Opinion: Working while Black: How anti-Black racism wrecks Black women's workday

Everyone else gets to just go to work; Black women have to battle racism and the backlash that occurs when they speak out.

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“The most disrespected person in America is the Black woman. The most unprotected person in America is the Black woman. The most neglected person in America is the Black woman.” — Malcolm X, 1962.

If that’s true, then what’s it like to be a Black woman and journalist in Iowa?

It can be pretty rough some days. KCCI-TV reporter Lauren Johnson, a Black woman, found that out this week when she covered an Ankeny School Board meeting to discover why school officials had removed a job posting for a diversity, equity and inclusion opening.

  • Johnson had informed the district before the meeting that she would be in attendance. (Under Iowa law, public meetings should be open to the press.) No advance notice is required.
  • Johnson tweeted that a school security staff member denied her access, citing a capacity of 35 people in the room. She said another school official said she was being too “loud,” which she denied.
  • She detailed her experience in a tweet thread, which currently has more than 30,000 likes and thousands of comments.

“Shame on Ankeny for trying to keep a Black reporter out of the room during a meeting that was literally about diversity, equity and inclusion,” she said in one of the tweets.

See @LJohnsonKCCI's post on Twitter.

School officials had let some people go in, when others exited, she said. Eventually, they let Johnson into the meeting, and she was able to report her story, she said. Johnson tweeted she was “disgusted at the lack of professionalism” she experienced and said journalists of color should “never have to feel like they don’t belong in a space while trying to do their job.”

The Iowa Association of Black Journalists has decried Ankeny’s actions in a statement that reads, in part:

“To make matters worse, the decision to prevent a journalist of color from covering a meeting about the district’s decision to remove a posting for a position that tackles diversity, equity and inclusivity within Ankeny Schools speaks volumes. It also provides another example of why that position may be necessary.”

See @IABJOfficial's post on Twitter.

Association leadership has discussed the issue with school officials.

Ankeny School Superintendent Erick Pruitt on Wednesday released a statement and apologized to Johnson:

“On behalf of myself and the Ankeny Community School District, I would like to formally apologize to KCCI reporter Lauren Johnson for her experience at our board meeting on Monday, April 4. We were not adequately prepared for the large number of attendees at the meeting on Monday, and community members and Ms. Johnson were asked to wait in the lobby until space became available in the board room following a presentation from our exchange program with Copan, Mexico to comply with the fire code as advised in September by the fire marshal.

While they were waiting for entry, staff members did try to quiet the crowd with the intention of allowing the board to hear a presentation from a student in our exchange program. It is my understanding that the district's staff attempts to quiet the crowd were received as a personal statement that Ms. Johnson was being loud. I would like to publicly apologize for Ms. Johnson's experience at our board meeting. Ms. Johnson's interaction with staff is not consistent with the experience I would want for any member of my community to have at any district event. Ms. Johnson, members of the media, and the public are all welcomed and encouraged to civically engage in our meetings.

In the future, Ankeny Schools will reserve a space for the news media at future board meetings and work with district staff on creating a welcoming environment. Additionally, we are identifying larger venues for meetings with an anticipated increased attendance. The district is committed to maintaining a professional working relationship with members of the media, and we will work to ensure they have the access they need to accurately report on district matters to the public.”

See @AnkenySchools's post on Twitter.

Ankeny has experienced increased public interest after a contentious school board election last year and controversies ensued about face mask mandates and banning books, like many other school districts here and elsewhere.

On Johnson’s tweet, several people had cast doubt about her version of events, said it wasn’t racism and questioned her professionalism. Some tweets, with profile images of white men, blamed and excoriated her.

The school board meeting is over now, and the district apologized. The angry Black woman trope, which is highly offensive, clouds the exchange.

Working while Black

It’s always been hard to be a Black woman at work in predominantly white spaces. (Black men and people of color experience it, too). Black women have the added burden of having to always think about other people’s perceptions and try to act accordingly to avoid being reduced to a caricature. Black women have to endure microaggressions about our hair, speech and appearance. Sometimes we endure bona fide racism on the job, and the added pressures certainly don't help our mental health.

Many Black women can probably relate to Johnson’s experience and the conundrum she faced, because speaking up often gets you labeled as loud or perceived as an “angry Black woman.” As Johnson said, she was neither.

  • Look at the hate leveled toward Iowa’s own Hannah Nikole Jones, author of "The 1619 project."
  • Look at the hate leveled toward Jada Pinkett-Smith over a hair-related medical condition and her actions after her husband Will Smith slapped comedian Chris Rock at the Oscars.
  • Look at the hate leveled toward the highly qualified Supreme Court nominee Ketanji Brown Jackson.

Black women aren’t a monolith. Maybe some Black women don’t have work tales about being whitesplained, shushed and marginalized, but I don’t think I’ve ever met one.

It's misogynoir.

It’s something many Black women have to deal with every day on the job — from journalists, to office workers, to executives to laborers. Anti-Black racism and microaggressive behavior is rampant.

During my early days as a newspaper reporter, I was assigned to travel alone across Iowa, which sparked many safety concerns from my family. I shared my family’s concerns about the dangers a Black woman could face traveling alone through Iowa's tiny towns and lonely roads, but my employer brushed those concerns aside. That was the job. But those worries are a part of the job that others never have to think about. And, I’ve heard from other Black women who have had their accomplishments diminished by calling it a “diversity hire.” We have to deal with a lot just because of the color of our skin.

So what’s the solution?

Black women can’t modulate and enunciate our way out of being perceived as angry Black women. It's on white people to reject tired racial tropes.

These tips come too late to help Johnson. But read them anyway and share them so you don’t ruin another Black woman’s workday.

Here are 10 ways you can help Black women at work:

  1. Retire that tired old “angry Black woman” trope. Allow us to express all of our emotions without question and without micromanaging. When we get angry, you will definitely know.
  2. Take us at our word. We said what we said.
  3. Don’t mention “playing the race card.” It’s not even a real thing.
  4. Don’t gaslight us. If we say it’s microaggressive, it’s microaggressive. If we say it’s racist, it’s racist.
  5. Let us express our full range of feelings. How are you going to tell us how we feel?
  6. Quit tone policing.
  7. Manage your own feelings; Let us manage ours.
  8. Don’t disrespect us and then expect us not to react.
  9. Hear us: We’re not going to shrink to make you feel comfortable — in doorways or boardrooms. We take up space.
  10. When wronged, we are allowed to get angry, to push back and to make demands. That doesn’t make us angry Black women. #tellafriend

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