A Black fist raised in the air with a faded grey brick wall in the background.

The past few years have seen a flurry of workers organizing across the country, from Starbucks and Amazon workers to new forms of cooperative ownership and governance sharing. NPQ’s column, We Stood Up, features the voices of people doing the hard work of realizing economic justice in their workplaces. These stories come from workers who want to share their experiences building a democratic economy and a fairer world so that others can learn from their efforts.

Imagine that you are the only Black woman on your team. You start bringing up concerns about racial bias and microaggressions from upper management. Then, you receive an email: “We are moving you to a team of all women of color due to your difficult relationship with your supervisor.”

Over time, I adopted a keep-your-head-down mentality to downplay other red flags as they arose.

When I got this message, I felt like I was in a reality TV show where the host would pop out at any moment to exclaim that this was all a prank. I had been at this job—my first “real” job after graduating with my master’s degree—for a year and a half. Due to high turnover at the company, I was one of the only employees who had been there that long, which was the first red flag. Over time, I adopted a keep-your-head-down mentality to downplay other red flags as they arose, from my supervisor getting my name—and only my name—wrong, to the obvious bias of only giving White employees time off.

But after a sexual harassment investigation of a former employee rocked the office culture, I couldn’t sit back quietly anymore. I began trying to change our work environment on my own, attempting everything from asking for one-on-one meetings with management, holding ad hoc gatherings with co-workers who shared my frustrations, and offering antiracism training to our department. All of these efforts were promptly shut down by management and followed by a cold shoulder from my supervisors. But once I was told I was being moved to another team, I knew that this was much more than an office culture problem: this was retaliation.

According to the US Equal Employment Opportunity Commission, retaliation is the most frequently alleged basis of discrimination in the federal sector and the most common discrimination finding in federal sector cases. While most human resources departments will outline that retaliation is against company policy (not to mention illegal), it is tough to prove that retaliation is occurring unless the person retaliating explicitly says that is what they are doing. Isolation, assigning new responsibilities, demotion, and hyper-criticism of work can all be justified with nothing but a vague accusation of poor job performance.

Nobody should tolerate bad treatment in a work environment or settle for less than what they deserve.

Suddenly, I felt like a scapegoat for my supervisor’s bad behavior and upper management’s carelessness. Instead of taking responsibility for creating a hostile work environment, they shifted the blame to me, saying that if only I fell in line and stopped trying to rock the boat, the work environment wouldn’t be so tense.

I’d be lying if I said I didn’t believe that narrative. I questioned my actions, whether I was making things harder for myself, and if I was, in fact, the one causing the uncomfortable office environment. But I constantly reminded myself of the quote often attributed to Albert Einstein: “What is right is not always popular, and what is popular is not always right.“ I stayed true to that until the very end, even after I was let go from the company and pursued legal action.

Standing up for what was right at my workplace showed me that nobody should tolerate bad treatment in a work environment or settle for less than what they deserve.