Imagine the Future: Anti-racism

Imagine if we had a country where every person could reach their fullest potential. If there was no extra baggage of racism or sexism or other BS to add weight to everyday life. How much better, happier, safer would every person feel? How much more stable would our country, our economy, our lives be? How much more could each of us accomplish? To provide some context, I’m going to tell you a story about my early career.

In my first job as an engineer, my boss made comments about my appearance, about my body. I laughed them off because I didn’t know how else to react. Every single day, it meant I spent extra time thinking about, worrying about, and fearing what would happen at work. It meant I spent extra energy on choosing a “safe” outfit, on not overdoing my makeup. It meant I spent extra mental energy inside and outside of work trying to minimize myself and my appearance. At work, instead of being able to focus on my job, I was consumed with anxiety about what I looked like and how my boss would react. It seeped into everything I did, and it made it really fucking hard to focus on anything.

Still, I was the best engineer at that company. Eventually one of the other employees started stealing my work and passing it off as her own, and trying to get me to do her work.

I couldn’t go to my boss for help. I had no one to talk to, I had no one to help me. I couldn’t trust anyone.

I couldn’t even trust myself.

I struggled with near-constant anxiety that others would judge me and assume I was only there, I was only good at what I studied or did, “because I was attractive”, implied or said to my face dozens of times throughout my education and early jobs in science and tech.

The boss created a culture where the women felt compelled to compete. An environment where women did not feel safe or free to be ourselves, to let our guards down, an environment where we were not evaluated on or appreciated for our merits and what we contributed to the company. All of this, constantly weighing in our minds as we tried to do work, tried to function with the other employees.

Since I had started that job, the boss had been changing the dress code. First it was no “gym” clothes or tennis shoes. Okay, reasonable. And it meant I could still wear my combat boots *score*. Three months later, it was business casual. And my “bonus” for a win with a client was being compensated for business clothes I was told to go out and buy.

The third time the dress code changed, I pushed back. My boss responded with: “You are an attractive woman, so you have to dress conservatively for men to take you seriously.”

For a long time, I thought that if I worked hard and did well, I would earn respect. I thought that if I carried the burden of minimizing myself, I would earn acknowledgment of my work above my appearance. But now, there it was, laid out in front of me like a hole in the ground: no matter what I did, the adult men around me did not see me as an engineer.

I was not being judged or rewarded or compensated for my work, for my skills and competency, for my determination and resilience, for my reliability and integrity. Instead, I was being buried. Mentally wading through layers and layers of judgments and assumptions and stereotypes heaped on me by ignorant and hurting adults, before I could even think about doing my job.

All of that mental and emotional energy spent dealing with that BS detracted from the work I could have been doing. I was a good engineer, yes, but I could have been great. I could have learned so much more, I could have done so much more. And I could have felt proud of myself, I could have loved myself. But I didn’t, I couldn’t. There was too much excess baggage to carry. Which is why I eventually quit (and, turns out, was given compensation without asking because the boss knew he’d been inappropriate).

After working in healthy environments for the past few years, my work, my ideas, my mental and emotional well-being, are so much better. I am able to focus on work at work, have productive conversations with people, and do incredible, meaningful things.

I am frustrated that I had such a horrible start as an engineer because it wasted my time. I am also grateful to have survived that experience, and grateful that I was able to forge my own path and be where I am today. And I am excited for what the future holds now that I do not feel anxiety and fear in my everyday life.

And here is where my story ends, on a positive note. I was able to leave that (and other) toxic work environments and seek and create healthy environments. I still regularly deal with the challenges of sexism, but it is not my fully, completely, daily lived experience that seeps into everything else. Black and brown folks in the United States do not have that same privilege: to change their job or city or degree to eliminate the effects of racism in their daily life.

My experience pales in comparison with the daily experience of black and brown folks, especially black and brown women. At no point in this story did I fear for my life because of where I worked or what I did or who I worked for. Our black and brown neighbors and fellow Americans are forced to focus first on survival, a heavy burden that adds unnecessary obstacles to everything else in life. Imagine what we, as a country, could achieve, if every single American was able to contribute to their full potential! If we eliminated excess burdens we choose to place on others. If we all had less baggage, we would have more energy to deal with life’s unavoidable slings and arrows.

And heck, maybe we’d even get a base station on Mars, or cure cancer, or have a flying skateboard. We could all feel safe in our neighborhoods, feel less anxiety and fear for our children’s safety and for their future.

We are all better off when we are all able to contribute equally.

You benefit from your neighbors success, even if that neighbor is far away. We all benefit because we are all Americans, and our fates our tied together. When one person succeeds or fails, we all succeed or fail. We have seen that in awful clarity during this pandemic: either we work together as a country or we fall together as a country. Addressing our racist past and present is the same. We can fix it, but we must acknowledge our ignorance and we must listen to those who are different from us.

I believe we are all capable of kindness and love, it’s just a matter of imaging the future you want for your children and choosing the path forward that benefits us all.

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jen foxbot

Dabbled in dark matter, settled into engineering with a blend of inventing and education. Founder/CEO of an educational tech company: www.FoxBotIndustries.com