“My dream job became a nightmare”: women of colour on being silenced in the workplace

Written by Soraya Bouazzaoui

In the wake of the Naga Munchetty scandal, women of colour share their own experiences of being punished for speaking out at work.

In the most recent update of the BBC’s reprimanding of Naga Munchetty, it has been revealed that the original complaint on Naga Munchetty also included co-host Dan Walker. This apparently contradicts the BBC’s editorial standards chief’s statement that Walker evaded reprimanding because they ‘hadn’t had a complaint about Dan Walker’s role.’ A spokesperson for the BBC later explained that the ECU focused on a third, and more concise complaint by the same viewer, who had chosen to ‘specifically focus on Ms Munchetty’s comments rather than Mr Walker’s.’

Following this, director-general Tony Hall has overturned the ruling, stating that he didn’t think “Naga’s words were sufficient to merit a partial uphold of the complaint”. OFCOM has also since criticised the ‘lack of transparency’ with the BBC during their original ruling, and stated that they would also be addressing the situation as a ‘matter of urgency.’

However, is anyone surprised by the gargantuan effort to seemingly victimise and penalise Naga so harshly prior to Hall’s intervention? No. Are we angry, though? Absolutely. Because whatever the BBC’s explanation, to disregard half of the original complaint which had been the catalyst for this event and which was made against a white man, and instead only reprimand the brown co-host, looks a lot like racism to me.

It wasn’t that long ago – 2017, to be exact – that we witnessed what appeared to be similar treatment of model Munroe Bergdorf, who was fired from L’Oreal following her statement that the existence of white people within the west was drenched in racism (L’Oreal had said her comments were at odds with their values). And the racism, transphobia, and backlash she received on social media following the incident was overwhelming.

Speaking to Stylist anonymously, a journalist still in the early stages of her career stated that as a woman of colour she is “very conscious” about how to portray herself and her views to other people. She explained that she couldn’t feel she could “bring her whole self to the day’, when interacting with people in order to have “certain types of conversations and appear ‘palatable’ within them”.

This behaviour was also learned due to the fact that, in her previous workspace, the journalist was the only woman of colour in the room, and received racist treatment from her white male superior. She recalls that the senior “failed her appraisal, without a valid reason”, would “cut a lot of slack for white male colleagues” and would set her work “so far above the grade” that was expected of her without support.

When our anonymous source eventually complained to HR, though, “nobody wanted to hear it” – despite the fact she had plenty of physical evidence to hand.

“I know a few journalists who have gotten their foot in the door by pitching their identity,” she remarks. “The worrying thing is that you can end up trapped in a box where all you’re seen as is that.”

This feeling of tokenism and silence is rife throughout the journalist and publishing industry. Indeed, the Bookseller recently revealed that a staggering 55% of BAME employees felt that publishing was not open to change and improvement for inclusivity.

One staffer in a publishing house spoke to Stylist anonymously, stating that one of her biggest fears is “working my ass off to get a seat at the table, only to be labelled the brown girl who only ever talks about diversity”. She went on to describe the feelings of conflict she felt around speaking up.

“When white colleagues fail to acknowledge their own privilege and complacency, I have to decide which is worse,” she told us. “The fear of that label, or the overwhelming one of being silent.”

When asked whether she felt like she’d be reprimanded for vocalising issues with race within the company, and whether that stopped her, she stated that what she witnessed at work were “talented people of colour speaking their truths and getting reprimanded because it ‘didn’t represent the company’”.

“How am I ever meant to feel secure doing the same?” she asked. “Your managers have training and experience: if they’re half decent, they know how to make you feel supported, how to make sure that someone higher up on the ladder has your back.”

However, she added that she herself has experienced no such support. “Ultimately they’re closer to the top than they are to you, and in my experience, the company will always come first.”

Another spoke of her time at an agency, in which she – a black woman – was an assistant and how the only other colleague on the same entry level as her, a white male, received better treatment and was given leniency.

“He was never given the tasks I was, the ones no one else wanted to do, but I was subject to to sly depersonalising comments and ‘jokes’, while doing them,” she said.

Our source went on to explain that these comments (which saw her described as having “distracting” hair) had an enormous impact on her emotional wellbeing. “Being made to feel ‘less than’ makes you feel like you need to keep quiet in order to progress through the ranks,” she said, “and the ‘dream job’ suddenly becomes a nightmare.”

Throughout Stylist’s investigation, one thing became devastatingly common: the black and brown women who did speak to us wanting to help, but were too afraid to go into detail or talk at all out of fear of their comments being linked back to them in the workplace. Some had even signed NDAs, which meant they were legally bound to silence – even if they remained anonymous. It should go without saying that businesses who instill such fears into their BAME employees, whether intentionally or not, are perpetuating and contributing to systemic racism and causing their employees irreversible harm. They are stifling their own attempts to be more diverse.

But being a diverse business doesn’t just stop at the recruitment, and BAME employees – especially black and brown – need to stop being expected to leave their ‘otherness’ at the door in favour of being a representative of a company, or impartial. Their experiences, with both racism and different cultural history, is part of the fabric of their being. Hiring BAME staff means hiring them as a person that brings their history and experiences, which have shaped their view and opinions on everything. To expect BAME employees to abandon their identity at the door, and remain silent on issues that directly affect them, is systemic racism. It also reinforces the belief that diversity is just performative in these industries.

It reminds me of the saying that has circulated among black, brown and non-white members within in the industry for many years; white people are down for the cause, until they need to put their whiteness first. 

Image: Getty

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