Far too many times, the voices of black people have been silenced in the workplace and I’m pretty sure that I am not the only one. When talking about discrimination, retaliation and racism, we often become desensitized because it happens so often. We allow so much time to go by without speaking about it and don’t give ourselves permission to ever share about our experience. That has to stop.
I am here to be a voice to the voiceless. I hope that my testimony reaches who it needs to and if you are in a toxic work environment, I beg of you to demand change or change your environment. You deserve better. We deserve better. I deserved better. And because I didn’t receive the proper treatment, I am here before you today. Let me paint a very vivid picture for you of my full employment experience with H&M. This will be a very lengthy journal entry so please listen with intention.
My journey began in 2013 in Charlotte, North Carolina. My hiring process was very smooth, being vetted, interviewed and hired by a black woman. The company was new to the market and they were seeking fresh, new talent to create a positive working atmosphere for both employees and customers. I was their person. I helped to open two brand new stores, train and develop employees and supported the creation of a “great place to work”. Because of my work ethic and performance, I was promoted within 4 months and relocated to Winston-Salem, NC. Although the staff was outstanding, the store itself was rough aesthetically but I knew I was cut out for the job. I did the absolute best that I could, integrating my personal style of leadership into an existing staff that didn’t know me to trust me. Turns out, I loved them just as much as they loved me.
It was also my first introduction to discrimination from my boss. A white woman. Middle aged and snarky as hell. During walkthroughs, she would comment on areas of the store and my staff with such disgust. She was belittling and prejudiced. She used profane language, which according to the policy book, was a terminable offense. Or maybe that was strictly for black employees. I suppose she was exempt because of her skin tone and tenure with the company. I’ll admit, I was hesitant to give her the feedback because I’d experienced retaliation at another former employer. I gave it anyway. I wasn’t surprised when she simply apologized and stated that she was tough on me because she knew I was the best for this “rough store” with a “rough staff”. I wondered what that meant. As a matter of fact, I knew what it meant. I was her new “token black girl”. As time went on, she would make sly comments here and there but nothing too alarming. Looking back, I should’ve reported her every single time. You know us black employees tolerate more than we ever should. I’ll unpack that a little later.
She gave me low scores on performance reviews, with no documentation as to what I needed to improve on. I’d been there for approximately four or five months. And if any of you have ever worked in the retail space, you know that it takes more than four months to see consistent results with a new staff, an understaffed leadership team and both internal and external theft. I filed a complaint with her immediate supervisor but nothing happened. What else is new? Luckily, within days I would find out that our district was splitting and I had the option of moving to Virginia. With a district team and new store, I was looking forward to a new start. And this time, I was right. This was by far one of the best stores I’d ever worked in, during my entire career in Operations Management and Sales. The staff was already amazing, the location was not too far from Hampton University and it was a way for me to become the absolute best version of myself both in and out of the workplace. For once, I had balance and peace, which were two ingredients that I craved. I finally had it and my future was looking mighty bright.
Over the course of the next two years, I would develop a strong personal relationship with my direct supervisors. I also saw value in my peers and we built a solid rapport with one another. My store was flourishing with low turnover, strong results and a staff that, as a whole, were in sync and found a rhythm with one another while simply doing their job and having so much fun while doing so. And because of the success that the store saw, I was presented with the opportunity to run a higher volume store, with the potential to experience a re-build, which would mean a brand new store. Once again, a new experience, but this time, I was prepared with the tools and resources I needed to accelerate my learning curve as a leader and because we were in such close proximity to other locations, we were like a family. I practically knew the entire staff. My idea of the organization’s culture was crystal clear. It was simply a “great place to work”.
