Let’s say you’re a new hire at a bank. Things are going great, on the whole they seem to like you. There’s just one seem that seems a little bit ‘off.’
Whenever there’s a tea break during a meeting you wind up making the tea. For everyone.
On the surface this seems fine. You’re the most junior person in the room, tea has to be made, you aren’t one to make a big fuss and rise above your station.
Except you are also the only woman in the office.
So now you have a dilemma. Are the tea making responsibilities falling on you because you’re new, or because you’re a woman?
A year later the company hires someone new. A guy. You’re still making tea.
One day you decide to do a test. At the next meeting you don’t approach the kettle. You wait. You want to see if anyone else takes action.
And then your boss turns to you and asks: “Would you mind putting the kettle on please?”
Or maybe someone else says “Would you mind? You always get builder’s tea just right.”
Or maybe it’s just a look, a smile, filled with the subtext of an expectation.
It doesn’t matter, at this point it might as well be “make me a cup of tea, bitch.”
The camel’s back breaks. You are mad. And whether you point out the problem as diplomatically as possible or explode in an unprofessional fury, your colleagues reaction is still the same.
“Why are you making such a big deal? All I did was ask you politely for a cup of tea?”
Except it wasn’t ‘just a cup of tea.’ There was a year’s history which created a pattern of behaviour. A year of choosing grace and giving people the benefit of the doubt. A year of assuming that if you paid your dues, the next hire would take up the tea making duties. A year of keeping your mouth shut which, in the end, only enabled a pattern that you were hoping would never be established.
Very often when you call people out, they will minimize their actions. People will very often try to keep focus on what just happened, rather than dare to look at how their patterns of behaviour have lead to this moment. By keeping focus on the now, it makes you look like you are the one that’s over reacting. So, you get to feel bad for lashing out, which in turn will ensure you are less likely to raise your voice in the future.
If someone tries to keep a case in isolation you have every right to point out how the situation it stems forms a pattern. Take it as far back as you need to (I try to have at least four examples) but make it clear that this is about more than what has just happened.
The event that had just happened is a culmination of what has happened before. This isn’t a vacuum, it’s a pattern.
Discrimination and disenfranchisement have a cumulative effect. One thing in isolation could [and probably always should] be brushed away. We all make mistakes and commit faux pas, that’s fine. But it is when something happens over and over, a systematic injustice that grates on your soul, despite wanting to believe the best in people, it needs to be addressed.
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