"Say 'no' nicely": Toxic workplace culture demands Black women shrink themselves and never speak up

On "Salon Talks,""First and Only" author Jennifer Farmer discusses the extra labor of navigating misogynoir at work

By D. Watkins

Editor at Large

Published March 24, 2021 6:01AM (EDT)

People working together (Getty Images)
People working together (Getty Images)

Imagine being forced to wear a permanent mask, altering your voice and muffling your culture, so that you can perform weekly from 9-5, Monday through Friday. This performance allows you to eat, compete and meet the social requirements of your employer. That is the reality for many Black people in America. In "The Souls of Black Folk," W.E.B Du Bois wrote, "It dawned upon me with a certain suddenness that I was different from the others; or like, mayhap, in heart and life and longing, but shut out from their world by a vast veil." Black men have had to learn to master this veil, however, Black women are forced to do the same while also navigating sexism and America's obsession with their shape, hair and alleged attitude. 

Black women in the workforce always have two jobs –– what they are employed to do and surviving all of the extra tasks that come with false stereotypes. Too often they don't get the praise they deserve. Author Jennifer Farmer illustrates the harsh reality of "working twice as hard to be perceived as half as skilled," in her new book "First and Only: A Black Woman's Guide to Thriving at Work and in Life," and she and I got the chance to discuss it this week on "Salon Talks."

Farmer, founder of Spotlight PR who has worked with clients like Killer Mike, Nina Turner and Jesse Williams, spent her career dealing with the many ills Black women have to endure in corporate America. She faced everything from obvious racism to superiors attempting to silence her, or telling her to be, "more nice," in the way they'd never address a man.

You can watch my "Salon Talks" episode with Farmer here or read a Q&A of our conversation below to hear more about what she's learned from her experiences, how she copes with it and what everyone from Black men to non-Black women can do to better support their colleagues. 

The following conversation has been lightly edited for length and clarity.

The timing of your book, "First and Only" is so perfect because there's so much to unpack. When I was reading it, I felt it should have been written a long time ago as someone who hears lots of stories about what Black women go through in the workplace. For example, my mom just literally looking like the world has been beat out of her at the end of the week. She even had to sue the hospital she worked at because they were racist toward her and she actually won that settlement. It's something that has been going on in our communities for a long time. What made you decide to put it out now?

I was in a situation where I was receiving a ton of negative feedback, and it was very depressing and I kept thinking, "Okay, something is wrong with me." I know that I grew up thinking that I was supposed to be assertive, but that is not what most workplaces want. So how do I become a smaller version of myself? I found myself trying to be smaller and smaller and smaller. When I shifted the focus from myself to other Black women, I realized that many of us were fighting this temptation to shrink ourselves in order to be palatable to people who don't like our very existence.

When I started working on the book, I started it as a journal because I was just trying to sort through what I was feeling. I shared it with a friend of mine, a strategist, and also she became the very first editor who looked at the work and she started telling me stories of what she experienced. It seemed like every person I talked to, they had a story that affirmed what I was saying in the book. I said, wait a minute, this is not just the Jennifer experience. It's not just the handful of Black women. This is what we all experienced in terms of thinking through how we show up in spaces that can be ambivalent about our success.

Could you talk about some of that negative feedback you were getting just to give our viewers an example?

I was told that I was aggressive. I was told that I was too assertive. I was told, and this is probably my favorite one, that I needed to say "no" nicely. I was in a situation where I did not have the resources to do what my employer was asking me to do. I found myself saying no, and my boss sat me down. And he said, "Okay, I think you just need to say no, nicely. Just be nicer when you say no."

Something he would never say to a man.

Right, right. And then at one point he told me that the feedback that I was receiving, it was racialized and gendered, but that I still needed to act on it. I started going around to the people that I was working with, trying to ask them if I hurt their feelings. And it was very humiliating, it was very humiliating. Then you think about the politics of this toxic positivity, and at the time I had so much going on in my personal life, but I was still trying to show up and paint a smile on. "Yep. I can do that. Yep. I can do that." It doesn't matter how much time it took me or at what personal costs.

I had people comment on my hair. I had a boss say, "Well, is that all your hair?" And I said, "No." And he said, "Well, everyone knows it's not your hair." And I said, "Right, but you're the only person who feels comfortable asking me in public, in front of others, about how I style my hair. That has nothing to do with what I'm doing."

The crazy thing about that is almost every year, I read a story about a young Black woman being suspended because she has braids or being suspended because she's wearing her natural hair. This is still happening. Most schools are closed now or are just starting to reopen, but when school was open in 2020 and 2019, these stories were still popping up. When is the nation going to get past this obsession with the Black woman's hair?

