For All the Black Women & People of Color Who Have Had More Than Enough (The Paradigm of commercetools & the White Liberal).
Durham, NC. 2020.
“Who on the call has German heritage in their blood?” he asks on the video conference call. Arthur Lawida’s facial expression is one I will always remember, smile displayed on the screen.
Two weeks prior, I was given a new task to collaborate with the U.S. and Germany offices on a weekly Monday video conference call and serve as notetaker. I sent the Google invites to attendees, all upper-level management at commercetools. This included Arthur Lawida, President of the company, Brad Habansky, Kelly Goetsch, Luciano Giavedoni, Margaret Rea, Matt Alberts, Michael Eastman, and Patrick Ferdig. That day I chose to sit at my desk and eat my lunch, with my video camera off, saying hello at the beginning of the call.
“I have German heritage!” Kelly Goetsch exclaims, followed by Brad and Patrick in agreement.
What a weird question. I was the only Black woman working at the Durham, NC headquarters.
“You know what we really need?” Arthur Lawida laughs. “We need more Mexicans.”
I feel something in the pit of my stomach. Something I have felt before.
“More Mexicans like from the south of the border. You know. Like Trump says,” Arthur says.
Margaret, the only other woman, looks uncomfortable but she continues to laugh.
“Although… Wait. We already have an honorary Mexican on our team!” Arthur says. “Luciano!” Arthur and other colleagues continue to laugh. Arthur Lawida, the President of the company, graduate of Duke University, world traveler. Someone I admired.
My heart is racing. I planned the meeting and sent the invitation. Surely, someone knows I’m on this call, right? Right?
The video cuts to Luciano, from Argentina, who is laughing nervously as he hesitates and says, “I feel like that comment violates about five classifications for Human Resources.”
More laugher. Luciano looks down.
“What we really need is more Blacks! More Blacks to work here,” Arthur says again, laughing.
“I know a qualified Black!” Pat yells out.
“Me too!” someone else says.
Arthur continues- “You know I met this Black woman today at the food truck outside. She said she was an engineer.”
“Sure she was!” Someone chimes in.
Arthur continues his story, “You know, wanted to give me her resume and all. Said she was interested in working with us.”
Matt Alberts speaks up- “She should know that she can’t find a good job on the corner.”
“I know a Black we can hire!” Kelly says.
“Right.” Matt Alberts says, laughing.
“We need more Blacks. And Mexicans!” Arthur says, laughing, his face close to the screen. “Lots and lots of Mexicans! Right?! Who’s with me? Isn’t that what Trump said?”
“You know what I was thinking…?” Arthur asks.
“Wait.” Matt Alberts says. I watch him squint as he leans in closer to his screen.
“I feel like there is someone HR related on the call. Like a mole or something.”
“Shit. Tianna’s on the call. Tianna, are you still there?” Matt says.
My heart beats rapidly in my chest. My t-shirt is sticking to my back, covered in sweat.
“Yes, I am still here,” I say, my voice shaking just as much as my hands.
Arthur ends the call immediately. I sit in disbelief, hands sweating, and lean back in my chair.
Arthur appears from around the corner. He stands there. Hands in pockets. Staring at me.
“Hi. Can I help you with something?” I ask Arthur.
He doesn’t respond. He looks at me, blankly, but the look makes me feel terrified. It is the look one gives you when they have been found out.
When the secret is out.
I sit there. Arthur ignores me, angry, staring at me. He disappears down the hallway to his office as President of the company, a corner office with exposed brick that he does not deserve.
In the bathroom I run cold water on my face.
Not again. Damn. Not again. I hadn’t begun to face and heal the racism from my time at the State Department. I know that if I speak up, there goes my job and financial security. Again.
deep breath deep breath deep breath
I was just doing my job as notetaker. How do you take notes on that? Do I write Management and President of the company are racist/ sexist/ discriminatory? Do I write 100 points of racism and discrimination for Arthur Lawida? I finally understand why Matt Alberts never directly speaks to me in meetings. Do I write a follow up note to ask why Margaret is one of the only women in upper management and still continued to laugh? Why the others engaged and enjoyed that conversation?
Do I ask why this man and anyone on this call are in management positions?
Do I ask what would have been said if Matt Alberts didn’t realize I was on the call?