Here we are in early summer of 2016, I’m in a new store with the very same district team that saw fit for me to take on a new challenge. I felt supported, valued, appreciated and seen. More importantly, I felt heard and saw the full representation of color of superior leadership. My District Controller saw my interest in the financial aspect of the business and started to give me stretch assignments to curve my appetite for new challenges. Within 9 months, I became a peer support to other managers, served as a Support Manager for new store openings, traveled to different workshops and by this time, had trained and developed over 100 people, both sales advisors and members of the leadership team. With the store in the best place it could’ve been, we were granted a rebuild! I was so excited. All of the stores would partner together and create an action plan to support all functions of the store. It was a long process but it turned out beautifully. During our Season Start Walk in the summer of 2017, we earned a 100%, perfect score. So you know what this means? A higher volume store and a brand new opportunity. I was also going to have a new direct supervisor. This time, I would be in Richmond, VA and commuting 3 hours a day. If you’re from the DMV, then you can understand how much of a sacrifice this was. 64 is no joke and neither are the backroads. But I made the decision to keep leveling up. I didn’t receive a penny extra for the commute, but know for an absolute fact that my white counterparts were. Go fucking figure.
I won’t spend too much time talking about my experience at Short Pump Mall but it was a challenge. Two floors, a staff almost three times what I was used to, aesthetically unattractive and in one of the most affluent neighborhoods in Richmond. I knew I had my work cut out for me, but I’d made the commitment and just went for it. My visits were always positive but came with so much feedback. I did my best to apply that feedback and project a new culture of teamwork and business acumen with the staff. And I’d say I did a good job building a strong foundation with them. I didn’t ask for much and they didn’t require me to. Very self-sufficient and allowed me to develop myself as I assisted with growth and development. I spent a little less than a year at this location and after expressing that I needed a new challenge outside of the district, I was given the opportunity to work in Philly for 4 months. And so in July of 2018, I packed my bags and checked into corporate housing.
If you’re from Philly or have frequented Franklin Mills Mall, then you already know what type of experience this was for me. If you have not, trust me, you may want to go to Chestnut Street or St. Elsewhere. The store looked awful, the turnover was almost 125%, there was a revolving door of leaders and the amount of external theft was something I didn’t even imagine was possible. But I got through it anyway. I was exhausted and overworked but it’s what I signed up for. I did receive support from the district team, but observed other managers experience discrimination while trying to transfer. It amazed me that a black woman with 10 years of experience in visual merchandising and leadership had to go through loops and bounds to be promoted. Not by our white bosses. But by a black manager from another district who felt the need to step up and speak out on prejudice behavior. I too, wrote a letter of recommendation on her behalf. My letter was never submitted and in turn, I was told to stay in my place as a support manager and that I need not worry about what happens in that district. I was also met with documentation on the way the Richmond store looked 3 months prior. I refused to sign the documentation. Why was I not given this feedback in person, but over the phone and why was I also invited to even support another store if my performance was allegedly lackluster? Needless to say, I did the damn thing and managed to handover a store with a more well-trained staff, better financial results and the ability for my successor to maintain the new culture. It was October 2018 and I was back home. I needed a fresh start. With my lease ending in November, I knew that I didn’t want to live in Hampton longer than six more months.
When I returned home, I asked to be transferred back to the Hampton location to have a better work life balance. I was happy my supervisor agreed and within two weeks of returning I was back. I expressed an interest in relocating back to North Carolina. I learned through the District HR Manager that there would be an opening in February 2019 at a store and I was interested in applying for a transfer. I scheduled an interview with the new District Manager and was well prepared for it, even though I didn’t need much. I was well known in the market, had worked at almost every store within a 200 mile radius and they knew how valuable I would be to any team. So I found it quite strange that after such a promising interview and several letters of recommendation, a white woman who held a position beneath me would instead get the position. In addition, it took almost a month for me to hear anything back on the status of a decision. And by this time, the District Manager had been terminated for alleged discriminatory behavior and “allegedly” showing favoritism towards certain folk. I had no opportunity to receive feedback or a follow up. I was disappointed with what I deem, piss poor communication and a white woman in leadership that refused to afford me the opportunity to do what I’d been doing for almost 5 ½ years. But as black women do, I kept pressing forward.
