When I first started my research on the difference between revenge and justice, I knew the answer I was looking for. I found that answer, but was hesitant to align myself fully with it. The problem was that the opposing side had some good points too. The opposing side made me see myself in all my emotional rawness, inspiring a different article entirely. It is one that feels awkward to share, because it portrays me at my most vulnerable, but I believe that honesty is the path to healing, and more than anything, I want healing. Perhaps I want peace and healing more than I want revenge, or justice. The ideal would be to obtain peace and healing through revenge or justice. But since I’ve determined that revenge and justice may simply be out of my grasp, perhaps I’m willing to accept peace and healing instead. Let’s figure it out together, shall we?
My last job took a toll on me. Words will never be able to adequately describe how much it racked me to my core, changed me as a human being, and dimmed my hope for the future. That experience has formed a major part of the pool of anger that I pull from whenever I need to do anti-racism work.
I was a case manager at a non profit that specialized in conflict resolution. The Acting CEO decided to form a Diversity, Equity and Inclusion working group as part of a series of small working groups to tackle organisational issues. We suspected it was merely part of her ploy to get herself elected as the new CEO, but couldn’t say we blamed her. She had kept the place running for over 7 years in a major accounting position, while the founder and actual CEO was off leading trainings and being the face of the organization. Besides, it was a good idea in and of itself.
Being the naive Caribbean immigrant that I was, I saw this as a golden opportunity. Here was the all-white management team saying hey folks, let’s change the status quo around here, you deserve better. No amount of hesitation or denial from the other people of color could persuade me that this wasn’t what it seemed, I staunchly tried to convince them, rather, that we could actually spark an internal revolution.
There is much to be said about what transpired in those months, but what I want to highlight for the purpose of this article, is my fraught relationship with a forty-something white woman there, who we’ll call Betty Mae.
Betty Mae happened to be the person who actually trained me in mediation. I met with her and 3 other trainees over 12 weeks to get certified. We also worked in the same small office. We hit it off at the beginning, I thought her cheery, clumsy personality was endearing and funny. I even taught her how to twerk one time, much to the chagrin of my black female colleague.
“She was trying to twerk and looked like a paraplegic giraffe having spasms, I couldn’t let her go on like that,” I protested.
“Just…no,” my black female colleague insisted, “she’s gonna go into the schools and around other black people thinking she can twerk now. She’s already problematic.”
I accepted the feedback as a lesson: we do not teach white people to do black things properly. We condemn the attempt and ask them to cease and desist.
What I missed entirely, was their insistence that Betty Mae was “problematic”, meaning she had a history of doing and saying racist things to people of color at the organization. She refused to be held accountable when confronted and always claimed that she didn’t understand race relations in America because she was from (insert foreign country that continues to marginalize its indigenous population after stealing the land from them.) But Betty Mae was someone I got along with, someone I viewed as a mentor, and from what she portrayed to me, someone who seemed open to learning about anti-racism. I felt maybe they just didn’t like Betty Mae, and besides, I was preoccupied with other people there who were wielding their white privilege haphazardly.
It all changed one day, when Betty Mae and I had a disagreement. She would consistently ask for favors, and for help with logging into her account and tracking her work in our database, even though people had shown her countless times before, she refused to remember. That day, she invaded my personal space by sidling up right behind me at my desk, and asked, in that backhanded rhetorical way, whether I could spare a minute to help her with the same shit she always needed help with. I was in the middle of something, she had startled me, and I turned around I suppose, with an expression less than warm and accommodating, to ask her “right now?”
“Yes,” she said.
I sighed, and began getting out of my seat.
“You know what, not if you’re going to do it with that attitude.”
Betty Mae was severely mistaken. I had not even scratched the surface of attitude possible to display, as a young Afro-Caribbean woman. In fact, I was about to get up and help her purely out of my tendency to excuse her behavior, and the relationship I thought we had built. I didn’t owe her my assistance, I was not her personal secretary, this wasn’t in my job description, and neither was it the 40's where I had to jump up and say “Yes, ma’am!” In spite of my annoyance, I decided to calmly explain to her that on that note, I’d been meaning to have a discussion with her for some time now regarding these favors that were getting out of hand, but I didn’t find the time to do so as she was always so busy. Of course, when I say calmly, I mean calmly, but I also mean in my direct and frank Caribbean style.
This woman was so dramatic. She acted like she had seen a ghost, her eyes grew large and shrouded with fear, she spoke to me like she was speaking to a child, and told me that we would have to deal with this another day since I was getting upset. I could then sense myself truly getting upset, and the clock was striking minutes to five, so I decided to call it a day. Just when I was grabbing the last of my things, she stuck her head around the corner.
“Oh, you’re leaving?”
“What time did you get in?”
“I usually get in at 9.”
“Oh, you mean 9:30?”
With that clever little jab, she disappeared.
How can I make a long story short? I followed her into Tom’s office, and made sure she understood exactly what I thought about her manipulative, pretentious ways, in the Queen’s English of course, no profanity or shouting necessary.
Unfortunately, no matter how much I tried to figure things out with her after that like two adults specializing in communication, she insisted that HR needed to handle the situation, since I was that much of a threat. Against the backdrop of me speaking candidly about race at the non-profit and making several higher-ups “uncomfortable”, there had been a target on my back already. The growing situation with Betty Mae was simply the perfect storm to bring about my demise.