My experience at the State Department radicalized me. Once you find your voice there is absolutely no going back.
I knock on Arthur’s office door 20 minutes later, grab a chair, and ask, “Do you have a second to chat?”
“I was on the video conference call. I am extremely disappointed and hurt to hear the rhetoric and negative comments spewing out of the mouths of those in leadership positions at commercetools, especially you.”
Arthur looks at me, phone in hand, texting while I’m talking.
“OK.” He says.
No eye contact.
I tell him that the statements about Mexican and Black people were not appropriate or acceptable, especially not in the workplace.
“OK.” He says, still texting.
“commercetools should be an inclusive place, accepting of all people of different backgrounds. As the only Black woman at this company, I feel offended and hurt to hear these negative and racist remarks. I don’t feel safe,” I say.
“OK.” He says, eyes still on his phone.
I sit up in my chair. “Look. Are you going to say anything meaningful back to me.” It is not a question, but a demand. It comes from deep within me; something I am proud of. The old me would have never said this.
I am annoyed.
Arthur puts his phone down. “You know what?” He tilts his head to the left side. “You misunderstood the conversation you overheard,” he says. “The Mexican comment was just a joke and something Luciano said months ago before you started working here.”
“I didn’t overhear nor did I misunderstand. You said racist comments,” I say. “Regardless of who started the joke, intention and offensiveness behind it, I am insulted and no longer feel safe at commercetools as a woman and person of color.”
Arthur continues, “Look. I can’t and won’t do anything about it. People are free to say what they want here.” He picks his phone back up off his desk, back to texting.
deep breath deep breath deep breath
“I don’t work at racist, sexist, and discriminatory companies. This isn’t a good fit,” I tell him, extremely frustrated.
“If you don’t like it, you can leave. We’ll pay you your last two weeks. Just leave your company belongings on your desk,” Arthur tells me. “Get out.”
I grab my purse, head to my car, heart still racing, and drive home in autopilot.
The next day I sit in the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission office, exactly 20 minutes from my apartment and explained what happened.
“I’m here to file a discrimination claim,” I say to the EEOC staff member.
By Thursday my old job was reposted on a job board that estimated the job averaged $22K more than I was paid. Only this time the job description includes a company non-discrimination policy.
By Friday I received an email from the company-
“We are proud of our diversity?” How so…? The only people of color at the company were two Black men and myself, the only Black woman. On one hand I could count the women that were engineers, developers, and in management. What diversity?
A severance package after two months of employment? Hmmm. Why? The attached five-page Separation & Release Agreement required that I sign away my rights of speaking about comments made by management for a miserable $3,000 that would be taxed.
Imagine giving up your voice for $3,000.
Among the compromising Separation & Release Agreement was a sentence stating that “re-employment was banned.”
How did I permanently and irrevocably severe my employment relationship by telling my employer that comments made were racist and I didn’t feel safe? The most concerning thing is that my signature on that document would prevent me from ever filing a lawsuit and speaking about my experience at commercetools.
I know better than to ever give away my voice.
No thank you.
As Alice Walker says, “The most common way people give up their power is by thinking they don’t have any.”
This is for all the Black women who have had more than enough. For the people of color who have had more than enough. This is for you.
I think we all know. There is something deep in your gut that will tell you. At the interview. In the boardroom. A red flag is a red flag and unfortunately it takes experience to learn the game.
I will no longer carry this. I am not happy being handed crumbs and being told I should be grateful to eat. I always have a choice. I always have a choice, regardless of if I have a husband, child, mortgage, car payment. Whatever. I am no longer staying in situations that require me to bite my tongue until it bleeds; not at 26, 28, not again, not ever, and definitely not in the future.
No thank you.
By choosing myself in all situations, I win every single time. I take back my power every single time. By speaking, I validate the experiences of so many Black women and people of color.
You are not alone.
In the job interview, Arthur and Steve (my manager) assured me that after working as Team Assist (Office Manager) for a few months, that I could possibly start working in Human Resources. They spoke of “opportunities for growth” and “job advancement” at the startup company and I could “grow into any role I wanted.”
