Ashleigh Atwell

Ashleigh Atwell: When being second guessed is the norm

It never fails.

A customer calls for a manager and I show up. I make them an offer that benefits them and keeps my job out of jeopardy. They aren’t satisfied, so I call my boss. He comes up and says the same thing I say and suddenly, the customer has enough compassion to fill every mason jar on our shelves. They accept and go about their day. They leave and I’m left seething.

He’s a white guy. Well, you know what I am.

Here’s another scenario. A customer asks me where an item that we obviously do not sell is located. I tell them we don’t have it. A few seconds later, an employee flags me down on the floor to ask where the same item is with a now embarrassed customer behind them. I repeat the same answer from moments ago.

Like my boss, the employee is also white.

I have been working retail for two years and became management in April 2017. Despite my superior’s trust of my judgment and leadership, I am constantly undermined, questioned and disregarded by customers and even employees. There have been numerous incidents where what I say isn’t valid until someone lighter and male, regardless of rank, says it for me. I have also been disrespected in ways that others have not. While another female employee that is shorter or lighter than me might get yelled at every now and then, someone threatened to slap me. While a twink might use his professional voice to speak to my coworkers, I get the “HAY GURL” two snaps and a neck roll treatment. There are scores of other incidents I could share but I want to keep my job.

On Feb. 15, Catalyst, a nonprofit organization that focuses on helping women in the workplace, released a study saying people of color pay an “emotional tax” in their workplaces. This is defined as “that undue burden levied on many women and men of color as a result of unfair treatment,” according to The Root. Researchers surveyed 1,569 people for this study, 58 percent of Black women, 56 percent of Latinas, 52 percent of multiracial women and 51 percent of Asian women reported that they were always “on guard” at work in anticipation of mistreatment.

I wasn’t surveyed for this project, but I’ve built myself an armor to protect myself at work. I document everything and make copies because I know my credibility is more likely to be questioned. I study store policy thoroughly so that when I am inevitably questioned, there’s a printout to back me up. I tend to speak in a monotone voice so no one can misinterpret what I’m saying or doing as an attitude issue (it doesn’t work). When all else fails, I call someone with more privilege than me to handle the issue and walk away.

These preventative measures have varying chances of success and having to exert that extra effort is exhausting. It exacerbates my depression and anxiety and makes me suspicious and paranoid as hell. Writing this was cathartic for me, but my hope is that a white reader will take this information and remember it when they interact with a person of color that is working. Whether it’s your coworker or a cashier, just remember that they might be a little guarded because they’re used to ducking the crap being thrown at them.