Rhea is the Principal Publicist of the PR firm agency1408.
“I’m going to keep going for the women that feel like they don’t have it in them to keep going because maybe one day they will find their voice…”
Can you tell me about the kind of support that you would like people who consider themselves to be allies to offer? Just don’t be a secret ally. Don’t be a secret champion. Don’t watch something unfold and then go back to your Black or Brown or other associate and say, “Yeah, that was messed up and I wish…” No, please don’t wish. Say something in the moment because in that moment, those are the only groups of people allowed to say something without coming off as combative or I can’t count how many times I’ve been called aggressive or been asked, “Well, prior to you sending an email, would you mind just fluffing it a little bit, so it seems more friendly?” “No, because you don’t pay me for fluff. You pay me for responses and answers, so no, I’m not going to do that,” but we need people to be vocal or stay out of the way. You’re not allowed to tell us how to feel and you’re not allowed to host these D&I conversations and all these trainings, but then still push back and challenge the Black experience.
If you had any Black female co-workers, did they provide support to you? Or did they create additional barriers for you in the workplace? I’ve seen both sides of the spectrum. I’ve seen where we get together as Black women and champion each other because it’s the only space we have to be safe and regurgitate all the shit we’re going through with work without feeling like it’s going to come up in some report tomorrow. I’ve also been on the other side of the spectrum where a Black woman can be your kryptonite or where you walk into a room and you have to ask yourself is this woman going to be my ally or is she going to be my Lex Luther in this? You don’t know and it’s unfortunate that we’re in that world where you just never know who’s going to be the villain or who’s going to be the champion.
Or you have got Black women who consider themselves self-appointed gate keepers who feel like I have to be so hard on you because they require so much. It’s like, “Girl, fall back. Let’s not make this a thing,” or you have the one who felt like, “Well, I had to fight my way through, so I’m going to make sure you have to do this as well.” It’s like, that’s not what we’re supposed to be doing here. We’re supposed to be extending the table, not saying, “Oh, well, that’s where you find the tree. Go chop down your own wood with no instructions. Have fun while I go cackle it up with all my white homies. Yeah, I’m going to make that Black girl work real hard.”
We have the few that say, “Hey, I know you’re in this field. I came across this. Is this something you’d be interested in?” Then you have the ones that are like, “Nope, I had to crawl, so everyone else has to, too.” What the fuck are we doing here?
If you had to describe your time spent at PWIs in 3-5 words, what would they be? Exhausting, challenging, and fulfilling. [Amber: Can you tell me how you landed on those words?] I guess the fulfillment is coming in and getting it done. I don’t know if that’s a matter of we’re always told you have to be 10 times better; you have to work 10 times harder. I don’t know if it’s the proving to ourselves or to the institution that it can be done. As a Black individual in any institution, you don’t just show up as you. You show up representing your entire community. We carry a different burden because it’s no longer just about us. It’s about who comes next in line, so we have to operate from that, and that shit is heavy. It’s fulfilling knowing that you prove we can do this, and we do a lot of things better than a lot of people, so I’m hoping that you see this, and you do hire more Black women. I’m hoping that you see this, and you stop pushing back against Black women to do the job that you hired them to do, that you deemed them qualified on paper, that you deemed them qualified in an interview, yet something in you still won’t allow them to operate at their full without you pushing back for whatever reason. I think if we can get past that part, so much opportunity is going to come from it.
What is the most impactful microaggression or discriminatory act that you can remember experiencing in the workplace? I also don’t think people realize how small some of the nuances are when they’re projecting them onto others. They have this mindset of I can’t possibly be a racist or I can’t possibly have something against Black people or Brown people or other because I don’t use the N-word, I say hello to them at the water fountain in the office and I hold the elevator for them. It’s like, that’s three checked boxes of 10,000, so I’ll go down the rest of the list and then give me a call. How is it 2020 and we’re still trying to pass a bill to make our natural hair more acceptable in the workplace? Basically, you’re telling me the way it grows out of my head is problematic. But I also don’t want Black women to be frightened of PWIs because I feel like we need to sprinkle our magic everywhere and we need to show up and be loud and be boisterous. We’re no longer in a position where I’m going to allow myself or other Black women to play small because we’re not. We’re bold. Our names are bold, our presence is bold, and I think that’s what frightens people. How are they this able, how are they this capable.
How did your experiences impact the trajectory of your career? It makes me want to go somewhat harder because I’m naturally aggressive and competitive. Tell me I can’t do something, I’m going to do it three and four times. I always think about my younger sister, who doesn’t like confrontation. I have to think about her, and other young women like her, so if I’m the vocal one, if I’m the bold one, I have to be bold for me and women that look like me. I have to speak up. I have to let you know up front when something is not right. I’m going to keep going for the women that feel like they don’t have it in them to keep going because maybe one day they will find their voice, maybe they’ll hear conversations like this or keep reading these stories and say, “You know what? That girl’s not a unicorn, she’s not the one-off. I can do this as well.” That’s the part that I want all of us to get to where, no we’re not going to be able to change every PWI, but they don’t define you and what people project onto you can’t become your reality.
Are there any additional comments you want to share about working in a PWI? I think these institutions are going to be who they are and, unfortunately, they’re built upon their forefathers and they’re very old. A lot of their boards are still very old. They’re not always going to understand the magnitude at which this really affects the way the world goes round, but we also have to do more to build our own institutions and pillars because that’s all that they’ve done. People are not smarter than us. You look at the last 400 or 500 years at how much we’ve accomplished with what has been in our way, so that if we can come together to continue to do that…or when we are in these high positions in PWIs say, “I’m going to mentor somebody or I’m going to reach out to somebody to make sure that they have a seat at this table.” We have to hold ourselves to the same level of accountability, if not more, than we want to hold these institutions.
People don’t realize though this country was built on our backs, it was never built with us in mind, so how do we rely on a system that was not for us or took us into consideration. There’s no fixing it. We’ve got to crack this shit open and rebuild it and the only way that it’s going to work for us is if we start rallying amongst each other because the power is in the numbers.