I spent those two months working on the office move to a space five times the old office, the holiday party, and U.S. kickoff event. For weeks, Steve and I ordered and assembled thousands of dollars of office furniture, interacted with vendors, performed construction walkthroughs with the architect and general contractors, organized and completed a Saturday early morning office move, hired caterers, a graffiti artist for the office design, planned event/ meeting spaces, moved boxes, crates, and furniture in the rain, tried our hand at interior design in the new office space, and worked weekends during this time. I was praised for my assistance and regularly told that I was doing a great job and that Steve “couldn’t have done it without me.” Steve and I received compliments from our Durham team, Dirk (CEO), Arthur, colleagues and management during the new office tour and U.S. holiday party.
Over lunch a few weeks later when I inquired about the open position as HR Generalist, Arthur told me, “Stop asking about the HR position. You are not qualified and will not get the position.”
Steve’s response to Arthur’s statement- “We’ve decided that you must work in your current role as Team Assist for a year.”
Arthur would later tell me- “I really just need you to focus on your job ordering food for the kitchen and making sure we have healthy snacks.”
For a while I believed them, even though I had five plus years of HR experience, a degree in the field, and would have my master’s degree in a few months. I tried to focus on the job, even as the comments felt stranger.
At the holiday party, a colleague grabbed me by the arm- “I love you working for us, Tianna. You order the best La Croix soda for the office.”
My manager Steve regularly spoke over me in meetings, resulting in me asking him to give me space to speak. To not speak for me when I was in the room. I asked him to start introducing me and include me in conversations when I stood beside him. To stop making me feel like I was invisible. To let me do my job.
There was the time with Steve to get new office supplies near North Carolina Central University (Historical Black University). “Oh wow, NC Central is building new dorms! They’re trying to be like Duke, huh?” he said. Minutes later, he pointed out the Burger King across the street. “It’s not safe over here. You know I ate there once and someone was shot a week later?” He exclaimed. “It’s really not safe anywhere around here.”
“This is the neighborhood I grew up in,” I told him.
“Oh! You know what I mean,” Steve said.
“No, I don’t.”
It was the textbook case of “I am always the majority and not being so makes me feel unsafe. So, to continue to feel superior, I make sure to remind myself and others that these spaces are less than.” The only thing different about my neighborhood and downtown is that in my neighborhood people look just like me. I knew exactly what this was and I refused to participate.
It is a shame that some white people live in a world void of color; void of an array of opinions, perspectives, and experiences. Growth. Tucked away in pockets of a city deemed acceptable, white spaces that are purposely unaffordable, intentionally separated from others by literal means like redlining or figurative like a bump in the road.
As a Black person, society often attempts to convince you to seek SuccessTM in white spaces. The job, education, neighborhood, hospital, water, air, parks, and resources are deemed “enhanced” in locations composed of gentrified spaceships, encouraging you to look down on your neighbor, brother, and sister, to your demise.
You know better so you never buy into it.
You know that there is no need to sit at a table, especially if you are told not to speak.
You know that to lack diversity is to be mediocre.
A lack of diversity (especially in a city with the historical background of Durham, North Carolina) is an intentional choice and exhibition that a company dabbles in white supremacy, even if you write #BlackLivesMatter on your website. It is a choice to have management that is overwhelmingly white. commercetools is no exception to this rule.
There are people who do not understand that you can still vote for Biden, have a Black friend, wish that Bernie won the 2016 nomination, vote for Obama twice, and still engage in oppressive behaviors that subjugate people of color. You can do all these things, refer to yourself a liberal, and still be racist. You can stick a Black Lives Matter sign into the grass in your front yard and still be racist.
In less than two months, every single microaggression I felt and experienced while working at commercetools was endorsed by Arthur and co. A company that prides itself as a welcoming startup tech culture with a monthly Culture Committee, dog friendly office, parental leave, 100% coverage of employee’s healthcare, Kombucha on tap, snacks, a month of PTO, generous holidays, and flexible working hours.
The HR position was removed from the website. “We’re no longer hiring for an HR person,” Dina said with a smile. She often said off-handed comments about people of color not being a “good culture fit” for the company, along with comments of implicit bias. As the recruiter for the company, this was concerning.
I couldn’t say I was surprised.
I was told by Steve that I was now in charge of loading and unloading the dishwasher and cleaning the kitchen. Arthur scolded me for allowing Coca-Cola in the refrigerator. Steve then gave me a speech regarding how Arthur washed his hands and did not have paper towels to dry his hands. Steve told me how that was a huge problem. That afternoon, I was told to only focus on the kitchen supplies, snacks, and cleaning the kitchen. Nowhere on my job description explained that I would be cleaning the office on a daily basis.
