Stop calling black women ‘intimidating’
The “intimidation” incident that made me quit my last job
It is exhausting to be considered “intimidating” from the minute you walk in a room. That “angry black woman” stereotype follows sistas wherever we go. But one boss made me finally just wave a middle finger at the racism of it all and stop trying to appease everyone.
Why I quit my last corporate job
When I walked into my boss’ office for my annual employee evaluation, I already knew what was coming. We’d butted heads over deadlines and her habit of procrastination. (She regularly dawdled around, waiting until printer deadlines to edit content regardless of what was going on in my personal life. She once texted me during the three-day bereavement period of my grandfather’s death, simply because she couldn’t find an old magazine article. When I mentioned it a couple of weeks after the funeral, her response was, “We’re all on-call no matter what. My boss calls me from home too.”)
I know my flaws. None of them are as cutthroat as calling someone about magazine articles less than 24 hours after a family member has died in front of her.
I know my flaws. None of them are as cutthroat as calling someone about magazine articles less than 24 hours after a family member has died in front of her. But I am not perfect. I can be pretty antisocial with co-workers I do not enjoy the company of. I sometimes struggle to transition from writing in a news tone to a feature story tone. And I tend to have a work at work, play at home motto. I was prepared for all of this to be on my evaluation.
But I was not prepared for the last critique. At the end of my evaluation, she told me that I “intimidated” a co-worker. She told me this person felt like she had to “walk on eggshells around you like I do.” This wasn’t the first time I’d heard her “walk on eggshells” comment. She used this idiom whenever my eyes would show my annoyance with her habits of procrastination. However, her eyes spoke of a different story: “the look.” Three other women of color had previously asked me about “the look” she’d given them. It was the same look I got during the job interview but ignored.
Nevertheless, I was quite uncomfortable to find out that someone on our team feared me. First, it’s never happened before and I’d worked at a plethora of places for two decades. Second, almost every work reference I have are white women bosses who I have nothing but fond things to say about. Third, why me? I’m 5'3. I enjoy weight training classes and can easily jog at 6.0 on a treadmill. Still nothing about me says “fear me.”
As a 30-something white woman who grew up in Minneapolis, I did not think she understood the weight of telling a black woman she was “scary” and “intimidating” someone. She wouldn’t tell me who said it nor would she tell me the incident in question. She just told me to keep it in the back of my mind so I was “nicer to people on the team.”
That backfired completely.
As a 30-something white woman who grew up in Minneapolis, I did not think she understood the weight of telling a black woman she was “scary” and “intimidating.”
From appeasing to intimidation: What I learned from other bosses
Office gossip happens. But the kind of office gossip that reaches your boss and ends up on a permanent evaluation is much more serious. All that evaluation did was make me even less likely to speak to people on my team, unless I already considered them friends. Even then, I went directly to the people I viewed as friends and told them this story.
After they finished laughing hysterically, they told me that they were not the ones who told my boss this. The collective advice I got from the few I considered friends was this:
“If she’s not going to tell you who said it, don’t worry about it. It’s the equivalent of high-school gossip.”
I tried to listen to this bit of advice, but it only made me more paranoid about who was going to my boss about my “intimidating” demeanor. I’d learned early on that in order to avoid office clashes, it was easier to zone out and do your work quietly. Don’t like a co-worker? Mind your business. Answer his/her question and otherwise be silent.
I also recalled advice from previous bosses (who I still keep in contact with, use as references and send the occasional birthday wish too):
“If you keep arguing and wrestling with pigs, you’re bound to get dirty.”
“There are going to be moments when you just have to learn to appease people.”
“Don’t freak out when someone corrects you. Just try to find the value in the feedback.”
True. True. And true. But what was I supposed to do with feedback when I didn’t know the source of it? How could I make this right if I didn’t know who to talk to?
And then I found out who said it.
The train incident that lead to my evaluation
There was a fellow (white, female, about to turn 22) from a well-known university in Evanston, the same university that my boss graduated from. I thought she was delightful. We talked about everything from family to relationships to writing career goals. I’d invited her to hang out with me at Toastmasters and to our lobby gym and out for a birthday celebration for a work friend. In my mind, we were cool. She was intelligent, funny and enjoyable to work with.
But I happened to get on a Purple Line train one day, and I noticed her get on after me. I smiled, thinking I was going to have a buddy to ride the train with on our way home. She took one look at me and darted in the other direction to stand in between the doors. I was perplexed. At work, we were pretty chummy. We’d never had even a slight disagreement. As the train emptied out and several seats were available by me, she looked back quickly, saw me still sitting there and chose to sit in the crowded middle area. I was still confused.
But I made the decision from that moment that I would just leave her alone from here on out. So when we got back to work the next day, I responded to her during work hours the same way she did on the train. I didn’t say squat. I didn’t roll my eyes or scowl or start any childish gossip. I just left her alone.
