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Slavery Created the Workplace as We Know It

I came across a tweet earlier this summer that said, “Black people DO NOT like to be micromanaged 🤣🤣🤣” with a quote tweet that replied, “I mean historically they kinda went overboard on us with that.” After composing myself from the initial laughter, I realized the immense amount of truth behind the statement. Between my own experiences with micromanagement since I entered the workplace, and the stories friends and family have shared with me, I can confirm: Black people, indeed, do not like to be micromanaged.

On this International Day for the Remembrance of the Slave Trade and its Abolition, I’m reminded of the parallels between the modern working world and chattel slavery. Slavery laid the groundwork for the practices and norms we now experience in the workplace, and has shaped our conception of labor, rest (or the lack thereof), and wages. To be clear, there is no comparison that could ever be made to the horrors, atrocities, and violence our African ancestors faced through the transatlantic slave trade– but there are significant lessons to learn to understand how the imprint of slavery can still be seen and felt across all aspects of life, and especially at the office.

Productivity Over Personhood

Slavery stripped African people of their human right to autonomy, and the ability to be free to express oneself without fear of violence or retribution. Since enslaved people were considered property, increased production and profits were the ultimate goal– by any means necessary. That same mentality of prioritizing metrics and bottom lines over the people that are producing said outcomes still drives much of the workplace as we know it today. It can show up when managers express frustration, be it directly or passive aggressively, for employees simply taking sick days, or needing time off for other personal reasons. Or, it can show up when employees are pushed to the brink of exhaustion after continuously having their professional boundaries violated by working after hours or on weekends and holidays.

A company or organization that is committed to anti-racist and inclusive values can acknowledge that there are goals they have to reach and commitments to follow through on without sacrificing the health and wellbeing of their team. Proper expectation setting and a stronger management of resources that centers people first can alleviate the archaic and racist beliefs that one must be overexerted and overextended to be of value.

Control and Conformity

Enslaved people were tortured and met with extreme forms of violence and brutality to ensure their conformity, and for control to be exerted over them at all times. Slave Codes dictated that enslaved people could not gather by themselves without a White person being present, leave their plantation without permission, or learn how to read and write.

While the physical restraints and symbols of slavery may no longer be in place, the habits and thought patterns that first created the system are still upheld today. In the workplace, this can look like Black employees feeling uncomfortable being able to gather and socialize freely with one another without the fear of the White gaze. It looks like managers micromanaging every detail of how an employee executes their work, and shaping the time employees can spend off the clock by having limited or discouraged time off.

Shifting a workforce that was built using the same beliefs that created and sustained the transatlantic slave trade is not a feat that can be accomplished overnight. ShiftED Consulting takes the guesswork out of DEI strategy and implementation, and guides teams to authentically and radically explore a path to abolishing racism and anti-Blackness in their space. Schedule a consultation today to begin your journey.

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