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By Melia Smith, Phoenix-based development professional

“Well actually …”

This is how gaslighting always begins.

I was meeting with my ED to tell her that I was quitting my position at Mesa Arts Center. Even though I came prepared to explicitly detail the reasons I was leaving, I was still surprised she bothered to ask why. If she’d been half cognizant of the chaos erupting in our department over the past 22 months, it should have been obvious to her. She hadn’t earned my honesty, but I was honest with her anyway.

Why was I so frequently told that I was a wonderful employee but was never considered for a promotion?

The ED, a white woman, responded to each of my carefully selected concrete examples with her own version of a reality that was so far removed from my experience that it was hard not to laugh in her face.

It made me wonder where she’d been. It made me wonder if we were even working in the same office and talking about the same people.

She implored me to give the benefit of the doubt to the two people central to the reason I was leaving. I strained to not let my eyes roll into the back of my head.

Why was I not being given the benefit of the doubt about my own lived experience? Why did no one believe me?

As I was quitting, I thought that there was nothing remarkable about my departure from Mesa Arts Center. After all, I’d left so many jobs for similar reasons and under similarly untenable circumstances. Quitting was a tool of self-care for me. I was just doing what I’d always done: struggling to survive until I was too tired to struggle anymore.

But my departure actually was remarkable. Because it turned out that I was the latest of four BIPOC people who were overtly or indirectly pushed out of the development department of Mesa Arts Center.

Looking back: an examination of the clues

I’ve been doing the internal work of turning over all of my experiences like stones and looking to see what’s underneath, what I missed. I’ve been looking hard at my past experiences through a different lens, one that views me as the rest of the world views me: a Black woman in a world that sees Black women as assets, sometimes — and as threats, always.

In 22 months, Mesa Arts Center was marked by the departures of four Black and Brown people from a development department that is only three-people large. In 22 months, under the direction of a singular executive director, there was 100% turnover of a department. Now, the entire development department of Mesa Arts Center is white.

I’ve never worked at a place that is so very desperate to tell on itself like this.

Gaslighting teaches us that since we can’t be trusted with our experiences about racism, we also can’t be trusted about our own experiences in general.

What happened at Mesa Arts Center had nothing to do with job performance and everything to do with Black and Brown people who were unable to make themselves small enough and quiet enough so that their white peers and supervisors felt comfortable around them.

Why was I so frequently told that I was a wonderful employee but was never considered for a promotion? Why was it that, when I left orgs, my superiors were “shocked” and “hated to lose me” but didn’t lift a finger to fight for me before that?

It was because I was a diversity box that they could check off. Being anything more in these spaces made me problematic. Speaking up about anything (as I am wont to do — an aggressive eight on the enneagram scale who will pop off at any and all injustices), made me seem like a threat. It also made each of my Brown colleagues at the arts center, who were all competent and capable and wonderful people, seen as a threat in the same way.

Gaslighting as a tool to protect white people

Us four BIPOCs at Mesa Arts Center each individually suspected financial malfeasance on the part of the finance director. Our concerns about her were never investigated. Instead, the attention was turned around on us. Gaslighting 101.

Gaslighting is an experience so common to Black and Brown folx in the workplace. We are taught to offer grace to people when they say or do racist things or when they commit micro- or even macroaggressions against us.

We are told: They’re a nice person, they didn’t mean it that way. I think you’re being sensitive. It isn’t as serious as you’re making it to be. They had good intentions.

Gaslighting extends beyond racist behavior though. Gaslighting teaches us — and the people who exact this emotional violence against us — that since we can’t be trusted with our experiences about racism, we also can’t be trusted about our own experiences in general.

Instead of considering what we were saying, the ED assumed the worst of us. She protected a person that we reported as doing harm to the organization, and in doing so, the ED sold four BIPOCs — her employees — out. What continues to be unfathomable to me was that the ED was so invested in protecting another white person and maintaining the appearance of her own competency that she didn’t consider that the threat of actual financial corruption was more damaging to the organization than the accusation itself.

Why were my Brown colleagues responsible for the obvious institutional dysfunctions that preceded their employment and continued long after their departure? Why only them? Why were my colleagues held to such a different set of standards? Why did the ED provide a space to listen to us without creating the same space to believe us? What made us so untrustworthy?

Why were my Brown colleagues and I held to such a different set of standards? Why did the ED provide a space to listen to us without creating the same space to believe us? What made us so untrustworthy?

The ED took a white person’s feedback about four BIPOCs seriously, imploring the four of us to work around the finance director because she held all the knowledge. We were shown that to question the finance director about her work or not show her complete deference was punishable by retaliation.

Once, when I told the ED that an incident with the finance director was frightening for me, she said, “Really? You were afraid of her?

And then when I told the ED I felt disrespected during that incident, she said, “Well actually, I was told you were shouting, too.”

It’s hard for me to imagine watching all of this from the outside, the turnover of the entire development department of an organization that prides itself on its accessibility to diverse audiences — and not questioning why. It seems so obvious to me that there is something systemically wrong here.

But people don’t seem to question behaviors and practices like this.