Arthur regularly told me it was my job to “uplift Steve and make sure he was successful.” I was playing a game without any written procedures, structure, run by poor management, and in desperate need of an HR department. There was the time I came into the office and Steve moved all of my belongings off my desk. He now sat at my desk, redirecting me to a new area that he’d designated for me. He decided that he liked my desk more and I wondered what type of management style this was.
No thank you.
I’d left a toxic situation at the State Department for this? In Durham?
Months later, was I surprised when I looked at the company’s LinkedIn page and saw that the company rehired a Black woman in my position?
Would I be surprised if they paid her less than the $45,000 offered to me- (I thought the offer was low and was reassured by management that this was the market rate. I negotiated to $50K- to get equal pay we have to be transparent about wages) — even though the job description for the role now requires cleaning the office for coronavirus, conducting contact tracing and health screenings, and taking the temperature of employees and vendors at the door?
It is intentional that a multimillion-dollar company would rather have the only Black woman employee clean the office rather than hiring and paying a cleaning company.
For all the companies who claim to be diverse- how many Black women, Black men, and people of color currently work at your company?
How many people of color are in positions of leadership? I’m not talking about any Black or people of color token hire(s) that your company employed post-George Floyd. How many people of color worked at your company before May 25, 2020 and what was the rate of retention?
There is a tendency with companies that is quite easy to identify. Pay attention.
Rule #1- The word “diversity” is a now buzzword when management is white and male. The slogan Black Lives Matter is used by companies as a marketing ploy and recruitment scheme.
Rule #2- In order to appear diverse, place a Black person at the front door and in all external facing positions.
Rule #3- Place strategic photos of people of color on your website, even though (once again) your entire company is mostly white and male.
Rule #4- Add a non-discrimination policy to all job postings, especially if you didn’t have one before.
Rule #5- Lock people of color and women into positions with little to no career advancement to continue to uphold “culture fit.” When the secretaries at your company are women and company leaders are men, what exactly is the company endorsing?
Diversity, Equity, & Inclusion Strategy Consultant Stephanie Barnes writes that “Culture Fits Only” is the Jim Crow 2.0 “Whites Only” Sign.
Enough of the forced integration and burden on people of color to desegregate a toxic workplace. Enough of the idea that one can shift racist opinions of management by bringing people of color into an unsafe environment when the company simply does not care.
Just say that your company is not interested in the hiring, promotion, or retention of any person of color, regardless of qualification, experience, knowledge, skill, and ability. Don’t gaslight people of color that left your organization while you post a Black square on social media and claim your company is anti-racist.
Enough of the performative activism.
I don’t want a seat at the table.
Your table is shattered and antiquated.
It is not worth my time to grab a chair. It is a waste of my time to fix a company culture that has no intention of being a safe space for people of color, convincing a workplace to see me, and working in a workplace that believes women like me aren’t qualified to be there in the first place. I am not tap dancing for pennies.
I sit at tables that value, respect, honor me, my ideas, and my boundaries.
It is not enough to be in rooms where my worth is not seen. I cannot bite my tongue any harder because I have bled enough. I cannot shrink myself to fit in spaces that disregard my existence.
I am not willing to do WhateverItTakesTM to get my foot in the door. I am not working in Diversity, Equity, & Inclusion at a company that holds tenets of Jim Crow.
I am no longer being gaslighted by performative activism in the workplace.
This is for all the Black women and people of color who have had more than enough.
For those of us who have had the life beaten out of us in order to earn a paycheck to feed ourselves, our families, and to pay bills. For those who have had to leave careers that we dreamed of. For those who have been tone-policed and ignored. For those who have been underpaid, undervalued, and underwhelmed. For those who have had to continuously rebuild our confidence, self-esteem, courage, voice, and careers. For those of us who choose entrepreneurship or are forced to survive in soul-draining environments.
For those of us who are holding on.
And for those of us who chose self-preservation.
You heard this story before and know this story too well.
You deserve so much more. There are more rainbows and more colors.
I imagine what it looks like and I know that this exists.
You are on your way.
This is for those of us who no longer ask for what we want but take it.
I wish you well.
I wish you well.