A few months have passed and we are now in May. I was invited to attend a Store Manager retreat, made up of the country’s top performers. One of about 5 other black leaders within a group of 30 or so. I didn’t let it phase me. We learned about the new relocation plan the company was rolling out and the job openings across the country. I was encouraged by quite a few notable and familiar regional leaders to apply and set up interviews immediately. I did just that. I had two interviews set up for early June. When the time came, I was more than prepared and was in constant communication via email with my District HR Manager and a few others from the West Coast. Yes, I had my eye on LA or San Francisco. By this time I was in a healthy and happy relationship and she and I both wanted to relocate together. My eyes were on the prize and hers were on me. I just knew it would work out. It looked very very promising.
On the day of my interview, I hopped on the call and waited patiently. A few minutes went by and I started to think perhaps I have my day or time confused. I checked my email only to confirm that it was the right day and time. I then emailed who was to interview me but was sent straight to voicemail. I hung up the phone and waited a little while longer. Perhaps for a call or even an email back to reschedule. I didn’t receive either. Ever. I never heard from her and when I reached out to other members of her own team, I was met with silence. It was all too familiar. Because I knew her direct supervisor and also the Country HR Manager on a more personal level, I scheduled calls with them separately. I aired my grievances to them and was met with what seemed to be genuine empathy, grace and apologies for the lack of communication. I was told that we would touch base at some point within the week and that I would hear back from her. Again, neither happened. At this point, I wanted out. Out of the district.
Fast forward to August. After almost a year of a long distance relationship, I decided to relocate to Atlanta. It was only right. Unfortunately there were no open positions that I could walk right into; so I was offered another position but with less pay. It was a sacrifice but well worth it to no longer be apart. I moved in September and started working at Cumberland Mall. Although I wasn’t performing the same responsibilities, I did support the Store Manager with daily operations and offered myself as a support system to her in all capacities. This work came easy to me. So of course I flourished. I’d caught the attention of Ken, who was overseeing both districts and knew him quite well. I met him when he was a Store Manager in Charlotte and had built quite a solid relationship with him. He respected me and sang my praises every chance he visited the store. He also told me about an opportunity to move to the district he was taking over, which so happened to be The Carolinas. I told him I only had an interest in living in Charlotte but was encouraged to accept a job in Florence and that I would only be there for six months. You know the old saying, “I can’t make any promises on paper but you already know we will likely have an opening”. I always wonder why that statement even needed to be made. But I digress.
I signed my job offer in January of 2020 and within 4 weeks, we would move to Florence, simply on the strength that we would be in Charlotte by high summer. And what happens next? COVID. I was furloughed from March 18th until the middle of May. Upon my return, I went from a staff of 13 to 6, limited PPE and a very frightened staff. I assured them that we would tackle this together and that if for any reason they were not comfortable working, to please let me know. We had new policies to maintain the health and safety of our employees and customers but it didn’t stop other stores from having infected staff members. The response was lackluster from the district team and stores were only closed for 2–3 days. And of course some regions were impacted worse than others. I remember seeing horror stories on our company’s social media platform from employees who told about unsafe and unsanitary working conditions. And that their leadership team and district teams would do little to nothing to support their claims. I find it very hard to believe that a company who deemed themselves “A Place of Possible”, could possibly not give a damn about the staff and more about making up for lost revenue due to the pandemic. Again, I digress.
May and June roll by and I am making the absolute best of my circumstances. Even though we were operating off of mall hours, we were still short staff but still required to maintain the same expectations from before. I found a way. As I always do. My direct supervisor and I had a solid foundation filled with consistent accolades and support. Karen, my District HR Manager and I, were peers for a few years in Virginia. I knew her work ethic, communication style and we trusted one another. Together, they both knew what I was worth and what I was capable of. I was always in the Top 3 for KPI’s, a peer support system to other leaders and they never worried about me. And even though I went from 4 to 2 managers for the duration of my employment there, I never once complained. I made it work. On my own. Charlotte hadn’t come up in conversation just yet but it certainly wasn’t off the table for me in the upcoming months.