Then again, maybe it shouldn’t be surprising to me that people don’t question behaviors and practices like this. When surveyed, while only 13 percent of white respondents reported that they personally felt that they were discriminated against for being white when it comes to equal pay or getting promotions — more than half of white respondents said that they believe discrimnation against white people exists in the United States.

In the same study, 92% of Black respondents stated that they believe that racial discrimination against African Americans still existed in the U.S. today. Also, 57% responded that they believe they experienced discrimination in regard to pay and promotions and 56% responded that they experienced it when applying for jobs.

These figures not only reflect racial disparity when it comes to the workplace, but it also demonstrates a fundamental misunderstanding of systemic racism and discrimination and reflects the centering of the white experience. In the face of all of the data and lived experience of Black folx, how do more than half of white people in this country think that they face racial discrimination for being white?

How BIPOCs are primed to ‘fail’

At Mesa Arts Center, after each of my colleagues left, a smear campaign was activated to discredit them and undermine any and all of the good work they had done. Everything that had gone wrong in the department was now their fault. But the problem was solved because now they’re not here!

The failure of BIPOC folks in any environment, just any one failure, is remarkable — and it is noticed.

Why were my Brown colleagues responsible for the obvious institutional dysfunctions that preceded their employment and continued long after their departure? Why only them? Why were my colleagues held to such a different set of standards? Why did the ED provide a space to listen to us without creating the same space to believe us? What made us so untrustworthy?

This imbalance of standards breeds the kind of mediocrity in white people that insulates them to fail up instead of fail out. Instead of coaching the development director on lack of leadership or, sometimes, competency — the executive director rewarded these shortcomings through the termination of BIPOC employees.

White people are given the flexibility and agency to fail and struggle, and their failures are so unremarkable to other white people that they go unchecked.

In contrast, the failure of BIPOC folks in any environment, just any one failure, is remarkable — and it is noticed. The ‘failure’ of BIPOC folks get turned into write-ups, corrective actions, and — catastrophically — job loss. The collateral damage of simply noticing our perceived failures, no matter what size they are, is so much more devastating.

The cost of gaslighting Black and Brown folx

I often wonder what would have happened if anyone had chosen to believe us. I often wonder if anyone with any power had chosen to be a loud ally instead of a quiet one. What if someone defended any of us?

Who would we be if we didn’t have to spend all our energy toning ourselves down and making ourselves into people worthy of the white generosity of being believed and trusted? Who would we be if we got to thrive and not just survive?

If anyone had given me even just a bit of the same benefit of the doubt that they had committed to giving to less trustworthy, less qualified white people — how advanced would I be in my career?

How many Black and Brown folx have to wait until they are lucky enough to fall into the hands of an employer whose investment in equity will free these folx from the tyranny of being hired through and managed through a lens of white supremacy?

How many of us will even get that chance?

I have spent my entire career teaching myself to manipulate the systems of white supremacy and mediocrity that I have to operate within just to stay employed. I have spent my career teaching myself to be seen (but don’t take up too much space). Be heard (but be prepared to not be listened to). Share ideas (but expect someone else to take credit for them). Be present (but not accounted for). Do the work (and be grateful to do it because it could be so much worse).

Accepting the many transgressions that happen to us is the only way to cope without completely burning out.

But who and what would we be if we did not have to invest so much energy in making ourselves palatable to white peers and supervisors? Who would we be if we didn’t have to spend all our energy toning ourselves down and making ourselves into people worthy of the white generosity of being believed and trusted? Who would we be if we got to thrive and not just survive?

Today, 11 years into my development career, I am finally finding out what thriving feels like. I currently work at an organization that shows me I’m respected instead of just talking about it. It’s a place that took, very seriously, my convictions about grounding our work in race and equity and did not punish me for it. It’s a place that gives me the agency to lead that is reflective of my experience, without making me constantly prove I am worthy of the agency. I am lucky to work here, and for the first time in my career, I feel lucky of my own accord and not because my superiors are constantly implying I am lucky to be employed at all.

I still have more questions than answers these days though. I still have more anger than I know what to do with. Grief still lives inside of me all of the time. Guilt still creeps up on me and tells me that I am a fraud sometimes.

All of that gaslighting has done exactly what it was intended to do: Keep me questioning myself even when no one around me is.

In a recent Instagram live conversation about defunding the police, activist Janaya Khan said “I’m tired of living in a world where the strength of Black people is determined by their capacity to endure suffering.”

Yes, I survived Mesa Arts Center and every place before it, but what did it cost me? What did it cost my Brown colleagues?

It’s hard to take comfort in mere survival. Black and Brown folks all individually carrying the same exact baggage with no relief is painful. The shit is heavy.

Melia Smith

Melia Smith

Melia Smith (she/her) is a development professional, specializing in start up and in-transition environments. She currently oversees development at a homeless services agency in Phoenix, Arizona. The coronavirus pandemic has forced her to have hobbies outside of TV; currently she enjoys calligraphy and watercolor art, reading, and scrolling through Instagram for pictures of dogs. She agrees with Dr. Tressie McMillan-Cottom about the absurdity of LinkedIn, but you can find her there anyway, as well as on Instagram @notesfrommelia. Read more essays from her on an irregular basis on TinyLetter.

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