So many years ago I don’t like to admit, I was a Bank Teller. It was so long ago that I did not have a computer at my station, nor a bill counter; I counted the money by hand, and kept track of cash via two carbon pads called Debits and Credits. This was just after the advent of cuneiform, right?
Though total crap at Math except when it comes to money, I was good at the job and quickly became the Merchant/Vault Teller. We were a little off to one side of the main Teller line, in a branch with heavy small business traffic, so unless I was bored, I had little idea of what was happening on the main Teller line.
Tellers came and went and one was Jennifer. She was a dark-skinned, petite, young African-American woman (we were all young because the pay was so bad). Jennifer was the sort of girl I think of now when I hear, Black Girl Magic: vivacious and outgoing, impeccably dressed and put together every day, beautiful, she just seemed to sparkle and she was great with customers. As far as I knew she was good at the job. I liked her. Everyone seemed to like her.
Being good at my job meant I also knew who wasn’t, because back in these Old Days if, at the end of our shift, our bus full of money didn’t balance the first time, we had only one shot at re-counting before we had to back away and a Manager or another Teller counted it down. Too many unreconciled discrepancies in cash, no matter how small, and one was gone. When a Teller was out of balance, I was frequently asked to count down his or her bus. I don’t recall ever having to count down Jennifer’s bus, though I frequently did that of the girl who trained me, a wonderful Teller who knew everything and was consistently out of balance every damn day, tiny amounts, until she was fired.
I can’t be sure how long she was with us, but it doesn’t feel like it was long before I noticed, well, a sort of turning on Jennifer. I didn’t understand it, and with longer and different hours, I didn’t get all the gossip from the Teller line. It just seemed like all of a sudden, no one liked Jennifer. Soon, she was simply gone. I never knew why, but Management communicated it was a Good Thing. What was unreconcilable for me was, what had she done so wrong or bad to get fired, when she balanced her bus every day and customers liked her? That was the job, and as far as I could see, she was good at it.
She was speedily replaced by another young, African-American woman, Leah, the wife of a serviceman at the nearby Marine base. Lighter skinned, quieter, she dressed simply and wore no make-up, she was pleasant with customers and diligent about her job. Everyone seemed to like her, including me. She was still there when I left.
An Ice Age or so passes, and Life found me working on a highly diverse campus when the gunning down of unarmed Black men by police and vigilantes spurred the foundation of Black Lives Matter. The shooting of Michael Brown in Ferguson, MO, had me worrying about every Black male student; would one of these kids I loved end up in the wrong place at the wrong time? Would someone look at the huge football player we all knew was a teddy bear, and feel threatened by him?
What I was seeing in the media didn’t feel complete; realizing I needed a fuller picture I looked for Black reporters and journalists. On Twitter I have found lots of smart Black women to follow in particular, women who’ve founded movements, women in the pulpits around our country, women with educations I can only dream of attaining. I need to hear their voices because what I see on TV, read and hear in the press, and what I experience personally of the Black people I live around, work with and for, does not balance. I guess at the time I felt a bit like when Katniss is shown how to spot the force field in the Hunger Games arena – there is something wonky about the edges telling one, You’re not seeing the whole picture. You’re seeing a construct built over hundreds of years, and it’s still building.
Among a disparate group of Black women I follow on Social Media, I hear repeated this same story with a few subtle variations: a new job, for which she is over-qualified, but still excited. An initially welcoming, majority White office of people who seem to appreciate her. Then a growing awareness of never being asked for input, despite an often superior education, perhaps with related degrees, or work experience in the field. The lightest push-back eliciting draconian measures, including but not limited to, Interventions, Coachings, probationary periods and a generalized chilling of the atmosphere.
Most disconcerting, heartbreaking, is the understanding that this happens to them again and again. I have never read one of these stories and it was the first time it happened. It’s the story of Black Womens’ working lives. Reading their truths dropped pieces into place for me, and told me that unreconciled feeling I’d had all those years ago was correct.
Was what happened to Jennifer racism? I don’t know. Was Leah more palatable to the rest of the staff and Management, all of whom were White? I don’t know. Both then and now, I had no way of knowing. But my gut says Yes to both; I just didn’t understand what I was seeing.
One thing I do know is, though taking the Red Pill brings both knowledge and horror, it is infinitely better than staying in my protective White bubble. I’m seeing more and more wonky things woven into the fabric of our country, and I will be calling them out.
Do you recall moments from your past that, with new information, have revealed themselves to be racist? Or sexist? Just wrong? What do you do with that knowledge?
Some awesome Black Women to look for on Social Media (Twitter): Symone D Sanders; Kimberly Nicole Foster; Wil Gafney; Abby D Philip; CaShawn Thompson; Ida Bae Wells;