And it's not just the Black woman's hair. It is the Black woman, it's our physical appearance, it's how we present, it's our hair. There is an obsession with the Black woman, but there's also a disdain for the Black woman. For a lot of us, when it comes to our hair, we've made calculated decisions about why we style our hair a certain way. And we calculate, what are we going to gain? What are we going to lose? D, I'm only recently starting to wear my hair natural because years ago I couldn't deal with the fallout of being natural. I felt I needed to have my hair as straight as possible so that I could be comfortable or appear in a way that was non-threatening to the white people around me.

It's hard for me to even to grasp some ideas on how people respond because I'm from Baltimore, which is such a Black city that you don't really meet a lot of white people as peers until you are old enough to get a job or go away to college and deal with that. Can you take us through some of the things that Black women entering the workforce, surviving in a workplace go through?

So back to the hair. There are images that are populated in popular culture. Only recently, I'd say in the last five years, do you see models who have natural hair. If you look at videos, most of the videos from hip-hop and R&B. How many sisters have you seen with natural hair? When you go into the workplace, many of the Black women who I've talked to have had the experience of being told, "Oh, you're too angry," or "You made so-and-so cry," or "You're too direct." You need to add some fluff, before you give feedback, add something positive at the beginning, something positive at the end. And then just be very, very nice about how you give it.

There's also this whole notion of people perceiving you as a pet, and then people perceiving you as a threat. If you are too competent and if you've had a ton of experience and you walk into some places and go about your work as though you know what you're doing, that could be off-putting to some people. There'd be times where I would pretend I did not know, again in order to make others comfortable. When that's not happening, there's the pet, "Oh, your hair is so nice. Can I touch it?" Or, "What'd you do this weekend? Oh, why did you do that? Why are you eating that?" And I've heard, particularly from women are Southeast Asian or other parts of the world, talk about the comments people make about their food and how insensitive it is.

The other thing is I wanted to talk specifically to Black women because there are ways that non-Black women who are not doing their own anti-racism work can perpetuate harm to Black women. I wanted to call that out and speak specifically to a group that there aren't enough leadership books and content focusing exclusively on.

Do you feel your peers are doing enough work to usher in the next generation of young Black women who are going to have to go through this?

Well, I want to be very clear that Black women are doing what we need to do. It is the institutions that we walk into that must do their work. My aunts would tell me, "Okay, here's what you can expect. When you go into this meeting, this is what you do." I had other sister friends pull me aside and say, "Okay, well, here's what you need to do," or "Who are your allies?" So I don't think that the onus is exclusively on Black women. We've put a lot of work in ourselves, we're among the most educated groups. I think that the people who want to be allies, I think the organizations, the people who hire Black women it's time for them to do their work as well.

This is a historical problem that we face, and I think you touch on it well. People need to understand how Black women were brought to this country and what they were expected to do. Not only birth the nation of people that built the country, but work right alongside with them and never given a space to complain or never given the space to be angry or never given the space to even have that trauma addressed. To that point, I loved how you broke down anger. Black women have a right to be angry.

Anger is huge, and the reason it's huge is because Black women have been taught from the time that we were little girls, you cannot be angry. You cannot show emotion. They're going to call you an angry Black woman, so you better be careful how you show up. They're going to mistreat your kids in school, but you can't go up there and be angry. You have to be calm. And so for some of this, what that can lead us to doing is to suppressing how we feel. When you suppress something for so long, you go numb and something will happen and you have to check in with yourself to say, "Wait a minute, how do I feel?" Or you feel, "I don't have the latitude to get angry. I just have to keep producing." And so for Black women, we've been denied anger as a legitimate emotion.

Anger will let you know when something is wrong. It will let you know when a boundary has been violated. When you go through life trying to escape that label, it will cause you to keep quiet when you really should speak. It will cause you to apologize profusely. When I meet women and they can live and they can own all of their emotions, I pay attention to how society portrays them. They may not use the term angry. They could say, "Oh, she's difficult." Or, "You're not going to get anywhere. Don't waste your time." Or they will nod as though they are interested in what she was saying with no intention of actually carrying it out.

I think a lot about Monique, the comedian, and I think about when she talked about being blackballed and when she talked about not being willing to work for free. That is so basic for all of us. When she initially came out, she was not well-received. People made fun of her, people thought, "Oh, the audacity," that she would expect to get what Amy Schumer makes or what some of the Black male comedians make. They did not treat her well. A lot of people had to go back and apologize or at least reconsider their position and I heard her talk and what she said is, "They wanted me to be comfortable with what they were giving me because I'm a Black woman. And because I'm a bigger Black woman."

