I released a wail that sounded like fingernails on a chalkboard and traveled from my studio desk to my babysitter’s ears.
“They let you go,” she said of my employer after I told her the news. “I’m happy for you,” she added, in a soft and meaningful way. The babysitter had been a frequent witness to my work-related misery.
Before quarantine and before my executive food editor position was eliminated at Thrillist, I sought out a mental health counselor to help pinpoint the source of my anxiety at work. I would have panic attacks in the bathroom a few feet from my desk, then spray my face with herbal water. My confidence was low, and the scrutiny of everything I said or did was real. I still performed.
I was laid off via Google Meet at the height of the pandemic; it was a cold, fast and heartless goodbye. Frankly, I was set free. My employer was offering a severance package only if I signed an agreement that would limit my ability to talk about my employment. Within seconds of that virtual layoff, I knew that the only way black women like myself can begin to heal and reclaim our power at organizations where we have encountered gaslighting and emotional trauma is to refuse corporate muzzling.
My therapist had drilled into my head that my carefully documented experiences were evidence of racial microaggressions and workplace tokenism; I couldn’t push it down and move on. “I’m declining the severance payment,” read my email to human resources refusing to sign the agreement, which would have brought me a month’s salary and unused paid time off.
The #MeToo movement helped bring to light the pervasive culture of nondisclosure agreements, which allowed powerful men to get away with sexual harassment and abuse for decades. Now that racial prejudice in the workplace is finally being scrutinized on a wider scale, we must also recognize the role separation agreements might play in silencing people of color, who likewise fear retribution and blacklisting for speaking out against unfair treatment.
Black employees, I encourage you: If you have the privilege and financial means to do so, say no to separation agreements and general releases. It’s a form of protest — a declaration to wrongdoers that, at any time, you have the right to share bits or all of your story publicly.
My career has afforded me work-from-home flexibility, two James Beard Award nominations and literary contracts. Along my nontraditional road to producing and managing food content, I logged so many unsavory interactions that it became routine and often left me feeling like I was overly sensitive to prejudiced behavior. When I interviewed for an entry-level position at Saveur magazine, for instance, the editor in chief at the time barely lifted his head and didn’t bother to read my résumé. (This was after I had published a cookbook with a major publisher.)
At Thrillist, I thought my boldness, unbought principles and work ethic would be the magic bullet to get black candidates job interviews or change the culture of rewarding less-than-mediocre white team members with new roles. It didn’t. I was the broken record, singing “Lift every voice and sing, till earth and heaven ring” — while feeling undermined and undervalued by my bosses at every turn.
Food media is having a reckoning with racism. The editor in chief of Bon Appétit resigned earlier this month after an old photo surfaced of him cosplaying a Puerto Rican stereotype and amid reports of unfair treatment of people of color on staff. Black cookbook authors have crafted mini-essays detailing publishing woes. Screenshot Slack messages and old emails are becoming more valuable than gold. I bear witness to the rise and fall of the white-dominated culinary world.
I owe it to my lineage and to nameless blue-collar workers to speak up, even as it makes me uncomfortable. Merely thinking about the invisible boots that crushed the dreams of previous women isn’t enough. Remembering the water hoses that knocked down black Americans or the violence they encountered while merely trying to integrate lunch counters isn’t the only way to honor individuals who held a mirror up to our nation.
For 381 days, the Montgomery boycotters risked their lives and livelihoods. For modern-day black professionals, if your mortgage payments aren’t at risk and your kids will continue to enjoy their favorite snacks, protest. We must get on one note.
In 2020, black professionals are up against a different kind of white supremacy. More often than not, this racism isn’t hooded or carrying a burning cross; it’s dressed as wage disparity. Saying your truth isn’t “cancel culture,” it’s changing the culture. Workplace ills rooted in racism are a disease; we need a vaccine.
It’s a debt paid to our living and dead ancestors. My mother worked for over 30 years at a poultry plant in Georgia. It wasn’t her plan to cut chicken livers for life; she wanted better for me, a “good job with insurance.” A career where I didn’t have to make bill arrangements, stand in line for a money order and eat my lunch all in an hour. I saw her rise before the sunset and come home in the dark.
She never spoke about her job — except for the strict rules around performance and attendance. The accumulation of points or demerits meant you were out; the union or Twitter army couldn’t save you. We are repaying our aunties, who were the church secretaries on the weekends but the real-life “help” during the week. They had no employer 401(k) accounts or an office manager to mail their belongings when the office reopens.
Our disruption is for them. And as we hold companies accountable when they share “we believe Black Lives Matter” statements, we must demand that black people feel empowered to share their stories of feeling sidelined, ignored and racially discriminated against. I stand with the labor activists, like the unions representing Condé Nast employees, who are calling for the ban of NDAs in such cases. I stand with my black peers like Tiffany Wines, who recently broke her NDA to publicly recount her painful experiences while working for Complex magazine.
After you leave a toxic work environment, not caving in to a “hush your mouth” document makes it better for the next black person. You can leave the door cracked with a detailed note. The bright and eager food editors have a right to know the names of allies, and the best office location to say a little prayer when times are rocky.
I thank Ahmaud Arbery, Breonna Taylor and George Floyd for shifting our collective consciousness about structural racism, for dragging the demons from the corners of the water cooler and whispering to black people that we are still the hands that rock the cradle of the world. For this moment to stick, have the gall to stand — and tell it like it is — uninterrupted. Say it loud.
Nicole Taylor (@foodculturist) is a food writer and producer.
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