The mental toll of being the only Black woman in the office
May is Mental Health Awareness Month.
Existing in this world as a Black woman is an isolating experience. We are often expected to be strong, wise, and patient beyond our years—even as the world around us seems impossibly infantile. We are expected to be the pillars of our community while also suppressing the traumas and injustices we specifically face. Our appearance is constantly measured between extremes of unrealistic Eurocentric beauty standards and hypersexualized caricatures of what it really means to look like a Black woman. We juggle these contradictions daily, and many of us also deal with this treatment while navigating the corporate world.
Anyone who works in an office or any other corporate space can tell you that there are unspoken rules to just about everything you do—especially for women, and especially for Black women. The way we wear our hair, the tone in which we speak, the strength in our gaze are all questioned by supervisors. The white-collar world is a landmine for us (and for HR), as there is usually a misogynistic or racist comment ready to come tumbling out of a coworker’s mouth at any moment.
So I tried shielding myself from white colleagues’ judgment by being as “perfect” as I could possibly be.
Every morning, I spent energy that I didn’t have painstakingly crafting outfits and applying makeup. At work, I internalized the huge amounts of pressure and responsibility placed on me, rarely asking for help or guidance. Not because I didn’t need it, but because I was in an environment where I didn’t feel I could without jeopardizing my position. As a result, I was constantly praised for “how well I was adjusting”—which, to me, seemed to be code for how well I could blend into the background and not cause a fuss.
I began to feel more and more lonely as I struggled to handle even the most difficult parts of my job with a smile.
No one in the office looked like me, except for an older woman who constantly complained about her lack of power and the way she was treated by the staff.
As her younger coworker, there wasn’t much I could do to improve her work life except lend an understanding ear. But that meant I became an outlet for all her frustrations while I still struggled to voice my own—of which there were many. During office meetings, I’d hear my coworkers talk about things completely outside of my experience—luxury cruises and elite networking events. I’d overhear political comments about race that turned my stomach, and every day on my way to the fax machine, I walked past a print-out of a “joke” that had been taped to the wall. More accurately, it was a racist graphic design. In a “cheeky” effort to characterize the different types of Arial fonts, a white colleague had designed a rendition of the Disney mermaid princess, Ariel. She sat atop a rock, waves crashing around her, but she was overweight with dark skin and a short, pickaninny afro. The caption read: “Arial Black.”
After a year, I caved in between the walls of a windowless office.
I had become starved for interaction with people closer to my age and to my skin tone. Coupled with the pressure that came from working in such a fast-paced, ego-laced field, I began to have panic attacks. I’d kept all of this hidden to protect my job security, but eventually, I had no choice but to go to my supervisor in tears. She asked how she could help, but I quickly left for a position at a different company.
Thanks to this new opportunity, I was fortunate enough to find my way out of a toxic work environment packed with microaggressions, but not everyone has that option. Looking back at my time in that office, I believe that for women of color facing the jagged-tooth monolith that is the white-collar world, it is essential to be engaged in a community outside of work. This is especially true for Black women. Develop strong relationships with other Black women and women of color and consider those bonds sacred.
If it hadn’t been for my friends, I’m not sure I could have survived that job for as long as I did. In a perfect world, we would never have to deal with the stress of a racist and misogynistic work environment, but it’s much easier to face the day when you know you aren’t going at it alone, and that there is someone you can call when you get home.