We're always making calculations about how we raise things. If we are sexually assaulted and we go to police, we have to be composed. I remember when my son was little, I was in a custody battle with his father. His father desperately wanted to raise him and I wanted to raise him. I remember going into that court and my aunt saying, "Now, listen, they are already primed to see an angry Black woman. You can show no emotion." That was one of the most traumatic and painful experiences that I've had and I don't think I shed a tear in the courtroom. I kept everything in, I suppressed it. What we know about suppressing emotions is the body keeps score, so while I was not expressing the emotion of anger while I was not crying, when I really needed to be crying, it was impacting my body in other ways, it was impacting my mental health in other ways. What I say to people is, if you don't get anything out of this book, I want you to get the fact that you have got to give Black women space to express the full range of their emotions and anger is a part of that.

How can Black women forced to deal with that anger, start their journey of healing?

I'm a big proponent of therapy. I'm a big proponent of counseling and when it comes to therapy and counseling. I have been so immensely blessed by Black woman therapists, where there were no cultural barriers; they got it, they got me. I think focusing on yourself in terms of healing and therapy is critically important. I think developing a spiritual practice that works for you and really, really assessing the messages that we've gotten around religion too. And thinking about, "Okay, well, what is liberating for me? What is going to keep me healthy?"

It could mean that I'm going for a long walk. It could mean that I'm joining a supportive prayer group, it could mean that I'm meditating. Without doing those things, I don't think I would be here to have this conversation. What I say in the book is that in all of our doing, in all of our fighting for other people's liberation, we have to fight for our own liberation and sometimes that is daily work.

How should Black men be stepping up to make sure we can walk side-by-side in fighting that fight?

One of the most important things that Black men can do is to do their own work. When I have met Black men and they have been focused to taking care of themselves, getting in touch with their emotions, healing from past trauma, they are better poised to be a support for Black women. Doing their own work and focusing on their healing will immensely benefit us. I also think that men who are fathers, and even if you are not a biological father, but you are in a position to support someone's child, that is critically important. I would prioritize fatherhood and mentorship. You obviously want some level of career success so that you can provide, but I feel in the Black community, sometimes we put so much emphasis on providing financially and not enough emphasis on emotional development so that you could provide for a child, a nephew, a niece, a mentees for their emotional development.

As men, we are taught that as long as we're coming through with the money, then everything is fine when we need to understand that, that's the only part of the battle because we have to be emotionally available too or it's never going to be as good as it can be. Your book is also coming out at the time when we have a history-making first and only, Vice President Kamala Harris. How do you think she's going to be critiqued and watched and what is that going to look like?

There are going to be a ton of expectations for her, of what she should do and when she should do it. As we apply pressure on people, we can't single her out. We know that she's in a powerful role, but we have to give her the cover to do what we're asking her to do, but we also have to hold them all accountable. I think that she is going to face a unique path, a tough path, and a lot of it, she will not be able to talk about. Even if she writes a tell-all book four years from now, there are things that she will never be able to disclose. There will be people who think that she's not moving fast enough, there will be people who think that she can do more

I think what she has to remember to do is keep a tight-knit circle of Black women. And I said Black women specifically. A tight circle of Black women with all the expectations that so many stakeholders will have, that she holds on to what she wanted to do, and that she's able to bring some of that forward. The final thing that I will say is the goal is not to be the first and only. That's not the goal, that's a testament of where we are. Anything that she can do and others can do to ensure that it's not just us to open up spaces for other Black women, that's the goal.

Absolutely. Tell everybody where they can find "First and Only: A Black Woman's Guide to Thriving at Work and in Life"

You can buy it from the publisher Broadleaf Books, you can buy it from Target, you can get it from Walmart, or you can get it from any Christian bookseller. And I say Christian, because I talk a lot about having a spiritual practice. And anywhere that sells books.

By D. Watkins

D. Watkins is an Editor at Large for Salon. He is also a writer on the HBO limited series "We Own This City" and a professor at the University of Baltimore. Watkins is the author of the award-winning, New York Times best-selling memoirs “The Beast Side: Living  (and Dying) While Black in America”, "The Cook Up: A Crack Rock Memoir," "Where Tomorrows Aren't Promised: A Memoir of Survival and Hope" as well as "We Speak For Ourselves: How Woke Culture Prohibits Progress." His new books, "Black Boy Smile: A Memoir in Moments," and "The Wire: A Complete Visual History" are out now.

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Books First And Only Interview Jennifer Farmer Misogynoir Racism Salon Talks Salontv