Navigating a Toxic Work Culture as a Woman of Color: A Personal Testament

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“Hey, our online request form is down. Can you help resolve?” I asked. A critical function of our office is being able to process certain requests in a timely manner. In this situation, however, we were unable to receive requests because that part of the site was down. It hadn’t even been 24-hours before we started receiving frantic e-mails from students and alums who had tried to access the form but were met with this roadblock.

“Unfortunately our web person doesn’t start until later this month,” she responded. She was the head of her department, and the next person in line to deal with website issues, since the person who was in the position had left months prior. Her response, however, suggested something different.

There was no solution at the end of her e-mail. No alternative she was willing to offer up. She seemed okay not providing any additional aid or guidance for finding a resolution to an issue that affected 40% of our office’s workload. “To hell with them,” I envisioned her saying as she typed her one-sentence e-mail declining my ask for assistance.

Her department managed all communications for the institution, so if a website was down, a social media post was offensive, or a publication was printed with errors, it was her responsibility. However this time, she evaded it. There were resources she could’ve utilized to resolve the issue — resources that, had it been my responsibility, I would have utilized to help someone in this situation. But she did nothing. Like many of my co-workers tasked with helping others resolve issues, she turned up her nose. And I had grown tired of fixing other people’s issues long ago. It may have been my department’s problem, but her department had the tools, resources, and compensation to fix it, so I relied on them to do so.

For context, she’s a white woman.

The same white woman who reported my colleague for not overextending themselves to her, regarding a matter they had nothing to do with. A white woman who constantly expected people to bend over backwards and provide her assistance, but wouldn’t extend the same courtesy to others — even when it related directly to her department’s work.

This wouldn’t have bothered me so much if the women of color weren’t constantly scolded for not being helpful. If we weren’t constantly reprimanded for not extending ourselves past our capacity to serve others at the expense of our own work. I wouldn’t have been so irate if we (the staff of color) were extended the same courtesy for setting boundaries and saying ‘no’ as our white counterparts have.

Though annoying, this isn’t unique to my institution, or to this woman. Through various work experiences I’ve witnessed leadership not know a thing about the work their overworked staff does to ensure the office runs smoothly. I’ve seen the way these leaders — most of them white — operate in an unwillingness to learn more about the work of their staff, with fear that it would then make them accountable for doing such work in the absence of said staff. I’ve seen staff and leaders — still, mostly white — set boundaries for what they will not do, ignoring that these boundaries being set relate directly to their job responsibilities. I’ve watched mediocre white folk get promoted to positions they have no experience in, because they played nice with higher ups — not because they did the work, but because they made friends and watched dogs (literally). I’ve watched white privilege put unqualified white staff in leadership positions and keep them there despite unmet goals and undelivered promises.

This privilege doesn’t afford us the same opportunity, though. No matter our title or experience.

In fact, the more experienced we are, as high-performing women of color, the less we’re allowed to set those boundaries. We’re expected to carry larger loads with no compensation, no recognition, and no respect. We’re expected to be excited to inherit tasks that aren’t ours — for the sake of ‘experience’ — while those around us reject (or challenge) the duties of the jobs they were hired for. We’re expected to do the work, but not opine on what doing the work actually looks like or suggest how the work can be improved. And while this may not be everyone’s story, it is certainly the experience of many black women I know.

When women of color are committed to the work we give our all but are not valued as such. When we’re passionate about shifting culture or creating impact in our work areas, we’re labeled aggressive, demanding, or difficult to work with. When we request accountability, we’re labeled confrontational or “too serious”. And when we set clear boundaries — like our white counterparts — we’re called lazy, unhelpful, or not a “team player.”

Countless women of color live through similar workplace experiences, working over eight hours each day at institutions that demand more of them than their white counterparts. Pouring time, resources, and love into an organization that not only doesn’t honor our work — or our existence — but that ignores our work to celebrate the mediocrity of our white counterparts.

Existing in work cultures like this is exhausting and toxic.

It’s tiring to see white complacency be constantly honored and supported, while intelligent women of color are reduced to support staff positions that encourage us to stay silent but to do the work. To see women of color with seats at the table, but not actually given the respect to have (or exercise) our voice. It’s exhausting to have our boundaries, identities, and work dismissed, while watching those of our white counterparts be respected. To be constantly uninspired by the lack of regard toward our mere existence. To have to fight for ourselves in the work we do, and in the way we’re allowed to exist in the work space.

This colleague’s response to my request was unignorable. By dismissing the severity of the work that requires the site be properly up-and-running, she cemented the lack of concern and support for the work of women of color at my institution. By offering no resolve, and having no intent on finding a resolve, she challenged what it means to work collaboratively in a space that doesn’t honor the work we (women of color) do in the first place.

My supervisor’s boss spoke with the woman; she too, a woman of color. She came back suggesting that I take care of it, “Zoe, maybe you can contact the ITS Help Desk.” It was obvious my white colleague didn’t know how to fix the problem, but neither did I. All of a sudden a job she was responsible for overseeing, became an item on my to-do list. “Not this time,” I mouthed to myself as I drafted an e-mail that set a boundary they didn’t expect. I refused to accept responsibility for the tasks of another department without being properly compensated for it. I refused to be held accountable for a job function of a leader who was too incompetent or careless to seek proper help for resolving the issue herself — again, as a function of her own department. It had been two years of me doing other people’s work, cleaning up other people’s messes, and trying to play nice while secretly screaming cuss words in my head. I had put in enough time to realize something wasn’t right and to push back against it. I’d grown enough in my ability and identity to be confident in doing so.

So what do you do in instances like this? How do you continue to advocate for yourself in spaces that don’t honor your self-advocacy and don’t respect your existence?

You press the hell on.

And I will continue to do just that. Because while I cannot change the systems at play, I can continue to plant my feet in self-advocacy and demand the respect that’s constantly avoided. I will continue to set boundaries that help me perform at my fullest capacity and show up as my fullest self. I will continue to present ideas that make others uncomfortable but advance the mission of my position: ensuring the holistic wellness of our students. I will continue to stand firm in my identity and challenge the privilege that exists in my work space. I will continue to show up. I will continue to push through. And I will continue to be my highest performing self within the confines of my own self-preservation. Not because I have something to prove — I’ve given up the need for white validation years ago — but because that is who I am; and I will not let anyone’s disdain for my existence change me from being that person.

Being silent and complicit is what they expect to come from my fatigue, but I’ve worked too hard to get to this place to reduce myself to nothingness. So instead of cowering, I will stand tall in affirmation and advocacy. Instead of surrendering — or telling others to — I will identify (and create) safe spaces for women like me who work in toxic work cultures, to support, nurture, and empower each other out of every funk. Because they want us to waver, but we shall not. We’ve come too far to let their mediocrity taint our valiant spirits.