When black people are denied justice, are we allowed revenge?
Printergate began innocently enough.
I was busy handling a case with two clients who came in for a co-parenting mediation, and requested multiple copies for one of their documents.
I had sent the file to print, but when I checked by the printer, my documents were nowhere to be found. Betty Mae was in her office, with the door open and a pile of sheets on her desk. I knew she had also been flitting around the printer, printing things, and she had a strange habit of grabbing all the sheets that were printed and taking them with her.
Another colleague, Emma, came and asked me “Hey, did you see my prints?”
“No, my prints aren’t there either,” I replied, talking loud enough for Betty to hear me, checking out of the corner of my eye for her to act suspicious, partially hoping she would come out and admit she had accidentally or otherwise taken our prints.
“Weird,” Emma muttered.
“Yeah. It’s like we have a magical print fairy. And I know exactly who it is,” I looked directly into Betty’s office as I said it. We locked eyes, and she had the air of a guilty puppy. Much to my surprise, my documents still weren’t there the second time I sent it to print. By now, the client was irritated, and left without it.
I hated appearing inefficient. On top of that, the fact that she took it again even after I made the announcement that I was on to her, seemed to be a clear message, especially in the tense aftermath of our initial conflict. Her microaggressions were getting on my nerves, and it was dawning on me that she wasn’t as ignorant to racial power dynamics as she pretended to be. Rather, she had been using it to her advantage the entire time.
I was too upset to ask her about the prints, and decided to let it go until I cooled down enough to figure out the most professional way to deal with the situation. But moments after the client stormed out, Betty Mae appeared at my desk. She was lingering around, doing nothing in particular, and when I ignored her she came all the way to the front of my vision and pretended to sort through the bookshelf. That bookshelf contained nothing but brochures and plants, there was absolutely nothing she wanted on that bookshelf. She simply wanted to taunt me, knowing that I was upset with her, knowing that in my anger I tended to become passionate, and once that happened, she automatically had the upper hand. I would explode on her, she would pretend to be clueless, and I would get into trouble for being antagonistic — again.
As she prowled, I bit my fist and kept my eyes averted even though I was bursting at the seams. I had an odd little flashback in that moment, of something I’ve obviously never lived. I saw myself toiling away in a cane sugar mill while massa’s wife loitered nearby, waiting for me to dare glance in her direction. It’s a new day, Betty Mae. My lineage are warriors. My lineage broke the tools and poisoned the food and burned the cane. You’re barking up the wrong tree.
I managed to keep it together, and only brought it up with her in an email, cc’ing my supervisor Cody.
She never replied.
Sometime around then, it clicked in my head. Our roles were pre-determined, right? She was the passive aggressive, genteel white lady, and I was the aggressive angry black woman. She got to play the game of being nice and polite and professional in a workplace culture that favored her, that needed her to keep her power moves subtle. I, on the other hand, got no true glory by bending to the status quo. It would not lead to the desired outcome if I kept playing by their rules. It was time I invented my own rules. It was time to become the monster they viewed me as, have some fun with it.
There were three of us left in the office that afternoon, her, me and Bill.
I went to the fridge in the kitchen, which was opposite her office. She couldn’t see inside but could generally hear what took place in the kitchen. I walked up to the fridge, opened the door, looked inside for a moment.
“F**k this fridge.”
I slammed the door hard.
Passed by her doorway as I left the kitchen, gave a small smile.
Got back to my desk and blasted some scary ass Jamaican dancehall music. Comes off as hostile as rap would, plus the intimidating Caribbean accents and edgy bass beats. Then I picked up the solid black clipboards at my desk, let them slide out my hands and crash to the floor, one by one. Gathered them noisily in a pile and slammed them onto my desk again.
What a rush.
She came out her office and passed my desk to go to the bathroom outside. When she got out the door I opened it again and slammed it.
She and Bill decided to leave for the day and I was certainly gonna go with them.
“Ah, I am like, so exhausted today,” in my sweetest white voice, “but the weather has been lovely lately, don’t you think?”
They wanted pleasantries, and talk about the weather, and light fluffy words? I’d give it to them. I could be a white woman too.
While Bill talked to me cheerily, oblivious to my elaborate performance (his office was in the back, he didn’t hear a thing earlier), Betty Mae pursed her lips and followed me with her eyes. Those moss green eyes spoke volumes. In them, I saw defeat. In them, I saw fear.
And it felt so incredibly good.
I drank the fear from her eyes like a vampire getting its first taste of blood. In our wider world, she had all the power over me. Now look at her. Pathetic. I was aggressive, wasn’t I? I was black and angry and violent and scary, wasn’t I? Fear is to respect as respect is to power.
I carried on, just a little longer, as we all went down the elevator together and I complimented her and Bill eagerly agreed. A polite smile on my face the entire time. So this was what it felt like to mask your true intentions with a bright disposition.
Why did I become a monster to Betty Mae that day?
It was all that I had. There would be no real justice for me when it came to the larger situation with her, as she automatically had the upper hand. Even if I complained to my manager or higher ups, they would do what they always did — listen sympathetically, express their dismay over how this was “affecting” me, and do not one f**king shit. They had done it to other people of color there time and time again. Listen to our grievances as though them “hearing” us is some kind of blessing and reward in itself, then carry on as though nothing happened. Then we complain about it behind their backs and keep right on working.
I had every right to make her squirm a little, and let me tell you, I relished it.
The CEO took her side, naturally. As a policeman would. As a judge would. As the justice system would.
“Anastasia? Let me tell you, this girl is batshit crazy…”
When Nat Turner rallied his cohorts to revolt against the slaveholders, did he agonize over whether taking respect by the horns was an act of revenge or of justice? In the absence of a justice system that recognized his oppression as a crime, he had only his common sense to rely on.
When the Black Panthers organized against police brutality in their communities, were they in search of justice or revenge?
The next time you experience racist offenses, in the absence of justice, will you create your own?
Author will not be held responsible for any consequences of oppressed persons claiming justice. Author does not condone violence and is a believer in world peace. Author will have you know that author’s decisions to address racism in the workplace on her own terms ultimately cost her that nice paycheck. She is poorer in money and richer in self satisfaction. Reader discretion is advised.