July approached and my District HR Manager went out on leave for a bit. I was asked to take on some of her responsibilities. And because I was performing some of the same responsibilities as she was, just on a smaller scale, it was enjoyable for me. I supported different initiatives as a leader, I facilitated calls with country team leads and once again, was amplifying my own name through my performance. Needless to say, July was a really good month for me. The conversations centered around my growth and opportunities were consistently happening. District HR was my mission. I was well versed with policy, ways of working and where the goal post was. My performance review was also coming up on August 25th. But before we could even sit down for it, CNN released yet another scandal. This time, it would awaken black and brown people throughout the country to finally take a stand.
In Paris, a racial slur was used to denote a particular garment. A purple beanie, with the description “NIGGER BEANIE” was printed on internal communication, which is accessible to the entire company. And of course, once the story was released, it was time for immediate damage control. There was an emergency conference call facilitated where we were given the chance to air our grievances and work through our upset. Needless to say, I was hot. Emotional and unapologetic about it. Afterall, it wasn’t even 3 ½ years prior that we saw that sweet little black boy sporting “The Coolest Monkey In The Jungle” hoodie. Talk about tone deaf. Talk about racism. And talk about our reality.
I made my first post on the early morning of August 6th. I expressed my anger, frustration and disgust for a company that appeared to not be taking accountability for its employees actions. While it was a very raw and lengthy post, it was met with support from hundreds of people, especially by Ken. He told me I was “the voice for the people”. That I was “content rich” and that any support I needed, I had from him, Karen and the rest of the team. This wasn’t my first post and most certainly wasn’t my last. I’ve always spoken up against social injustice, no matter where it may rear its ugly head. And over the course of the next 7 weeks, I would feel the shift in the atmosphere with regards to my relationship with them and my development.
The following Monday, we were asked to close all stores and host a meeting with our staff to review the infamous, “Apology Letter” to be read aloud. It was also our responsibility to review Unconscious Bias Training and find ways to implement diversity and inclusion within the culture of our stores. Why they felt the problem lie in-store and not on a corporate level is baffling to me, still to this day. After the meeting, we submitted our store’s feedback where we were told it would be forwarded to the country team. The commitment was that they would provide an explanation on what happened, what the consequences would be and how they would ensure this doesn’t happen, yet again. And of course a bulletin came out with all of the new initiatives being rolled out. Giving back to marginalized communities. Pouring money into these organizations that don’t even properly funnel money where it’s truly needed. It was all smoke and mirrors. The same song they sang when the coolest monkey in the jungle landed them on CNN.
August 25th came around and during his store visit, we heavily discussed my performance and where he saw me in the future. We agreed that HR was not far away and again sang my praises on what I was able to do for the store with the very few resources that were provided to me. He made mention of former bosses of mine who were intimidated by my power and my voice. He also didn’t have an issue talking to me about why my former peer left the company. I asked him why it wasn’t announced that he was leaving the company. He went on to tell me about his performance and corrective actions. Which by the way, was very inappropriate. He also mentioned conversations he’d had with other peers of mine regarding relocating, which wasn’t public knowledge. I kept all of this in my back pocket but would never forget. The visit ended on a high note and I was looking forward to working my way out of the store. Or so I thought.
September is the month that proved to me, just how discriminatory, racist and bigoted this company and some of the white people who work for it, truly were. Overnight, our social media platform was flooded with testimonies of blatant mistreatment and discrimination. Stories of black people being passed up for promotions to their white counterparts on high levels, years of racist remarks and jokes about black people, made by white people and the countless complaints submitted where no action was taken. I can’t tell you that in the months of August and September, I didn’t cry. The pain and hurt I felt for my people. The anger and distrust I had built was all crashing down on me. Stories that sounded exactly like mine, some far worse and some scratching the surface of mistreatment. Fear was embedded in the voices I started to communicate with. We were sick and tired of being sick and tired. And because we were standing as one, there had to be a ringleader. I was that person. I stopped at nothing demanding answers publicly. While still doing my job, and very well at that. The more vocal and “disruptive” to the company’s cultural norm I became, the more isolated I felt.