Eventually we spoke again. I believe it was several weeks later. I’m not sure who started talking to who, but I was still unsure of why I got such shady treatment on the train when we had no beef. By the time she finished her fellowship, we hugged three times, gave each other “thank you” cards and I told her to use me as a reference any time.
Never did it occur to me that she was the person who went to my boss saying I was “intimidating” or “scary” or felt like she must “walk on eggshells” around me.
The second evaluation: The “be professional” conversation
During my second evaluation a few months later, my boss decided since the fellow left that she’d tell me who it was. And I felt like someone slapped me in the face once I found out. Because if I had to bet my entire year’s salary on who in our group made these comments, I would’ve never guessed that it was the fellow on the train.
And it was all due to a misunderstanding. The fellow wanted to learn more about editing before she completed her project. My boss gave her a cover story I was working on and asked her to edit it. The fellow was uncomfortable with this, stating my experience level and feeling like it would be offensive to have “a college student with less experience” edit my piece. (Side note: I like constructive advice from anybody. I’ve learned from Ph.D. graduates as much as I have the high school grad who doesn’t read much.)
She edited the story. My boss showed me her edits. My boss and I discussed and kept some edits. And I went about my life. But apparently the same time frame in which that fellow was uncomfortable with editing my story was also the same time in which she dodged me on the train. I stopped talking to her because of the silent treatment on the train. And she avoided me because her own paranoia and insecurities lead her to believe that I was insulted by her editing my cover story.
When I left work one day and ignored her saying “goodbye” to me, I found out that she sat at her desk. Another co-worker saw her crying and told my boss, not clear on why the fellow was crying. She ended up in my boss’ office crying her eyes out about that cover story. And I was none the wiser because for me it was all about the Purple Line.
Why I turned in my two-weeks notice
Black women are often labeled as intimidating, bossy, scary and confrontational. You can look no further than a Twitter debate about Senator Kamala Harris debating with former Vice President Kamala Harris.
A black woman just simply reacting to something she disagrees with can too often be labeled as “angry.” And it’s exhausting. The incident with the fellow could’ve easily been resolved by sitting both of us in the room to hash it out. I could’ve mentioned the train. She could’ve mentioned the cover story. But the underlying problem was neither of us; it was my boss. It was the same boss who labeled me as “unprofessional” for not talking to a “21-year-old student from [insert their alma mater]. You’re 36. You should’ve talked to her!”
My response: “I had no idea that 36-year-old black women who didn’t attend [insert university here] didn’t have a right to have feelings.”
Her response: “You have to be more professional on this team.”
And I’d finally had enough. I called her on her own behavior: “So it’s OK to bite your bottom lip when the new HR guy walks by and talk about how he has such a cute ass?”
And I’d finally had enough. I called her on her own behavior: “So it’s OK to bite your bottom lip when the new HR guy walks by and talk about how he has such a cute ass? It’s OK to introduce yourself to a new member of our team by purring and showing shirtless photographs of Idris Elba on the projector? It’s OK to go to client meetings and start off by telling everyone in the room that you’re having a ‘shitty day’? It’s OK to tell one of your employees ‘fuck you’ because she has the day off when you don’t? But me choosing not to talk to a fellow who gave me the silent treatment on the train is where professionalism ends?!”
Her response? She simply said, “I don’t remember doing those other things.” Trust me, she does. But regardless of her own questionable behavior, my issue was none of the above. I quietly observed all of the above antics and never called her on any of them until that very moment during the second evaluation.
My issue was that I let a woman make me so uncomfortable for at least two months around every single member of my team.
My issue was that I let a woman make me so uncomfortable for at least two months around every single member of my team. I was so concerned about being labeled intimidating again that I started to become a shell of myself, avoiding anything but polite smiles and surface conversations. On the way home after this discussion, I sat on a two-seater of that same Purple Line train, put my sunglasses on and let the tears fall behind those lenses.
I turned in my two-weeks notice the same day as the “professional” confrontation, even after I got a raise.
In more than a year of working there, I wrote about mental health and mindfulness. I wrote about racism, white privilege and entitlement a lot during that job. And I wrote about self-worth even more. While I was doing all of the research and interviews for these blogs and magazines, I forgot to listen to my interviewees’ advice.
I turned in my two-weeks notice the same day as the “professional” confrontation, even after I got a raise. During my exit interview, I told HR exactly why I was leaving because I hope she does not behave this way with another POC. I have zero desire to ever speak to that boss nor the fellow. But what I did learn from the entire experience is this. Never let someone else’s opinion of you change you as a person. Their own racist views are theirs; you don’t have to internalize them. No annual bonus or salary is worth that price.