Ayanna Brooks shared the trying challenges of being one of two Black employees in a predominantly White office. (Courtesy Photo)

By Ayanna Brooks
AFRO Commentary

When I was interviewing at , it was impossible not to notice the lack of diversity. When I accepted the job offer, I knew what I was walking into but everyone was perfectly pleasant so I was happy to be a part of such a great team. I think that two things can be true at once, and while I have never been blatantly disrespected, I did experience things that were problematic. As you may or may not know, I am no longer employed with the team. My last day was May 29. Protests began on May 27. To have these two major events, one personal and one global, coincide with one another led me to do a lot of reflection on my experience as a Black person in general, as well as what that experience entails in the workplace. 

During that reflection, I thought back to the time when I was interviewing and how the lack of diversity was immediately apparent. Before I ever met , I had walked past her desk and saw a photo of her beautiful, Black daughters. I was elated and simultaneously disappointed to learn there was exactly one other Black person at . As a native Washingtonian, I know this area is one of the most diverse in the country, so one could draw the conclusion that the lack of diversity is intentional. People have subconscious biases, so I don’t actually believe the lack of diversity is intentional, but an objective party on the outside looking in could easily conclude that it is on purpose. It’s not enough to be passively non-discriminatory. It’s important to be actively seeking diversity as well. has an elite reputation and I understand not wanting to diminish a reputation that you all have worked so hard for. However, I do believe that you can be elite and diverse at the same time. 

When making small talk with people in the office, there wasn’t ever a time where a conversation was had about things happening to people that look like me. White people have the luxury of not paying attention to things like this. It doesn’t affect them or their families, so it’s easy to be unaware. Not due to avoidance, but simply because these things are not a part of their worldview. When you get news updates on your phone, it’s probably not about issues in the Black community, but rather about things like politics and real estate. It was hard to have to make small talk about frivolous topics when I was constantly thinking about the trauma facing a group of people that I am a part of. Trauma that I, myself, was subjected to. 

I want to share a few of my problematic experiences at . When I first started, decided that my name was too difficult to pronounce and that she’d call me “A.” When introducing me to people or having conversations with a third party, she was always sure to tell people that my name used to be too hard for her to say and that she’d decided to call me “A,” despite it no longer being hard for her to pronounce. It almost felt like she was inviting them to do the same thing. My name is three syllables. If you can say Angela, Sophia, or Christopher, you can say Ayanna. I also remember calling me Ayesha rather than Ayanna on occasion. There were many instances of people (not necessarily employees) misspelling my name despite it being in my email address and email signature. 

I was very intentional with my hairstyles. There are reasons I rarely wore my hair straight. One was to benefit the health of my hair and the other was to avoid conforming to Eurocentric beauty standards that aren’t inclusive of my texture of hair. The one time I did wear it straight, complimented it and told me it looked nice. She then added that it looked “so professional.” If my hair is neat and presentable in the other styles I wore, why was that comment necessary to add? Are those styles “unprofessional” even though they make the most sense for my hair texture? 

One last example that comes to mind is when discussing my headshot, in which I had braids, with . She said that I should wear it pulled back or straightened rather than in braids. She then stated that my braids were nice but they didn’t make me look as “pretty and sophisticated” as I really am. Does that mean that my braids are ugly and unsophisticated? It’s hard not to feel like that was a coded way to say that my braids were ghetto or something along those lines. These are all examples of microaggressions. I don’t believe any of these people had ill intentions behind their words. I’d be willing to bet and {boss name] don’t even remember their comments, but their words stuck with me, and despite not being ill intended, they are still a problem. 

The Instagram has made six posts since May 27. Not one of them directly addresses or discusses the current events, despite the days of protests that have been occurring in the heart of the city. Boarding up an office and turning it into an art installation, while encouraging people to take a photo seems more like self-promotion than anything else. There is no one alive that doesn’t know what is going on in this country. People may have been able to be blissfully unaware of other events in the Black community, but people are making it clear that this can’t be ignored and it’s not going away quietly. Racists have to buy houses too, and I understand protecting your business. Homophobes also buy houses, yet has clearly positioned itself as an ally to the LGBTQ+ community. It’s not enough to only care about causes that directly affect you. Can you imagine what life is like for a Black person who is also in the LGBTQ+ community? There is intersectionality between my Black community and your LGBTQ+ community. 

During my time with the company, I never spoke up when I had these problematic experiences. The reason was because I couldn’t afford to be seen as an “angry Black woman” stereotype. In my personal life, I’m known to be outspoken, but I never felt like I had the space to truly be myself in the workplace. Obviously, everyone presents a buttoned-up version of themselves in the workplace, but most of the time, their true self is still presented. White people are able to assert and advocate for themselves without having to think about whether or not they’d be perpetuating a stereotype. 

Racism will not improve or be eradicated if White people don’t start to educate themselves on what it is really like to be Black in America. It won’t improve if White people don’t confront their peers and call them out when they say and do things that are not okay. It starts with educating yourself and then talking to your family, friends, and colleagues. I implore you all to watch “Time: The Kalief Browder Story”, “The Innocence Files”, “Pose”, and “When They See Us” on Netflix (if you haven’t already). A lot of streaming services have documentaries, series, and films that detail the Black experience. The material is there, but no one can be forced to watch or pay attention. It’s not enough to just consume media with Black characters and plots, but still perpetuate stereotypes (i.e. shows that depict Black people as drug dealers and criminals). It’s on the individual to make that choice to educate themselves. That’s a tough choice to make when the issues don’t directly affect you, but it’s a necessary one. Black people are essentially powerless in the fight against racism because it is perpetuated by White people. In fact, it is even perpetuated by other minorities groups as well. We rely heavily on allies in this fight

I want to end by saying I have the utmost respect for each of you copied . My intention is not to throw anyone under the bus in any way, but rather to be transparent. I thought long and hard about sending this email. I’ve spent hours drafting it. I’ve chosen my words carefully. I have spoken with three people currently employed at , as well as one former employee. I’ve also talked to my support system of family and friends, as well as my therapist. I asked whether sending this email was a good idea and I received yeses across the board. I also learned that some agents have been privately discussing their disappointment with ’s handling of the situation. It seems no one else is going to step up and reach out directly, so I felt that it was necessary for me to do so. Maybe they might feel that they don’t have the authority to speak up, but these are exactly the people that should be speaking up. 

I am happy to continue this discussion if you’d like and I’d also understand if you didn’t respond at all. I have embedded some helpful links throughout the email that I hope you all check out at some point. If you have read this email in its entirety, including the linked information, I am more than happy with that and I thank you so much for your time and attention, as I know how valuable it is. I learned a lot in my time at and I am grateful for my experience at this company, but I would be lying if I said I wasn’t happy to no longer be a part of the culture at . I hope that after reading this you might be able to empathize with me and understand why I feel that way. I hope everyone has a great weekend.

Ayanna Brooks is a native Washingtonian and skincare enthusiast, who enjoys DJing, playing tennis and spending time with her very special pets.