Let the Healing Begin
Black women have been traumatized in the workplace.
Too many of us are far too polite to ever admit to this, but we have indeed been traumatized. More than a burden or an emotional tax, but trauma that leaves many anxiety ridden and scarred. The world-renowned Cleveland Clinic defines Post Traumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD) as a type of anxiety disorder in people that have experienced a traumatic event. Sometimes big, glaring obvious life-threatening events (like an accident, death or sexual assault) or – at other times, PTSD develops after a series of smaller, less obvious events, stressful events – like repeated bullying. Often times, trauma in the workplace comes from no single incident, but rather a million subtle, repeated blows.
Micro-aggression. Those quiet and gentle slights designed to exact harm. Being ignored in meetings or excluded from meetings all together. Having your subordinate become your boss. Listening to senior leadership mock Black Culture – all in fun of course. Lack of reward or acknowledgement for your hard work, while others are openly coddled and groomed.
Your tiny mistakes are the crack of doom where for your white female counterpart, it is a ‘teaching moment’.
You are sidelined and ignored to the detriment of the firm. Absolute denial of mobility, exposure and promotion. Trauma. All done with complete disregard of what it means to you. Repeated micro-aggressions in the workplace and in some cases outright retaliation and bullying that induces trauma.
Daily trauma that leaves too many of us questioning who we are and ultimately failing to embrace our genius. And that’s the tragedy. We begin to lose sight of our genius.
We begin to lose sight of our genius.
The stories of seemingly confident, brilliant, ambitious Black Women who emerge from collegiate institutions or the institution of life with all the hope and expectations in the world only to be met with the sharp sudden reality that no matter what you’ve accomplished or how hard you’re willing to work, that corporate prize will elude you. Those stories are unfortunately commonplace.
We’ve learned to cope with workplace trauma, accept it and give it room in our minds and hearts. We’ve normalized trauma.
And workplace trauma is insidious. It challenges who you believe yourself to be, crumbles your sense of security and leaves you questioning everything, every move, every word you utter, each word you transcribe. You move in a stoic deliberate manner devoid of any real passion or creativity – resigned to your workplace reality. Stripped. Traumatized.
Black Women have been traumatized in the workplace and it seems wholly acceptable. No one is held to account. Those whom we expect to be there for us, be our advocates are often times nowhere to be found when the moment presents itself. They disappear. And those institutions of law & order, justice and equity – those institutions that were built on our fundamental rights to live and work in a civil society - they fail us. Time and time again. They are flawed and compromised, and we are left to fend for ourselves. HR is there to protect the firm, not the individual.
We are made to feel invisible.
Hard work goes unrewarded. We deliver and are dismissed. Organizations make no attempt to nurture, grow and elevate, but take wicked pleasure in orchestrating campaigns designed to challenge our intellect, impugn our integrity and magnify the slightest errors. We come, largely over-qualified for the roles in which we occupy – more degrees, more years of experience, more results driven, more driven - yet we are made to feel less than.
And so, we leave. We quit and give up the fight because the fight is exhausting, and we have a duty to ourselves to preserve ourselves. Constantly having to revalidate our worth is exhausting. Constantly having to remind them of this and that, inserting our qualifications here and there – that is exhausting. And so, we leave. Starting new businesses at record speed, forming our own safe spaces, channeling the pain. We attempt to heal. We attempt to heal. But how can we heal if we don’t give voice to our trauma?
To build a new environment, we must be honest with where we stand, destroy the old and create the new. No longer timid with our pain.
How does healing begin?
To heal, we must (1) Acknowledge our Trauma (2) Confront those who caused our trauma in the workplace and (3) Change the environments which fostered our trauma.
STEP 1: ACKNOWLEDGE
To heal, we have to first acknowledge the trauma. So many of us have perfected the art of suppression and compartmentalization. We pack our trauma and store it deep and away, but pain has a way of rearing its ugly head. Triggers. Without warning, certain words or actions, trigger our trauma and we are reacquainted with the pain. Over time, it manifests itself. Stress. We lose our hair, develop nervous habits, feel sharp phantom intermittent blows. Anxiety.
To heal we must acknowledge our trauma. We take a deep breath, look ourselves in the mirror and say, “You have been traumatized in the workplace.”
We lay out our trauma, scatter it in the air, pluck them one by one and give voice to the trauma. Then we confide in a sister, friend, confidant - someone we trust and we share our trauma. And this is the duty of that sister, friend, confidant. Their duty is to listen and at a minimum, say this or some variation thereof:
“You have been traumatized in the workplace. I hear you. I believe you. I see you and I am sorry for what you endured.”
And we share our stories. We share our truth, because in speaking our truth, we will speak the truth of other Black women in this silent painful struggle. And in doing so, have faith that all the universe will crowd around you to assist in your healing.
But first, you must acknowledge your own trauma.
