When Your Sexual Harasser is also Black in the Workplace
BY: ADRI SPEAKS
Reading time: 4 minutes
Amid the dozens of recent sexual harassment allegations that have rippled through Hollywood and politics, women nearly everywhere have collectively sighed. We’ve been talking- or more like screaming - for someone to understand that we’re not just talking about wayward boyfriends when some of us say with exasperation, “men are trash”.
Statistically speaking, 60% of women have reported being sexually harassed, with 69% of us reporting that it took place at work. I’d wager that the number is far higher, but so many of us have been conditioned to brush off unwanted advances, inappropriate conversations, and offensive comments as just part of the game. Gross language uttered by male colleagues is often dismissed as “locker room talk”, with women on the receiving end often chided if they dare express discomfort.
As a black woman, it didn’t take long for me to notice that these recent conversations have been dominated by white women, with accusations by black women either quickly forgotten or dismissed as a false accusation by the likes of Lena “I’m not an actual feminist” Dunham. So what happens when you’re far from Tinseltown and you experience sexual harassment by someone who also shares your race?
I was recently out of college and in graduate school when I first experienced sexual harassment. A colleague of mine first began sending inappropriate messages via a chat service on our work computers. I had no idea how to interact with him, initially chalking up his flirty behavior with “the way he is”. I did a lot of self-talk, telling myself that I was new to the job market as an adult and perhaps this was all normal. I’d convinced myself that if I made a big stink about it, I wouldn’t be viewed as a team player. I was uncomfortable but quickly brushed it off when he appeared to let it go. Until the next offense. This went on for months, with inappropriate comments and unwanted advances, sometimes said in front of other colleagues, until I stopped speaking to him altogether. Reporting him did not cross my mind. And it should have. I was a mentor to young adults and was advising young ladies on their rights within their jobs, as I was being harassed in my own.
Going to work became increasingly more difficult as I walked on eggshells, hoping he wouldn’t say something inappropriate to me. Then one morning, out of nowhere, I got an email from him. The subject line? “Should you be interested…” I opened the email with dread as the poster for an invite-only orgy popped up. I audibly cursed the moment I saw it and asked him why he would send that to me. Another male colleague, presumably aware of the event, asked him incredulously “you sent that to her?!” As I sat in my cubicle with my back to him in our small workspace, I could barely see straight as I typed out a response to him, ripping him a new one, but shaking with anger and an emotion I recognize now as humiliation and shame. I then immediately forwarded his email to my personal email and my best friend, who worked as legal assistant at the time. I had no idea what I planned to do but I didn’t have time to process my emotions – it was time for an all-staff meeting.
Within moments of sitting in the larger conference room, my supervisor, alarmed by the look on my face, asked me if I was okay. I told her I needed to speak with her. The door barely closed in the private meeting room before I burst into tears, recounting the email and months of harassment that I’d brushed off, dismissed, and ignored.
She hugged me and told me it was going to be okay. She informed me of the next steps in the process- she’d report it to her supervisor, a report would be filed, and an internal review would take place. I nodded my head as I calmed down and thought about what the next few weeks would look like. His termination would come swiftly. He sent inappropriate materials through his work computer and harassed a female colleague. And he was a black man without a degree. There would be no second chances.
Taking all of that into consideration, I heard myself say “I don’t want him to get in trouble” as I sat in front of my boss’s boss. She was young, white, and told me that she’d “spoken to him” about his behavior. There was no apology, no formal write-up. Just me, a twenty-something black girl who’d been having anxiety about showing up to work every day for months, still doing what I thought was right – looking out for a brother who didn’t afford me the same courtesy. The incident was brushed under the rug and he kept his job – this time moving to another work space and never speaking to me, again.
If I could have done things differently, I would have filed a report and let the chips fall where they may. I’d chosen to be in a hostile work environment for months and even then, still put my own peace on the backburner when I thought of a white woman having to fire a black man. I’d opted to endure having to see him around the relatively small office and keep mum about why I no longer attended happy hours. The harassment was painful – the isolation made it even worse. This is why intersectional feminism matters. Black women are frequently faced with the dilemma of choosing race over gender- even to our detriment. We know that the stats about unemployed black men are real and “we’re all we’ve got”. But we also know that Black women struggle more with domestic and intimate partner violence. I advise any woman to report sexual harassment immediately. Office politics are a hurdle within themselves when trying to climb the corporate ladder. Navigating that space while dealing with harassment is almost impossible. It’s also plain wrong.
Love and Truth,
Adri Speaks is a program management specialist, management and career consultant, philanthropist, and blogger.
If you were Adri, what would have you done differently?
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