality, primarily wielded against Black and Brown people, that mainly benefits the rich and powerful, who are overwhelmingly white. 

My ancestors and I were told that if we support and uphold this system—or at the very least do nothing to end it—then we might be spared from the most brutal aspects of it. That we might even be able to improve our own situations, to move up the ladder of white accumulation of wealth and benefit from this barbaric system. All we have to do is never really challenge a system that causes great suffering to others, and, as I’m discovering, ourselves as well.

This is the carrot that is dangled in front of me—that was dangled in front of my ancestors—that is offered to all people in the middle and bottom of this system who are willing to go along, to look the other way, and do nothing that might put a wrench in the system. People like me who have, or whose ancestors had, experienced some of the worst brutalities of this system. The memory of our own suffering, or the suffering encoded deep within our DNA, serves as a constant reminder of how bad it could get if we don’t go along with the system—if we dare to stand up or speak out against what we are seeing or experiencing or stand with others who do.

It’s a particularly potent carrot for white women, who have been conditioned through millennia that if we don’t challenge the white male power structure then white men might be willing to share with us some of their wealth and power, but only to an extent. We should play nice, never challenge things too much, and be grateful for whatever scraps they are willing to throw our way. No matter how high up we get in the ladder, we still know there is a man above us, and if we do anything to upset him we might lose whatever he has so graciously bestowed upon us. This topic warrants its own post, so stay tuned.

Fear isn’t just a random feeling we experience from time to time—it’s intentionally baked into the structure of our socioeconomic system, our workplaces. The system is designed to make us all feel afraid and powerless, threatening us with a threadbare social safety net and very little job protection, rising housing and education costs, so that we are very aware of how far we can fall if the system decides to drop us. We can get a high salary job with great benefits at a prestigious tech company whose CEO frequently speaks out about his dedication to creating a fair, safe, and equal workplace, but at the end of the day, what happens if you have an abusive boss who is highly connected to and supported by people higher up in the organization? What will happen to you if you try to challenge her by standing up for yourself? You could lose that job. You could be subject to receiving paltry unemployment benefits that won’t even cover your astronomical rent or mortgage. You will lose your health coverage. And the biggest fear of all—what if this marks me for the rest of my career? What if I get shut out of the system entirely, labeled as a troublemaker, someone who is “difficult?” How will I ever be able to work again?

What’s been most curious to me in my investigation of this fear, is how those with the least security and power in the system seem to be the bravest, least fearful of calling out this system, while those with more privilege and resources remain silent.

“What’s become clear is that racial progress and white comfort cannot exist in tandem. Recent stories by former employees of companies like Refinery29, Reformation, and Condé Nast’s Bon Appétit highlight the extent to which Black women feel silenced in majority-white workplaces, all too aware of the precariousness of their positions if they were to be labeled difficult.”—Jenae Holloway

After repeatedly seeing primarily (only) Black women bravely speak out publicly using their own words, with their full feelings, on LinkedIn and other places about the devastating abuses they have faced in the world and in the workplace, and learning more about civil rights leaders throughout the history of this nation I started to see a pattern. Why is it always Black women—the people facing the most abuse within the system—standing up, speaking out, and taking action while I and so many of my white friends and colleagues with way more privilege and safety within this system remain silent? Why don’t so many white women I know who have faced massive sexual discrimination talk publicly about their own experiences? Why haven’t I? It’s partially that carrot dangling. That carrot that I’m assuming many Black women can more easily see for what it is—a tool in a system of oppression used to keep people from rising up and supporting each other. But it’s also something else. Something steeped in white culture that I will be covering in my next post: There is no “comfortable” or “safe” way to challenge a system of oppression.

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