If you are like me, you have had the feeling of not feeling safe when heading out, or being paid less than Whites for the same job, or getting passed over for promotions, or just outright being discriminated against due to the color of your skin. And by “like me,” I mean Black.
By now, we all know what happened to George Floyd. His tragic death has led me to take a closer look at my own life and how racism has shaped who I am today personally and professionally. The following is my story, but it is also the story of so many.
“Why Are Your Feet So Dirty?”
Children learn about racial differences and racial bias from an early age. And they learn from teachers and parents how to deal with and react to these differences. I, however, did not know what racism was until I got older. You see, my parents never spoke to me about it as a child. I guess that’s why I always felt uncomfortable about my first experience when I was made aware how my race made me different. More than 40 years later, I still am.
It occurred when I was about 10 years old. I was visiting with my best friends, sisters Heather and Amber, both white, for our regular playdate. We had spent the day at the beach and had returned to their home. I always enjoyed going to their home because they had cable. After a late lunch, we took turns showering. It was now my turn, and I realized I did not have lotion for after the shower. No big deal, I can always add it later, I thought.
Afterward, as we all gathered around to watch another Molly Ringwald movie with our popcorn, my friends’ mother asked me, “Why are your feet so dirty?”
I had what many African-Americans refer to as ashy skin, which is simply dry skin that is more apparent and visible on some people of color. It can make the skin look dull, gray, or chalky, with an ash-like coating.
I wanted to cry, but I didn’t know why at the time. I explained that my feet were simply ashy, and that I had left my lotion at home. She simply replied, “Oh.” But the look on her face told me she didn’t quite understand. I then sat Indian style so that my feet would not show. And I can assure you from that point on, I never forgot my lotion.
“He Does Not Like Black People”
My next encounter occurred when I was in sixth grade. Heather now had a new set of “cool friends.” “Wendy, you cannot come along,” Amber explained once. “My friend Kathy’s dad does not like Black people.”
Her statement hit me like a brick. I had no clue how to digest it. I started to think that if Heather and Amber could hang out with people who did not like Black people, did they really like me? Our friendship suffered, and I began to retreat.
By middle school, I began to play with the Black kids in the neighborhood. We hung out, sat together in the lunchroom, and did things that girls do after school. As the school year was winding down, there was talk that on the last day of school a few older kids would be fighting at the bus stop.
My new best friend, Nancy, had an older sister whose boyfriend, Darren, decided to meet us at the bus stop to watch out for us in case anything happened.
Sure enough, on that last day, Darren came to pick us up. The police were also there (I’m not sure if someone had called them or whether it was a happenstance). One officer said to Darren, “What are you doing here?”
“Picking up my little sister and her friends,“ The officer then asked him another question that I couldn’t hear, but I remember Darren’s reply was clear as day: “Man, why in the hell y’all always f—-ing with me?”
Complete mayhem ensued. The officers swarmed and began hitting us with their batons. They pulled their guns on us and slammed Darren on the ground to handcuff him. The crowd, mostly middle-schoolers, began screaming and running. I watched an officer slam my friend, 12 or 13 at the time, to the ground and pound on her (she probably weighed 80lbs wet). I ran away as fast as I could. There were about 30 mostly middle-schoolers arrested and beaten that day. It was my first encounter with law enforcement.
As I grew older, it became more prevalent that the color of my skin mattered. As a cashier at a well-known grocery-store chain, a district manager told my boss that I was a “Black bastard.”
Additionally, I remember applying for my first “real job” as a receptionist at a doctor’s office. I had arrived for the interview a little early, the waiting room was full of (mostly Black) candidates. I listened as the hiring manager, a doctor, called the candidates one-by-one for their interview: Keisha, LaQuitta, Otishia, Tishia. They’d go in and spend five minutes (maybe) with the doctor.
Now it was my turn. Wendy Kelly. I go in with a smile on my face, resume in hand, and a completed application. “Finally,” he says, “a person whose name I can pronounce. I thought you were white.”
I was so shocked at what I had just heard, I had no idea how to respond, so I sat and smiled. He never took my resume, only the application that he placed on his desk. He asked me two or three questions, and that was it. I left that interview confused, but I was not sure about what.
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For some reason, I still wanted that job. Why?
I guess because I still wanted a “real job.” It wasn’t until I got home that I realized this man was a racist. I had no idea about the EEOC, so I called my state representative at the time, who was white and simply told me, “We will look into the matter, and someone will get back to you.” Twenty-five years later, I am still waiting.
“Is This Because I’m Black?”
But racist incidents were never as prevalent until I started working in corporate America.
Throughout my career, when compared with other non-persons of color, I have found that I have been grossly underpaid or passed up for promotions. But it wasn’t until a few years ago that I finally said enough.
I was working for a well-known management company as a senior manager. I had been asking for a raise for about a year, during which time I had two managers. By the time the third manager came along, I was frustrated and tired and expressed my concerns to him.
A few weeks go by and my direct report resigns due to relocation. Eventually, we found a replacement. I saw “we,” but actually, I was never included in the selection process.
A week goes by, and a colleague who is on another team says to me, “Did you see Sonia’s rate of pay?”
“No,” I replied. “I deliberately did not look, and to be honest, I do not want to know.” Until, that is, curiosity got to me. Lo and behold, Sonia, who had no advanced education, no experience, and was my direct report earning close to $11,000 more than me.
I was furious! I went into my manager’s office and informed him of what I just learned. His response to me was, “Wendy, I am sorry. I have been trying to get you a raise, but it is being shot down. This is wrong.” When I asked if it was because I was Black, he had no response.
In the end, my manager was fired, I ended up receiving a raise, making the same amount as my direct report, and left three months later.
Title VII of the Civil Rights Act 1968 outlawed, among other things, racial discrimination in employment. Yet people of color are still fighting for fair opportunities at work, and in life. Racism remains a widespread and prevalent feature of everyday working life for many of us.
Though laws are important in combating discrimination, they will not end it. Fighting discrimination requires a collective approach from individuals and corporations to ensure that little Black girls growing up today will get the same opportunities as those who do not look like them.