Confessions of a black agency employee: ‘I’m being told I’m wrong for speaking up’

This article is part of our Confessions series, in which we trade anonymity for candor to get an unvarnished look at the people, processes and problems inside the industry. More from the series →

Racism and ageism inside agencies may be less overt than it was before, but that doesn’t mean it’s not happening. For this edition of our Confessions series, where we allow anonymity in exchange for candor, we spoke to a young black woman at a media agency about how she’s treated at work and how microaggressions have impacted her mental health.

What has been your experience of prejudice at work?
If it’s not my age, it’s my race and if it’s not my race then it’s my age. The microaggressions often happen through messaging with the language that’s being used toward me specifically — the undertone comes off as negative and prejudiced. [Coworkers don’t give me] clear directions. I’ve asked them to rephrase, give more detail or further explain something. Instead, she’ll tell me it’s not a big deal or says that I’m being mean. I’ve just said that I want better instructions or more constructive feedback. My boss was also on these messages and told me that I was being “hostile.”

How did being called “hostile” make you feel? 
I don’t think [my boss and my coworker] understand what the word “hostile” means for a person of color. Even just talking to friends who are black whenever they hear the word “hostile” or “aggressive,” they are taken aback. When that was said to me I literally started crying. 

Do you think the lack of diversity currently is why the microaggressions are happening?
Absolutely. I believe because agencies are on their way to becoming a lot more diverse, [but in the meantime] that microaggressions happen in the workplace.

How do you handle the microaggressions when they happen?
That’s where the “hostile” thing comes from. I was standing up for myself. A lot of microaggressions turn into micromanaging. So it’s like, “Oh, I feel like you can’t do this because I don’t know if you can or not, so I’m going to take ownership.” It’s more of an assumption that I can’t do something, as opposed to me saying that I can’t. I do speak up for myself. If anything, I look to others first before speak up because I want to make sure that I sound very professional and that I’m being very clear and concise. That’s why I got upset when someone called me “hostile” because when I do speak up for myself it’s not like I’m just saying it. I’m actually consulting with people of color who might know exactly what to say or have dealt with something like this before. But then I’m being told that I’m wrong for speaking up.

If anything, microaggressions are one of the big things that happen — at least in this agency. It’s something people can’t really control. When people have prejudices and bias there’s nothing you can really do about someone’s first impression. 

Are they happening to other employees as well? Do you ask other people for advice? 
People do see microaggressions here. It’s a lot of the women and people of color and definitely women of color. I did the MAIP program and they taught us how to deal with these things. I speak to my mentors about diversity at agencies and they give me advice. I speak to other people and they’re also dealing with microaggressions. That’s why a lot of the time I’m confused because if they’re giving me advice it should work. It just feels like there’s something combative whenever I speak up and it kind of makes me feel like I should just stop speaking up.

If someone doesn’t know what a microaggression is and they’ve been the one to do it, do you end up in a position where you have to define it for them?
Yeah. It’s funny because sometimes I have to find another word for it for them to understand what it is. Honestly, my agency overall does a really good job at trying to get people to understand different cultures and being in a diverse environment but it’s really up to the people to take initiative and actually go to the workshops, actually do those programs. I take the initiative. It’s almost like going back to the narrative where black people always educating others and it’s really tiring.

Do the microaggressions have an impact on you other than the workplace relationships? 
I think it’s been detrimental for my mental health. It keeps me up at night. I don’t know a better way to say it. The company culture, I already knew coming in advertising was not as diverse as I thought it would be. Even just other people, the way they look at you or the gossiping that happens. It really gets to me and I feel like I have to be grounded. I know everyone has to be grounded but when you are dealing with coworkers that don’t seem like they’re interested in getting to know, like they might be a little bit prejudiced because of certain things, whether it’s because of your age, color, gender it can be really hard to do your work. You’re kind of just thinking, “Well do they even like me?”

Do you go to HR?
I wasn’t planning to. But being called “hostile” changed things. There wasn’t much progress [without HR]. I also just started to feel uncomfortable on the team, and that’s why I brought it to their attention.

What was the result?
We were separated. We’re still on the same team but we just do different tasks.

What were you hoping for?
Training. That’s what I wanted. I do these things. At the end of the day, it’s all about communicating and collaborating with each other making sure we’re all doing the work and coexist in this environment. But it’s like, that’s not the case. Some people feel like, “Oh, I don’t really need to change anything about myself.” No. Just like how I have to adapt to your work style other people should have to adapt as well.

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