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Black Women On Being Called 'Girl' In The Workplace

May 16, 2017
Originally published on May 23, 2017 2:35 pm

Florida Sen. Frank Artiles, a Republican, resigned last month after the Miami Herald revealed he had said the n-word and called a fellow senator, Audrey Gibson, a “bitch”.

Artiles also referred to Gibson, a black woman, as “girl.”

He has since apologized for his words and his tone.

“Everywhere I read about that Frank Artiles situation ‘girl’ was the least interesting thing that people saw,” said Lutze Segu, a gender and justice organizer in Miami.  “Based on the messenger, based on who is delivering that ‘girl,’ people don’t understand all the historical context that is attached to that.”

Read more: Artiles Apologizes For Cursing At Black Lawmaker And Referring To Fellow Republicans As 'Niggas'

Women in the workplace are often confronted with sexist language. For black women, gender and racial discrimination can collide in a single experience—like being called “girl.”

During slavery and into the Jim Crow era black adult men were referred to as “boy” and women as “girl”—a constant reminder that black people were deemed infantile and not deserving of respect or proper titles even well into adulthood.

“How often do you hear a black man say, ‘Boy is a white racist word'?” said Loreal Arscott, a Miami Gardens assistant city attorney. “Women don’t say that often enough.”

Arscott said over the course of her career she’s been called “girl,” “honey girl” and “girlfriend” in professional settings.

At times she corrects it: “That’s Mrs. Arscott.” But she says it can get exhausting to fight that battle, so on some days she just lets it go.

Robyn Hankerson, a director of media relations and communication, said she was in a meeting taking notes when an older white male co-worker asked her, “Did you get this, girl?”

“I stopped and I said, ‘Excuse me. I am not a girl,' ” said Hankerson. “Using my gender at all in any way, shape or form is not necessary in the conversation.”

Hankerson says these slights don’t just come from men.

There’s another way the word “girl” gets used that some people think sounds cool or even complimentary.

For example, Hankerson said a nonblack co-worker who wants to pay her a compliment on her outfit would say, “Girl, that outfit is amazing. Girl, you working that today.”

But a few minutes later that same co-worker will compliment another person who isn’t black with, “Wow, that's a really nice dress on you.”

Hankerson says that in an attempt to connect with her as a black woman, she’s often met with a caricature or impersonation of how some feel black women speak to each other in personal settings.

"I note it as offensive," said Hankerson.  "And sometimes I have to walk around with a level of knowing that the intent may not be to offend."

NiCole Buchanan, a psychology professor at Michigan State University who studies the intersection of being a black woman in the workplace, says these experiences could usually be categorized as micro-agressions.

“Micro-aggressions reflect implicit biases that are unconscious to the individual that holds them,” she said, adding that just because the intent isn’t to offend, doesn’t make it any less harmful.

“When coping through micro-aggressions, people will often go through trying to calm themselves down [and] assume the person meant well,” said Buchanan. “This is at a high personal cost for the person trying to figure out the response."

A few months ago, Segu the gender and justice organizer, attended a fundraiser in Miami. She was the only black person there. While in line waiting for food, a man turned to her and said,  “Yeah, girl! Cause we’re ready to eat.”

“To be the only literal black person there and then to be ‘girl’d,’ finger snaps and neck roll, and I even think a ridiculous Beyonce reference was made-- this is too much in one human interaction,” she said.

Even though she trains employers and hosts workshops on inclusion and diversity, Segu said at that moment she struggled with how to respond.

“You freeze,” she said. “Where would I begin to tell you how that’s so wrong? It’s degrading.”

Jorja Williams, an attorney who specializes in estate and trust planning in Boca Raton, said these are conversations that need to be addressed and talked about more at work.

“I struggle with the intersection of racism and sexism because I am a younger black female in my practice area, so sometimes all of those lines blur for me,” she said.

Williams sits on the diversity and inclusion committee for the South Palm Beach County Bar Association. She said when micro-aggressions keep happening over and over again it can affect productivity and ultimately push an employee out. 

“I think topics on race and gender make people uncomfortable,” but she said those conversations are necessary.

Segu, who often gets invited to lead conversations about race and gender,  said it can be challenging to have a deeper more nuanced approach--like unpacking what it means to be called “girl” at work.

“How do you bring that up in a diversity and inclusion training when people want you cure racism in three to four hours,” she said.

She says for her and other black women who’ve been called “girl” at work and in professional settings, it's a delicate balancing act.

“It’s a mental health thing. In a day I cannot respond to every micro- and macro-aggression that I am confronted with,” she said. “I need a self to go home to. If I responded to everyone there would be nothing to cross over the threshold when I go home.”

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