When Black Squares Aren’t Enough: My experience working under a #BossBabe

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The Black Lives Matter movement is really shining a light on white virtue signalling, and those who have been silent for the majority of this fight until Blackout Tuesday: a day where they can post a “black square” to their meticulously planned Instagram feeds as a form of activism. Hundreds of black squares lined my timeline this morning; half-heartedly contributing to a battle white folks clearly feel they don’t need to fight, but this is the best way to be seen participating.

Many businesses and industries are posting “black squares” to signal, broadly, support for the #BlackLivesMatter movement (the efficacy of this kind of online “activism” has already been debunked; that is beside the point). Prior to Blackout Tuesday, the protests and uprisings around the world began to intensify, prompting the same companies who capitalize upon Pride month to finally speak up. Flooding our Instagram feed with messages about donations, all likely crafted by their internal communications and public relations departments — an industry that I know from experience is predominantly white.

There is an undeniable lack of racial and ethnic diversity within the field of public relations. During my tenure with 4 different PR businesses, I was usually the sole Black woman in the room. Coworkers and colleagues often came to me for insights about the Black experience, how to “connect better” with people of colour from a PR standpoint, or which POC influencers we should involve in a campaign in order to diversify.

I hate to admit that it never really bothered me — until I started working at one particular local boutique PR company. I never pulled back the layers until I was faced with blatant racism that I couldn’t explain away. Admitting to yourself that your workplace and some colleagues are racist opens a can of worms I didn’t want to deal with. Now, I am reminded of the discrimination I faced in that office all over again, as the President of this company has decided to post a black square in solidarity with Black Lives Matter — a cause that I KNOW she has no support for. This article was spurred on when I saw that she had posted.

I share this story not out of spite, but to shed light on what I’ve come to learn is a universal experience amongst Black women in the marketing and Public Relations industry. To help you understand why it means nothing to me, as a Black woman, for you to post a black square and nothing more.

While working with the firm in question, I experienced racism on a daily basis, as did my colleagues that were also POC. For example, the Account Director of this company was flagrantly racist, and would often make xenophobic remarks about the way Asian people look, behave and speak, or spout microaggressive statements about the LGBT community. It was often an under-the-table remark or in passing, and while it was always inexcusable, it was that especially insidious sort of racism that was just subtle enough so that we could never really accuse her of outright racism. One day, a few days after a product shoot, the AD pulled my Asian colleague aside and asked if the day’s photographer was her cousin because they shared the same last name.

But…how do you challenge leadership when you’re a mere mid-level employee? Especially at a small firm, where leadership is HR, the judge, jury and executioner?

We began documenting every incident with the intention of sharing the list of offences with our President, who we assumed would back us up without hesitation. As weeks went on, our list grew, and grew, and grew.

Multiple employees tried to take these concerns to the President, and we were about to unveil our meticulously documented list. The Account Director was so deeply entrenched in her prejudices, it seemed impossible she could begin to reflect on her actions without intervention.

Instead of a listening ear, or intervention, we got nothing. She cut us off before any of us got a chance to even begin to present the list. We did not receive a follow-up, and were told to “shelf the conversation for another time.”

We fell into a cycle: the President would claim she’d speak with the AD, the AD would throw a fit and freeze us out for a week or two, and then, she’d return to her old ways. The AD would never offer a sincere apology or a recognition of our experiences. The President, we suspected, never really quite gave the AD the full story.

It got to a point where making complaints felt futile. Since it was a small company, there was no HR department to report to — our only options were the same President and AD that began cultivating such a toxic, racist environment. Do you see how the problem starts?

Instead of introducing any sort of anti-oppression training, or bringing in an impartial HR consultant, the President hired someone she’d had a decade-long working relationship to fix things, we were told. We held out hope where I now realize we shouldn’t have; they didn’t deserve the second chances, third chances, fourth chances….

Over time, the “HR” hire was revealed to be little more than a Presidential puppet. We were alone, and we always had been.

One day, the President called us into an agency-wide meeting to discuss the company as a whole. She began by apologizing, apparently sincerely, for the way she had acted in recent months; she noted specifically her absenteeism as a leader. Then things went sideways.