The emails and phone calls stopped regarding my development. The stretch assignments and opportunities for peer to peer engagement dwindled noticeably. I asked Karen about a workshop and received no response. The comments of support ended. The weekly check-ins were also halted. I was out there, left on my own without the support from the very same person who claimed to have the most support for me. September 22nd was the very last post I made as an employee of this organization. I stated “I am not afraid of retaliatory actions taken against my voice. I’ve EARNED my seat. A lot of us have. Yet, we are fed nothing. I’m hungry. We are hungry. For answers. For change.” At this point I was fed up. I’d had enough. All of the mistreatment and discrimination I faced in the past, was finally catching up with my current emotions. And it felt draining.
I was off the weekend of September 26th and returned to work on Monday the 28th. When I walked into work, the energy felt different. Some of my staff was looking at me timidly and I knew something was off. One of my managers approached me in the office and casually asked how my weekend was. I replied that it was relaxing. He immediately went on to say that Ken and Karen called the store over the weekend, which was unusual. He told me they asked to speak to the staff privately and also informed him that there would be changes made to the overhead team within the upcoming weeks. My staff then told me they were asking about my work ethic, what I do in the office and how I am as a leader. And because I know what retaliation looked like in this organization, I knew the retaliation that they were trying to pull.
After hearing all of this, I immediately called my boss. He sent me straight to voicemail. I began to feel sick. Better yet, I began to feel what most would classify as black rage. Rage for being targeted. Rage for being singled out for no apparent reason. And rage because I knew what my next move was going to be. I called my fiance and told her what had happened. I told her I was so pissed and refused to allow my legacy to hang in the balance. She asked me, “Well what do you want to do?”, to which I replied, “I want to leave”. She then said, “Leave. You don’t have to deal with this anymore”. And so… I turned in my keys, clocked out for good and walked out. And I haven’t looked back ever since. 2 award nominations, both in 2018 and 2019, acknowledged as a top performer out of thousands in the country, 12 stores, 5 states and 7 years. Many tears, a lot of black rage. Now behind me.
In the upcoming days, I would learn that Karen and Ken encouraged people to not reach out to me. That they already had my replacement starting the very next day, who happened to be a friend and former roommate. It was all a plan. To dismiss me. To stop me from speaking up any longer. The token black girl had gone way too far and they couldn’t stand the heat. I would be remiss if I didn’t say it felt damn good to leave. Although I had no Plan B, I knew everything was going to be alright. I had a strong support system around me that would love me and affirm me. This still didn’t absolve me from bouts of weight loss, depression and anxiety, all of which I had never experienced before. In the last year alone, I watched over 20 people be wrongfully terminated or voluntarily leave because of mistreatment. So I knew I needed to do something monumental. For myself. What I needed most importantly, was to place all of my feelings of anger, betrayal, sadness and freedom into a new place of purpose. My place of pain would eventually turn into my palace of purpose and on March 7, 2021 Brown & Brave, LLC was born.
You see, when you are screwed over by an organization represented by majority racist white people across all functions, you will stop at nothing to be seen and heard. You spend countless days, weeks, months and for some years, trying to find a way to use your purpose for the black community. What I was able to do was use my brown skin and my bravery and create, not only a brand but a powerful movement, for BLACK people. The messages behind the merchandise embody authenticity, black pride, black culture, black history, controversy and daily reminders for black people to remember who the fuck they are. Resilient, talented, creative thinkers, entrepreneurs, doctors, lawyers, engineers, educators, mothers, fathers, sons and daughters. We are our ancestors’ wildest dreams. We have to know this, believe in this and live it. For all its worth.
So how does Brown & Brave give back. Through Brown & Brave Academy, a 501c3 non-profit organization that will serve underprivileged children in the black community. From employment education preparation, high school and college admissions preparation, vocational education and other tools that will help reach the highest level of black success. We are doing this for future generations. We are doing what a lot of our parents and grandparents simply weren’t able to do. We have a responsibility to our babies. And every single day, each of you can decide on who and how to spend our time, money and energy.
And today and everyday I choose freedom. Freedom from racism, discrimination, retaliation, nepotism, sexism and bigotry. Today I chose me, above anyone else. And with every breath in my body, I will stand tall and firm in my blackness, my womahood, my humanity and my power.
And as Brown & Brave’s motto states, “It takes a lot of bravery, to be brown.”