Acknowledge | Confront | Change
STEP 2: CONFRONT
Meeting with one’s abuser is part of the clinical process in healing from trauma. It’s a form of therapy called ‘Prolonged Exposure’. Those of us that suffer from the effects of trauma do our best to avoid the people, thoughts, experiences, structures that cause us to recall the trauma. It makes sense. According to the Cleveland Clinic, the goal of Prolonged Exposure Therapy is to reduce your anxiety and fear about the memories of your trauma by confronting them.
In this spirit of exposure to the trauma, the next step in healing would involve meeting with those that caused our trauma. Guided by a therapist or counselor, we would meet with our abuser(s) and talk through the pain they inflicted.
There is a certain fantasy of how this confrontation would happen. The way we imagine quitting our jobs, but drawing on the elements most relevant to our pain - dramatic, honest and redemptive disclosures by those who caused our trauma. Like that classic scene from Law & Order where the suspects line up in the interrogation room one by one, but instead of these suspects remaining silent, placing the burden on you, the victim to identity and reveal what they did at your own peril, these suspects would share it all. Radical transparency. They would reveal what they did. One by one.
Something like this.
Dan, the Head of Marketing. “Yes, Dawn, I took your idea as my own, presented it as my own and was rewarded for it without giving you due credit and for that I am sorry. I played a role in your trauma. Let me be a part of your healing.”
Mary, VP of HR. “Dawn, of course you should have been promoted to Senior Manager, look at you. Your credentials are stellar. You’ve brought in millions for the company. Your style is impeccable. You run circles around your boss. I could go on and on. You’re perfect. But how could we not promote Guillaume. He’s French! I am sorry. And one more thing, I represent the company’s interest, not yours and for that I am sorry. I played a role in your trauma. Please, let me be a part of your healing.”
Michael, President of North America. “Dawn, you had no right to speak up for yourself and it certainly wasn’t your place to speak up for others. When you did, you were no longer the happy Negro, and I felt threatened. The company felt threatened. And when the company feels threatened, your career is over. I realize now that I was wrong, and you had every right to peaceful protest. I am sorry for my behavior. I played a role in your trauma. Let me be a part of your healing.”
Janice, your co-worker whom was recently promoted. “Dawn, I am a white woman in beauty, and this was my singular advantage over you. I knew it and I used it to get promoted and for that I am sorry. Let me be a part of your healing.”
One, by one, they would address you with piercing honesty. You did not imagine those things – those highly coordinated egregious acts designed to force you out the door. It was not your imagination. Those things happened. You’ve confronted your abuser.
Acknowledge | Confront | Change
STEP 3: CHANGE
This corporate system of racism, oppression and abuse of Black Women has to change. Where organizations should take pride and pleasure in leadership, there is unfortunately pride and pleasure in aggression and preserving archaic systems of management – preserving the ego. Once Black women have taken the brave steps to acknowledge and confront our trauma, how can we be expected to go back to the same organizational structures that fostered so much hate.
Things must change.
There is of course those traditional frameworks and strategies to bring about change. That ole playbook which calls for cultural sensitivity training, subconscious bias training, accountability, commitment to growth and development, fair practices in the workplaces, developing a pipeline of talent, metrics and measurement and more. All incredibly important and somewhat uneven in their effect. However, there are really two things that matter. Two things from which other efforts can flow. And those two things may take a little bit of soul searching for those in power, the decision makers and perhaps for the organization as whole. Two things must happen to bring about change.
1.) Desire - real, deep, abiding desire for change. Organizations must want to change. Leadership must have a desire to change and that sentiment must be woven into the fabric of the organization. There must be a belief, a battle cry of sorts that ‘We can do better. We are better than this.’
2.) Equity. Black women want equity. We do not want what is not deserving, we want our fair share and if our efforts warrant more that our fair share, then we want that as well.
Two things. A desire for change and equity.
And so, here we are. To heal from our trauma, we must be willing to Acknowledge the trauma, Confront our abuser and organizations must Change the environments that foster trauma by starting with two things: A deep abiding Desire for change and commitment to Equity.
Let us end with this.
Black women are superheroes.
Black women are strong and operate with a certain grace under pressure. We are smart, resourceful, and are born with an innate genius and though the world tries to persuade us and convince us that we are less than, we are simply not to be persuaded.
Many of us have already left toxic work environments. We’ve already begun the healing of our hearts and minds and are thriving - not merely surviving. We’re starting business, excelling in companies that value our worth. There is a levity, joy and hope when we leave.
And while we celebrate the wonders that lay ahead, let’s think about what we leave behind. Toxic wastelands where some feel evermore embolden to continue their legacy of abuse. We leave and for the next Black woman that enters, things are better for a little while. She is loved and adored, for a little while. Then the cycle of abuse begins. The aggression begins.
Black women have been traumatized in the workplace and it’s time we acknowledge this fact.
By Ella T. Gorgla, CEO & Co-Founder,