She started flipping through slides — dozens of slides — that revealed the true reason for this agency-wide meeting. She thoroughly, blatantly, was blaming us for the agency’s shortcomings. Without just coming out and saying it, the tenets of her “leadership” became clear: Stop complaining. Be grateful that you have a job here. And get over it.

She came up with an acronym: CAREs, standing for Compassion, Accountability, Respect, Empathy. I was stunned. One of my POC colleagues left the meeting crying.

I remember the day that I officially, markedly lost my patience — it happened when the Account Director called a former client a “slave driver”. The second time was after I updated a media list to include more visible minorities — she removed them, claiming they “didn’t have enough followers” (some influencers we used had less than 5k — the ones I chose had substantially more) and included the standard non-Black influencers.

We started looking for new jobs. The President continued to prioritize the AD’s performance at work over her blatant racism, despite our repeated requests for intervention. There was no way we could continue working for a boss who condoned racist behaviour under the guise of ‘wanting to keep a good employee.’

Here’s the thing: a good employee is not a good employee if they are a racist employee. It’s simple.

Our displeasure remained obvious, and the President began to escalate things. We were each invited to a one-on-one discussion with our three assigned “People Champions.” These “Champions” were higher-ups in the company that were touted as managers we could trust — we were meant to bring any agency concerns to them with assurances of confidentiality and no retaliation.

We suspected this was another apparatus created by the President to shield herself from having to deal directly with criticism. Adding more “steps” to the protocols involved in flagging racist behaviour made it slower and more difficult to follow through. I’m sure she knew that.

One day, the President called me in for a one-on-one. This was the time that she designated for me to “comfortably express my concerns.”

I did. I shared my frustrations, respectfully but candidly, with the President. The Account Director, I told her, is an overwhelmingly negative presence in the office, and for months had been perpetuating a blatantly racist environment. I cited specific comments and microaggressions to back my claims.

I was fired the next day.

Nothing personal, the President claimed — I was let go because of internal restructuring. But I was the only person let go. Another thing stood out to me: my other colleagues — non-Black, majority White — had said very similar things about the AD. We had compiled the list of her offences together; we were all witness to her behaviour. Despite this, she did not listen to anything we had to say, and we never got to the point where we could present the list to her. They were not let go.

I left with the feeling that I’d been fired because of my unwillingness to accept the status quo — which, I remind you, was blatant racism — in the office. My performance was good, the company was doing well; other employees that were the source of much disquiet, like the AD, were kept on. The only way I can reconcile those events is this: I was let go because I was outspoken. I came into my own during my time at the company, and that new voice made me too loud, too brave, and therefore, a problem.

The hypocritical, insidious white supremacy built into the very structure of that company was infuriating and heartbreaking. This was a small PR firm, built around dynamic projects and committed, innovative work. It was owned and operated by a woman that touted her #GirlBoss badge proudly. I wanted to support that kind of business in the world. But it did not want to support me. And that’s not good enough.

I leave you with this — a message to all White owners of small businesses, especially those in the Public Relations industry.

These white-owned #GirlPower #GirlBoss businesses cannot shield you from the real work that needs to be done to make the workplace anti-racist and equitable. Those Instagram friendly feminist slogans are not enough. You cannot simply post a black square — mindlessly, uncritically, insensitively, I might add — and then not practice what you preach. Otherwise, it’s all just performance. Not for me, for you and your other #GirlBoss friends.

I am so tired of companies with very few — if any — BIPOC on their rosters, companies that claim to be empowering and feminist but are full of women that look just like their white President and no one else. The activist sentiment means nothing when it spews from the mouths of people who refuse to stand up for the rights of Black people in the day-to-day, even when they are equipped with all of the means — and the moral obligation — to do so.

Don’t claim “solidarity” with Black people if you’ve never made an effort to improve the material circumstances of Black communities. Don’t post a black square if you’ve never defended the Black people who work for you, or if you’ve never considered hiring BIPOC to your team. Don’t hashtag #BlackLivesMatter if you have never defended or advocated for the BIPOC in your own community, let alone the Black community at large.

If you are reading this, and wondering if it’s about you, I’m sure you know it is. It’s time for you to get to work. Your unwillingness to confront racist behaviour in the workplace was damaging. Take what I have written here, hear the words spoken by other Black women, re-educate yourself, and do better in the future. Don’t contact me, don’t apologize. Just get to work.

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