She successfully manipulated me into having a mediation with her to discuss what happened that day. In all honesty, I wanted her to understand what she did, that her reaction to my communication as a black woman made me feel dehumanized and hurt, as I thought we had a genuine professional relationship. During the mediation, she said that she viewed me as one of her daughters, that I had so much potential, that she even covered for me when other people at the organization spoke about me, and that she just wished I could see her as a human, and as a colleague, instead of as a white woman. She burst into tears, saying that she was lonely, and in all this I put aside the list of points I had brought to make her see my perspective, and passed her the tissues.
I had tried to explain how the power and privilege that she had as a white woman in her position had helped her at every step of our conflict, had worked against me, and even made the mediation possible when they handled other conflicts differently, much more punitively.
But she only retorted that I had power too.
I grabbed a sharpie and paper from the center of the table.
“What power Betty Mae? I have power? What is it, I’d like to write it down!” I said.
And she fell silent, only looked at me as I tried to decode what the look and the silence meant.
I forgave Betty Mae that day. I didn’t know about the nature of white women’s tears yet, and perceived them to be genuine. All of what she said touched me, and I suppose I pitied her to some extent, so I agreed to see her as a human and my colleague and not as a white woman. We should have had a follow up session to wrap things up neatly, as she had a phone call to rush to, but we never did.
I was shocked to find that the drama continued. Over time, I came to realize that Betty Mae had bamboozled me once more. She wasn’t interested in having a mutually respectful relationship. She only intended to restore her own sense of power, and my respect for her power. It was my duty to be sweet and nice to her, smile brightly when she walked in and show interest in her life. It was my duty to be an agreeable person of color who was at her beck and call. I was the one doing penance for what had happened between us, I was the one doing all the work of restoring the broken relationship, even when I had already conceded the most during our mediation. I had extended the olive branch, showed humility, and vowed against my better judgement to overlook her oppressive whiteness.
But in our last melodramatic and hilarious showdown, it all became clear to me.The girls had been right all along, Betty Mae knew what she was doing, and didn’t care to change. She didn’t care about me, she cared about her power. Two can play that game, I thought to myself, tapping into my dark side.
All I did was give her a taste of her own medicine. Pretend to be nice, business as usual, keep it light and professional, but keep in mind that this is about power, the other person must be subtly aware that you have power over them, that politeness is nothing but smoke and mirrors. This is how polite white supremacy works. I had to reverse it and get under her skin in ways imperceptible to everyone outside our dynamic, and I did it effortlessly.
But I only basked in glory for so long. Betty Mae, as an upper class white woman, had practically written the book on passive aggressive bitchiness, and waited for the perfect moment to strike.
We were getting a brand new CEO, who promised to come in, shake things up, and set us on the right track — upper class white woman style. I had high hopes for the incoming CEO, but truly I was shaking in my boots. She had to either be the wokest white woman on the planet or my life was about to get a helluva lot harder. In the all staff interview, she had talked the talk, wooing literally everyone else in the room, but when she gave an eerily textbook answer to my scripted question on the importance of diversity in the workplace, my spidey senses were tingling like crazy.
Lo and behold, Betty Mae talked shit about me to the new CEO. The woman, we’ll call her Pam, interrogated me for two hours during our tête à tête, and I could practically hear Betty Mae’s voice in many of the things she asked me. Touché, Betty Mae. You win, bitch. All of you are lily white and powerful and rich. Of course nothing I say is going to make sense to Pam when almost all the white people here want me to remember my place.
I ended up quitting mere days later, which is also a complex tale, but I never did get over Betty Mae’s impact specifically. I ruminated on everything she did to me for a very long time, and I was pissed that she had ultimately won. She was still there getting a hefty check, with her fancy position, leading workshops on Race of all things, committing endless microaggressions against other people of color there while they stewed behind closed doors, where her white fragility and arrogance could not be offended.
I wrote poems about her. I performed on stage impersonating her with a horrible blonde wig on and re-enacting what had gone down between us. I fantasized about getting justice. I wrote a scathing letter to her outlining everything I still wanted to say, read the whole thing over, then erased it word by word, and deleted the trace of the document. I consoled myself with the thought that if I ever saw her again I would let her have a piece of my mind.
I wanted her to be punished for her racist crimes. But alas, no one punishes the crime of racism. Not the North American justice system, and certainly not the North American workplace. In fact, both were founded on and are sustained by notions of white supremacy. My story was far from an isolated incident. There is an epidemic of black women being mistreated and undervalued, particularly in non profits. I’ve met several women and read countless articles testifying to similar traumatic experiences when they dare to speak up for themselves or their people. These hypocritical white women espouse feminism and claim to be our allies, then turn around and use their unearned privilege and power against us.
That’s when I started grappling with the question of what to do when justice is just out of your reach, when the hand reaching for it is too brown, too poor and too voiceless to matter.
When I lamented to my spiritual leader about what had been done to me, all he offered was that I shouldn’t seek revenge.
What I seek is justice.
What’s the difference between justice and revenge?
Read part two next week to find out.
“It is a fact that cannot be denied: the wickedness of others becomes our own wickedness because it kindles something evil in our own hearts.”