Crabs in a Barrell: Black Women in the Workplace
I know this is a taboo topic!
But can I take a moment to discuss a topic that many of us struggle to discuss because it peels back the layers of facing some hard truths.
I recently ran across an article by Blackness and the Workplace entitled Crabs in a Barrell: Black Women at Work. The article discussed how some black women in the workplace can sabotage other black women’s success by exhibiting crabs in a barrel like behavior. The author mentioned they had not dealt with many Black women with the crab mentality, but they had “seen them in action against others.”
Well, I have had it happen to me. I can verify that it does happen. In addition, I can verify that it is not a fun thing to go through. When you are in a situation where other black women; the same women who are supposed to uplift you and fix your crown if it gets crooked, are tearing you down for no reason, it can be a hard pill to swallow.
This happened to me during my twenties. I remember being told by older black people that black people must always watch out for white men and women in the workplace. They would share their stories of caution. But these same people forgot to caution me about how some black people have the crabs in a barrel mentality at work. Including those stories would have saved me a lot of grief and post traumatic stress disorder.
I won’t go into the details of exactly what happened, because even though they happened a while ago, some of the stories feel like it happened yesterday.
Yep! It was that bad.
However, I do want to share the impact of being in an environment like this.
Being in this environment made me:
Questioned My Sanity. When I first noticed the crab mentality, I told myself that I was not trying hard enough to fit in. Especially, after watching other employees get hired after me and fit right in, who happened to be white. I began to make it a point to go things, even the things I didn’t want to just to show effort. But as time progressed, other things began to happen, and certain comments were made. I was pulled into awkward meetings; I was sometimes isolated; at times I felt like an afterthought. But I had convinced myself that I was the problem, or I was not trying hard enough; even though I knew that was a lie.
Develop imposter syndrome. It came to a point that I didn’t know if the person was trying to genuinely help me out or set me up for failure. I would question their motives, my actions, and how people viewed me; which made me fail so many times and seem incompetent in meetings where I knew what I was talking about; but I over thought and over complicated things. I truly felt like I was not equipped to do the job and did not belong in that space. Which was a lie.
Feel hurt. Once I realized what was happening, I was hurt! I had always been taught that black people; especially black women look out for each other. It was daunting to see someone align “with problematic white co-workers and putting up barriers,” or trying to close the door behind them.
Outraged. I held steadfast in my belief that we, as black women, must stick together. It did not help either of us to be pitted against each other. I believed we should have been extending support to each other. I believed that if I progressed then they would too because it helps to break glass ceilings and get us at tables that only had our white coworkers sitting around.
Depressed. At first, I really did look up to this person, because of their story of working up through the ranks, and defying the odds. Being the first black person in that role. What it meant to not only me as someone fresh out of school, but to others we served as well. I did not know how to react to that situation at the time.
Acceptance. I learned that I had to accept the things that I could not change and move forward. I realized it was nothing I could do to change them or their mind about me.
Although this happened some years ago, there were some valuable lessons it taught me.
Document. Document! DOCUMENT! I can’t say this enough. My mentor taught me this very important skill. Write down things, keep copies, take screenshots, etc. Do whatever you need to do to keep a record of your work, meetings, and emails. I found this to come in handy more than a few times. It is a great feeling to pull out the receipts, as Gayle King would say, when your work is questioned.
Be friendly; and not friends with people at work. I learned this phrase in graduate school in one of our leadership books. People at work are not your friends. Go to work, be nice, friendly, cordial, get paid, and go home. Sharing too much with your coworkers can give them the information they need to undermine you as they engage in gaslighting, politics, and other forms of sabotage.
Dot all your I’s and cross all your T’s. If you can help it, don’t wait until the last minute to do stuff. Give yourself the time needed to adequately do your job, so you can have time to complete your work, review your work, review your work again, and document your work.
Bonus! Network to show people the real you. I quickly learned the importance of networking and getting to know people myself. By doing this, I was able to show them the type of person I am and my work ethic. Like the African proverb says, “Until the lion learns how to write every story will glorify the hunter.”
Want to hear me go more in depth on this topic?
Check out my podcast Brown Professionalism Podcast this Sunday.
Available on iTunes, Spotify, Anchor, Google Podcast, iHeart Radio,