The things I don’t tell you

by an anonymous #WomenEd contributor


Most black people will never tell you exactly what they feel about race or how being a minority in this country has affected their day to day life. Not your friend, definitely not your colleague and possibly not even your partner or your child.   Because it permeates so many things that we forget to mention and because the truth is that you can’t really handle it. If we mention the instances where we know we’ve been treated differently because of our race,  for some of us, it’s so often that you probably won’t believe us. Also you’ll start to feel guilty and possibly uncomfortable and that means our relationship with you may be damaged. In a work situation this is definitely a problem. Also, something your black friend or colleague probably won’t mention  is that there is shame around this. In the way that an abused wife is reluctant to talk about how her husband beats her. Is it actually my fault? Could I have done something differently?


We won’t tell you even if you ask. We may give a muted sanitized version, so even then the instance we’ve shared and you are shocked by isn’t even the worst of it. Or the thing in its totality. 


We won’t mention the overt racism, or being made to feel like we don’t belong or the constant questioning of our competence or the condescension or having our views overlooked (especially on race) until a white person backs us. I have worked in schools in England for over a decade. It happens as a child, as a parent, as a teacher, as a member of SLT. It happens in mixed rooms, rooms full of white men, rooms full of white women. 


What we do become good at though (especially those of us operating in predominantly white spheres) is reading a room, virtual or physical, taking the tone, noting who is trustworthy and who feels off. Why? Because for some of us our lives and physical safety quite literally depend on it. Our economic security definitely does. 


So although we may not say anything, we look. We listen. We hear the jokes that make some people insiders and others not. We observe the language that is mocked and ridiculed by people who are in a position to change perceptions and do some good. 


We often can’t do anything because we are not in positions of power and if we are our numbers are few and our positions feel insecure but we notice and then we know who we can be safe with. The small things indicate the big things. 


(I am writing this as a black woman – I can’t speak for other minorities in this case). 


  1. There are an enormous amount of invisible barriers women of color must deal with that white people don’t. Your point about scanning the room for safety is SO powerful. While you’re scanning the room, trying to work out your safest ally, white people are going about their networking with much fewer worries and greater freedoms. That translates to fewer opportunities and it isn’t appreciated by those who are blind to those barriers. And to those who don’t feel them. We can imagine the barriers, but if we don’t feel them it’s harder to understand. White women have to limit their networks to avoid creepy men, but women of color have to avoid the creeps AND the racism. The Twitter activity of the last few days proves we have so far to go. I’m thankful to WomenEd for having these conversations.


  2. I cannot applaud the author enough – you have described my working life in education. In fact you’ve described my life! I have nothing to add because it’s so accurate!!! As I get older I’m becoming less worried about making others uncomfortable and knowing that the calling out my truth is the key to helping those coming up behind us to have a better opportunity to make a difference. As a black woman in school leadership for the past thirteen years, I have sadly seen the scenarios and circumstances described but the higher up you get, the more regularly the scenarios are played out. I will continue to challenge and call things as they are – all the while dodging the “angry black woman” “face don’t fit”, “we don’t know how to deal with her” silent thoughts and comments that are inevitably out there. And no – I didn’t imagine it. I know it’s out there.


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