Reporting on the Racism at Work

I spent a few hours with a reporter yesterday and I hadn’t planned on spending that much time but that’s just the way it worked out. We had been meaning to get together to discuss several things for stories she’s working on, both personal and professional, though the lines on that blurred because of the things that interest her personally and manage to cross over into the professional.

For many years, as I’ve written online extensively, a common thread was writing about my own experiences with racism at work. None of it is spectacular or surprising except that what I’ve witnessed is neither spectacular nor surprising. It’s standard by any measure if you know how to take the temperature of a person on the receiving end of the micro- and macroaggressions that come with being in a minority where you work.

“I have too many examples,” I said at one point while we talked prior to turning on the tape recorder.

She stumped me, though, and it stayed with me for the rest of the day. I should mention here that I don’t think I did my job perfectly whatever that definition may be. Like many people I felt inadequate while dealing with students. There’s no rule book that tells you that you’re doing it right 100% of the time. That’s impossible. A lot of the job has to do with those gut-checks where you hope you’re doing or saying the right thing to a parent asking you for advice or a student who is seeking counsel on how to handle their complicated relationships with friends. Working with teens meant that I was dealing with an as-yet-undeveloped brain and that’s not a put down. It’s fact.

“I have too many examples of my own failures,” I thought. I didn’t give voice to that, though.

She stumped me and she warned me that she would. Well, not in those words, but in saying that she was going to ask me hard questions. That’s what a good reporter does among many other things. But they ask you to reflect, find the errors without being told they’re errors, and they help you work through the narrative without telling it for you.

I have a lot of respect for good reporters and excellent reporting. Why wouldn’t I when I’ve spent the better part of the last decade reminding myself and anyone who would listen to watch the narrative?

She asked me, after leaving a district I started working for in 1994, what they would say bad about me. She wondered what terrible things they could report about me as an educator and whether or not I had rebuttals to them. When she puts together the sound bites for the story I’m sure she’ll cut my dead air at that part but I spent a great deal of time in thinking mode.

My thinking mode is to look up or bite my lip or inhale deeply. It’s to pause and stare off into space where I’m most comfortable. It’s the part of me that is an ambivert who enjoys being “on” camera or “on” stage but who needs the quiet time to reflect.

During the interview she asked me that question twice in different stories we discussed and I mentioned it to my husband and children when they asked about my day.

“She wanted to know what terrible things my former bosses would come back with about me,” I said to my husband. “I must have sounded so arrogant because I couldn’t come up with one. I have no idea what they’d say.”

He reminded me of some of the times I’d come home from the job incredulous that someone at work would engage in institutional gaslighting or outright racism. The times when my secretary told me my hair was “more professional” when it was straightened and aligned with white ideals. The time when I mentioned to a publication that we don’t honor or nominate our Black students for enough awards when they clearly made up for those numbers in the general population. The time when teachers were texting and called me a bitch for that very publication while they were in class and students witnessed it because it was on their computers that were connected to the monitor. That was on full display for kids. Most of the time it was covert or hidden in coded language.

There was the time when I took a teacher to task for giving me a list of parents she wanted to meet with for parent/teacher conferences and she made an “academic” list and a “behavior” list. When I mentioned that her “behavior” list was full of Black students that were mostly boys she balked. “There are some white kids on that list, too!”

Again. I have too many examples.

Reporters, the good investigative ones, have a way of picking a scab. That’s what happened yesterday and I bled all over the table we were sitting at and couldn’t stop the bleeding until this morning when, after my thinking mode, I realized why it’ll be hard for them to come up with anything.

None of my evaluations are bad. There are no letters in my file. I wasn’t disciplined for anything.

That’s how this works, this covert racism. It protects itself by working in cliques and behind closed, inaccessible doors. People will discuss what it is they can “do” with you and your big mouth that keeps on tattling on systemic racism and they want that response to be professional or legal and when they can’t come up with that you’ll be discussed in hushed tones and with visible eyerolls when you walk into a room and, if you really don’t get in line with status quo, job relocation.

I have too many examples.