15 Dec 2017

    "I see you" - Even Parliamentarians Face Microaggressions in the Workplace Featured

    After Celina Caesar-Chavannes (Canada's Parliamentary Secretary to the Minister of International Development) was cautioned by a white woman to refrain from stealing her wallet, she had some thoughts she needed to let go. 

    She spoke those thoughts to ByBlacks writer Andray Domise.

    They are reproduced faithfully below.

    I was in the bathroom stall, sixth floor of the Wellington building. 

    I was touching up my makeup, as I was getting photos done for a magazine spread that’s happening next year. I was feeling like “My hair is on point. My makeup looks good. My dress is perfect.” I’m in a good space. I’m feeling good. 

    And two white ladies walk in. They’re giggling. 

    One walks through and goes straight to the bathroom. The other one puts her wallet on the counter.

    The washroom is J-shaped. There’s a full-length mirror, and a ledge. You walk by the sinks, where I was standing, and then there’s a sitting area, where you would put your coat and bags, instead of taking them into the stall with you. 

    The second lady puts her wallet down next to me, on the counter, and I think ‘Why would anybody put their wallet there?’

    In the split second I was having that thought, as she’s walking by, she says “Don’t steal my wallet, OK?”

    To say that I was shocked was an understatement. In all my years, I’ve never had a blatant moment when someone looked at me and not only assumed I would steal something, but told me to my face not to steal something. 

    I’ve said to many before: I never fully felt like a Black woman 

    I mean a Black. Woman. 

    Until I entered into politics.

    As she’s going into her stall, she goes “I was just joking.”

    And I’m like “That’s not a f—king joke.”

    As I’m walking out, I’m furious.

    I’m done. I was making pretty in the mirror when they walked in. 

    I’m furious, but I’m also thinking She left her wallet right at the front door. If someone actually does come in and steal this while she’s in the stall, I’m going down for it.

    So I’m supposed to stand there, watching this girl’s wallet. 

    If it does get stolen, she can describe a Black woman, in a red dress, with green glasses.

    That’s me. If someone steals this wallet, I’m going to be the first person they suspect.

    And I can’t take that embarrassment. At the same time I’m thinking F this, I’m out. I don’t care about this girl, or her frickin’ wallet.

    And I left the bathroom.

    That incident, for me, was the piece that really crystallized a lot of the experiences that I’ve been having.

    Two years I’ve been an MP. Security is supposed to memorize everybody. 

    I’m the only Black woman who is dark coffee, no sugar, no cream, out of three hundred thirty-eight members of Parliament.

    The only one.

    I don’t get access to my building. It was happening for a while, and then I brought it up at a caucus meeting and it stopped for a little while. And then it started again. Where I’d walk into a building, and security would open doors for all the other MPs. 

    But when I got to the door, they would either ask "Can I help you?" or they would just wait for me to dig down into my bag.

    I purposely keep my pass inside the zippered part of my bag, so that I could take time to open it and pull out my pass and show them.

    In some weird way thinking that they will recognize who I am.

    Every time I walk up to security either at my building, or on the Hill, anywhere, I take my headphones out as a sign of respect. And I say “Good morning / good afternoon / good evening gentlemen.”

    I don’t just walk into buildings and dismiss them. I say it every single time.

    And I make sure to take my headphones out.

    Because I want them to know that I am actually acknowledging that they are there. And I’m not in my own head space. I know these people are there to protect me. And I want them to know I at least have enough respect to say “Good morning,” “Good afternoon,” “good evening” to them, before I walk by them.

    Every. Single. Time.

    Every time.

    One morning the security guards just stood there. Just staring.

    There were three opportunities for somebody to pull out their pass. There are two security standing outside, and one in the booth that can press the button.

    Nobody moved.

    Fine, I take out my pass. 


    In order to get on the little bus that goes around the Hill, you should have your pass if you’re staff. But members of Parliament get on all the time. 

    I get on the bus, and the driver asks "Where is your pin?”

    I’m not wearing a pin because it ruins my dresses. So I carry my badge all the time because I know I’m going to get carded somewhere.

    I show the man my pass. I’m a member. I sit down.

    At the next stop, a white MP gets on the bus. No pin. 

    Walks on, and sits down. 

    I say “Excuse me, why didn’t you ask for his pin?”

    "Oh, well, you know…"

    They ask these questions in this tone, like I have a badge, and you don’t. So you need to answer my questions. "Where are you going?" “I’m going up there.”

    "Well, you’ll need your badge to get back in."

    “No, I don’t.”

    "Well, if you don’t have your badge, then you’re going to have to wait in line."

    I let them go on with it. I let them go on with this line of questioning. And then I say “No I don’t. I’m a Member.”

    "Oh! Yeah, sorry! Did you change your glasses?"

    I endure that line of questioning because this is not their house. That House of Commons is not mine. It belongs to the people.

