Why the struggle for respect in the workplace is personal

People always want to know why I am so passionate about changing workplace culture so everyone feels seen, heard, and understood.

Up until recently I believed my passion for respect in the workplace was inspired by my mentees, young adults of color launching corporate careers in tech, and the painful encounters they experienced at work.

Between hearing this story way too many times and the non-indictment of Darren Wilson, the Ferguson police officer who killed Mike Brown, in 2014 I decided to shift focus from preparing young adults for corporate careers in tech to ending racism.

Listening to so many brave women come forward recently about painful encounters working in Silicon Valley, I have experienced a wide range of emotions, from awe for their bravery to sickness in my stomach.

And I have had a very important personal revelation- the reason I am in this struggle is not only because of my mentees.

It’s also because of the workplace pain I witnessed my mother experience and that I myself have experienced at the hands of white women.

Growing up my mom had to be the breadwinner.

She was not hired for a position she was highly qualified for because of age discrimination.

She had to settle for a much less paying position at a lower status to keep food on our table.

I saw how discrimination humiliated her and ate at her self esteem.

I learned that how we are treated and compensated at work has a major impact on both our own wellbeing and on our families.

Along my journey I have experienced trauma myself, from sexual assault, to a very frightening encounter with police, to abusive relationships.

I developed resiliency and emerged from these experiences scarred but fundamentally ok.

What I wasn’t prepared for?

The way some white women try to advance in the workplace by harming people they perceive as competition.

On more than one occasion in my career, a white woman who was senior to me but not my immediate supervisor and who I regarded as a mentor, role model, and confidant harmed me at work, undermining me in a very cruel and demeaning way.

I believe these white women harmed me because they were threatened by my leadership.

These experiences crushed me.

So much for the feminist solidarity I felt at my all women’s college.

Feelings I had from all the other trauma were triggered.

I went from being a deeply engaged, very confident and enthusiastic team member to dreading coming to work.

Eventually I quit and became my own boss.

I spent two years in therapy trying to get my joy back, and after a lot of work, I did.

What I came to learn is this:

Harmed people harm people.
Free people free people. -Sarah Jones

And I have strived ever since to live this maxim by practicing freedom and uplifting others.

Where I hope we go from here

In 1980, Audre Lorde spoke about how our main obstacle is that “we have no patterns for relating across our human differences as equals.”

Until we heal ourselves of the trauma we have experienced, we internalize and replicate the harm oppressors have done to us and in turn harm others in an endless cycle.

As Paulo Freire shows so well in The Pedagogy of the Oppressed, the true focus of revolutionary change is never merely the oppressive situations which we seek to escape, but that piece of the oppressor which is planted deep within each of us, and which knows only the oppressors’ tactics, the oppressors’ relationships.-Audre Lorde

I hope that this month marks rock bottom.

And we don’t fall into the trap of thinking time will heal this problem.

The comments on my post “How to Handle Workplace Microaggressions” indicate how much work we have to do.

Only hard work- on ourselves, on our relationships, and our companies’ culture- will heal this problem.

The magnitude of the problem demands we build a new model.

And that we start by healing ourselves.

After we awaken and transform ourselves, we need to kindly, gently, and respectfully teach each other how to relate across our human differences as equals.

Ready to get started?

The cofounders of Awaken, Beatrice Kim and Michelle Kim, and Kimi Mojica and I are cofacilitating a series of Inclusive Workshops at General Assembly next month, I hope you will join us.

If you are a white male executive wondering how to transform your company, here are some thoughts about how to begin.

In a nutshell, “if you are interested in changing the culture of your organization, your first step should be to look in the mirror and make sure you are setting the kind of behavioral example you want everyone else to follow.” -Jim Whitehurst, President of RedHat

If you need help in that area, I can coach you.

Thank you for taking time to read my thoughts and I welcome your constructive reflections.

Karen Fleshman is the founder of Racy Conversations.

Her mission is to build and support a community of people committed to love, learning, accountability, and action on race in America.

She speaks and cofacilitates workshops on race nationwide and online and contributes to Huffington Post.

Karen is a cofounder of San Franciscans for Police Accountability and serves on the workgroup overseeing US Department of Justice recommendations on ending bias at SFPD.

www.karenfleshman.com @fleshmankaren

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