Dear federal Black employees,
Thank you for your words of encouragement and support and for trusting me with your own stories. Your humanity is not to be negotiated and your voices are never to be silenced. Unfortunately, to work in the public service means as Black employees your value will be disregarded, your talents diminished and your spirit, stripped.
I hear you and I see you.
This week is Black Mental Health week, meaning it’s yet another opportunity for us to be tokenized without any meaningful or effective action to alleviate the injustices of racism that affect our mental health.
Last week, for the first time I was able to tell my story of systemic, anti-Black racism I experienced at Innovation, Science, and Economic Development Canada (ISED). I have been harassed, bullied, and surveilled for most of my time at the department; I have been denied development opportunities and promotions. When I spoke up about their behaviour towards me, I was gaslit into believing that I had brought this upon myself and that I should not have spoken up. But I did speak up. I told my superiors about the toxic work environment, but the response was disappointing. One of my superiors denied me a chance to meet to tell my story. With this action, he communicated to me that my story wasn’t important to him, and by extension, the organization. His boss did meet with me, though to no avail. He said the right things, however took no meaningful action to fix the toxic environment his subordinates created and, in some cases, ignored.
I tried to seek redress through the internal processes and again I was refused any meaningful action.
My mental health declined. I felt helpless, worthless, and scared all the time. The public service expects us to endure abuse perfectly, and if we don’t, our performance is weaponized against us. To stop the pain, my only option to save myself was to take a medical leave.
Never be ashamed to choose yourself over the weight of the job.
We carry a lot of trauma as Black people: the pressure to work twice as hard to get half the recognition as our white peers, managing racial microaggressions, and mitigating institutional racism that strips us of our humanity and punishes us for speaking out. The intersections of gender, sexuality, and class add complex layers of oppression against the backdrop of our community’s disproportionate vulnerability to COVID infection and resulting illness. We are the epitome of strength to our detriment because we also lack proper structural supports. Many of us may not know just how much anguish we’re carrying until we’re removed from the situation—or until our mental health becomes physical. And it will manifest into physical effects. According to a leading psychological online resource, Anxiety.org, “researchers have suggested that chronic experiences of racism and microaggressions result in ‘racial battle fatigue,’ which includes anxiety and worry, hyper-vigilance, headaches, increased heart rate and blood pressure, and other physical and psychological symptoms.”
I write so that you know you’re not imagining things. I am writing this letter to let you know your experiences are common for Black employees.
ISED was not the first department where I experienced severe anti-Black racism. The first was at the Department of Finance where I was isolated and marginalized and consistently told that I didn’t belong there. Gaslit into believing that those problems were my fault, I internalized much of their assessments which stripped me of my sense of value. I experienced verbal abuse and physical threats by management. I was denied development opportunities, support, and promotions.
I have only had one promotion in 12 years of being in the public service while those who abused me were promoted to a larger platform, with more resources to terrorize more staff. The powers that be reward white supremacy while punishing those who seek equity.
Unfortunately, the Privy Council Office thinks that a diversity task force will solve the problem of anti-racism. My abusers at ISED are women, one of them a non-Black woman of colour, yet they still practice anti-Black racism.
Our unions abandon us, too. Instead of standing up for us, many of us are stuck with union representatives that collaborate with the systems that oppress us, or don’t show up at all. In so many of your stories, your union hung you out to dry by dissuading you from filing grievances related to racism.
A system without accountability is a corrupt one, and in this system there is no justice for us. In the meantime, we continue to suffer in silence while the public service engages in performative window-dressing while telling us they’re fixing racism.
I know how it feels to be completely let down and discarded by the system to which you were so loyal and in which you invested so much. For me, I had to step back from that which was causing me harm.
I am grateful to Khadija El Hilali who opened the door for me to tell my story. Her gift to all of us was to give us space and to validate our stories. I can only hope that I will do the same for you.
Erica Ifill is a co-host of the Bad+Bitchy podcast.