    I've been asked "Celina, what are the internal mechanisms to change this?" I, Celina, have two choices. 

    I complain about the fact that I can’t get into buildings and I can’t get on the bus.

    Or I push for equity. I advocate for the recognition of the UN’s Decade for People of African Descent. I push for justice reform. I push to ensure that there are more women of colour – in particular, Black women – in federal appointments. I push for procurement to change so that minority business owners can do business with the federal government.

    Do I push for those things? Or do I push for Celina to get into a building?

    When I say I bow my head, literally to reach into my bag, it’s not because I don’t want to push back, or because I can’t. 

    It’s because I don’t have any energy left to be fighting for all of these other issues that we need to fix.

    I have to choose. 

    Because I don’t have the mental health capabilities to fight for everything.

    So I choose.

    Microaggressions in the workplace are like any other assault. Where you don’t know what to do, and you think Oh, it’s not that bad. It’s okay. I’m not going to fight it, it’s fine. 


    If I do fight it, people are going to say that I’m a Mad Black Woman. 


    If I do fight it it’s like ‘Oh, you’re pulling out the race card. 


    If I do fight it, it’s like ‘Oh well, why don’t you just get thicker skin.

    In fact, I’ve had people in my own party tell me I need to get thicker skin.

    When she said “Don’t steal my wallet,” it did something to me.

    I got home Wednesday night. I am in a bad mood.

    Yesterday, my husband is trying to cuddle. He’s trying to make me laugh. He’s trying to play games, he’s saying  “Let’s go out on a date, let’s do something.”

    I can’t.

    And then I just sit up. And I start typing. And I realize that I’m holding on to this “Don’t steal my wallet, OK?” cancer. 

    Like it defines me.

    No. No it doesn’t. And it shouldn’t define any of us.

    Here. You take it. Facebook, take it.

    Twitter, take it.

    Instagram, you take it. 

    You deal with it. I don’t want to deal with it any more.

    I needed to let it go. It was really starting to consume me that this could be people’s every day experience. 

    Just flippantly saying “I was just joking.”

    It’s not funny. Even in the slightest.

    I’ve had a target on my back from day one. I’ve been called a No-name Lamb to the Slaughter. 

    Who do you think you are? Running in Whitby? Thinking that you could inherit the riding from Jim Flaherty?

    Who do you think you are? Never been in politics before? I’ve been here for years, and you get picked as Parliamentary Secretary to the Prime Minister?

    It’s not like this is coming from one political side or the other. It’s everybody.

    There’s two options in politics. One, you get complacent. The other, you fight until you get exhausted.

    And then you leave.

    I wish I had something brilliant to say. 

    I don’t want to tell people to swallow it. But I also recognize that not everybody can stand up. 

    Not everybody can say “That’s not f—king funny.” 

    Because they’ll get fired.

    I am speaking to the woman who said “Don’t steal my wallet, OK?”

    I see you.

    You think you’re being cute. But you’re not cute.

    It’s ugly.

    And it’s not funny.

    And I know what you’re going to do next. You’re going to say “Oh, I was just joking.”

    But you weren’t just joking. 

    Because some part of your subconscious thought that it was okay to assume that the person you were looking at would steal your wallet. So don’t tell me you were just joking.

    And then you’re going to start crying.

    Don’t start crying because someone challenges you.

    That’s the natural progression of how this plays out.

    I confront you on your BS.

    You say “I was just joking. I was just having some fun.”

    And then you start to cry, and complain to all your other colleagues about how she’s taking things so seriously.

    And you were just joking.

    But you weren’t just joking.

    You weren’t.

    Because if you were joking, you would have told the girl that came into the bathroom ahead of you “Don’t steal my wallet.”

    But you didn’t.

    You told me.

    I am speaking to my sisters in the community,

    I see you.

    Through this position, I see you clearer than ever before.

    And the pain that you go through.

    And the comments that you accept.

    And then you still gotta rise to every occasion.

    I see you.

    That you don’t get the promotion that you deserve.

    I see that you get looked through and past.

    I see that.

    And because I see that, I will put it out there for those who say “I can’t, because if I do, I’ll lose my job tomorrow.”

    I will put my mental health issues out there for those of you who can’t, because you may lose your job, or may lose your kid.

    I will put it out there, because I see you.

    That’s all I can do. Try to change the conversation and try to change mindsets.

    I want Black women to know that somebody sees them. And acknowledges them.

    And acknowledges their pain. And acknowledges their hurt. 

    And acknowledges their strength, and their brilliance, and their vulnerability, and their resilience.

    I see you.

    That’s all.

    Read 5932 times Last modified on Friday, 15 December 2017 18:03
    (19 votes)
    Andray Domise

    Andray Domise is a Toronto-area columnist and a board member of the Canadian Association of Black Journalists.


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