Your perfect work record won’t protect you if you’re Black and don’t stay in your place
When people say “professional,” they really mean whatever norms that white supremacy has decided have value in the workplace.
By Nefertari Sloan
I was fired from my job as senior health & sexuality educator, the only job I’ve ever fallen in love with less than a month ago. I am a damn good sex educator. I am non-binary. I am Black. My identities are relevant in this case especially because I wasn’t terminated for failing to do my job well. I was terminated for instituting a professional boundary with my cisgender, heterosexual, white-passing employer that included interactions pertaining only to my job and nothing else.
I had tried and failed for years to go above and beyond for my colleagues; volunteering for and leading staff morale boosting initiatives like organizing the sunshine committee, staying 3 hours after the office closed to complete and pass out hundreds of candy grams for Valentine’s Day, creating Black History Month bulletin boards, and leading grand Marshals in the Pride Parade, all while maintaining a spotless professional record and exceeding expectations in every annual evaluation under 3 different supervisors. In less than 3 years, I taught over 800 sex ed workshops to thousands of youth. My calendar of schools was booked through next May. I wasn’t good at my job. I was great at it. I was the CHO. And a bag of chips.
But when you’re Black, it does not matter how good you are at your job. As my colleague K. Martinez who also left the organization recognized, what matters is how good you are at taking orders. I’ve never been good at taking orders, but people who see the color of my skin and assume I will comply because ‘Massa’ said so are often surprised at themselves for underestimating me. I wasn’t made to follow orders. I am here to lead.
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Black women are often paradoxically framed to be the source and solver of work problems with a fraction of the compensation of their white peers. I was offered $10,000 less than white employees doing the same tasks I was. People of color who enter oppressive workplaces are often rejected because their very existence challenges the insensible norms that white supremacy has outlined for mainstream society. Being direct about injustice is perceived as hostile. Being reasonably upset about negligence of employee safety is considered “unprofessional,” and, in more severe cases, projecting your voice instead of using a useless microphone is labelled a threat, or even violent.
I stood up that day the same time I did every other staff meeting and informed my peers that I would no longer be volunteering free labor. That I was depleted of my own resources and wasn’t supported in continuing these endeavors by leadership. When I asked who at the organization felt valued, and had ideas for ways to make things better, the CEO told someone to shut off my microphone. She then attempted to end the meeting early and told 150+ people present that day to “disperse.”
To oppressors, a QTPOC with a microphone might as well be holding a gun. Black people who have found their own voices and aren’t afraid to use them are terrifying enough to end meetings, cancel annual staff picnics, and never have all staff meetings again. Three months ago, I wrote an open letter to the board, fearful of the exact sequence of events that would later play out. I wish I had been wrong.
Upon my return from teaching 4 classes, I was stopped at the front door and fired in the lobby in front of patients and clients, as well as my fellow employees. I was not permitted to pack my things. I was not allowed to say goodbye. My own former supervisor misinformed HR about property I was never granted access to and they tried holding my final paycheck hostage. I was targeted, but I am not surprised. This is exactly how the system works.
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As a person of color, I was rejected for demanding accountability after spending years asking nicely and passing out hugs and toeing the respectability politics line. When people say “professional,” they really mean whatever norms that white supremacy has decided have value in the workplace. Any proposal that supports or centers marginalized people is seen as a threat to historically ‘dominant’ identities. Queer & trans people of color are left to do the expensive emotional labor of making sure everyone else isn’t uncomfortable. Which is not the same thing as unsafe.
Moral absolutism is the idea that an action can be right no matter what the consequences or intention. My intention was to set a “professional” boundary. Despite the unexpected outcome, I do not regret my decision—my words led to the resignations of many oppressive individuals who dared call themselves leaders in a beleaguered environment where they were never equipped with the perspective and experiences necessary to actually affect change. I am not responsible for how others react to my presence. I pray that we are all powerful enough to frighten oppressors with nothing but our words.
My story is not unique. Others have been let go for reasons not unlike my own and I write this piece so you know you’re not alone. You might be angry. You might be upset. But never doubt yourself or the choices you make that feel like common sense when people in positions of “power” are senseless.
I have lost almost every white “friend” I had in that toxic place, but I only regret the energy I put into holding space for white people who didn’t deserve it. Protect your energy. Protect your labor. Protect your peace. Protect your joy. Know your worth and know when to walk away. No matter how good you are, racism will have you painted as the Scary Black Person whose truth terrifies people into taking different routes to work. They will have their turn to move out of the way and your greatness will shine the way it was always intended to. Never allow someone with less to say silence your own voice. It’s one of the only things left we actually have control over.
Nefertari Sloan is a non-binary person of color whose primary inspirations are rooted in empowerment of marginalized communities through resistance of social constructs. Sloan is unwaveringly committed to unpacking the intersecting influences of racism, sexism, and erotophobia.