Black women face many obstacles in the workplace – from racism and discrimination to stolen wages. These experiences lead to feeling invisible, anxiety, depression and PTSD. What if they had been warned before entering a toxic workplace? Maybe they would have chosen another path. Ansa Edim had a few terrible experiences in organizations where she felt unsafe, prompting her to leave the corporate world and eventually starting Blacklist, a website dedicated to warning others about toxic workplaces. While it is open to all marginalized and protected groups, as a Black woman, Ansa hopes her site will give a voice to the voiceless. We caught up with her to learn more about her career journey and her mission to make workplaces safe and inclusive for everyone.
NOTABLE: What made you decide enough is enough? And we need to have a blacklist about the mistreatment of marginalized people in the workplace?
ANSA: I’ve been in corporate America, in the tech space, for about ten years, going on maybe twelve years. As a Black woman, I started from the bottom and worked my way up. I consistently felt like even if I was hired for a job, my white bosses always made me feel like I was lucky to be there and that I was underqualified. I would keep saying to myself, “I don’t understand. You hired me to do this job, so clearly, I’m qualified enough to be here.”
I had a really bad experience at an organization, Change.org, where I was just surrounded by inept white people. And I just kept saying, “How did they get to this role? This is not fair. It’s just not fair that they, through their connections and resources, have been able to accomplish so much, and I’m begging them for scraps.” So, I left that company after three years. The lawsuit bought me this house.
I told people about Change.org and my experience there being kind of surrounded by people who didn’t really know what they were doing and weren’t handling HR situations professionally. They were letting people manage who were just known bad managers, but they were white people. They were friends. They were just letting people progress and progress, and I was begging for scraps. People were like, “Wait, change is like that? Isn’t that a progressive company?” And I was screaming, “No, it’s actually decidedly not a progressive company!” And, I wished I had a mechanism to warn people, to say, “All these companies you think are going to be these progressive organizations where you are safe are not safe.”
NOTABLE: What do you hope to accomplish? I mean, is the mission that Black women are warned or is the mission that these companies will see themselves on here and change?
ANSA: The mission is that companies will see themselves on Blacklist and that they will be moved to change. I want it to be restorative justice so that people know that speaking up actually did make a difference. So, there are certain criteria that companies can meet to be on the safe jobs list because there are three pillars to Blacklist. There’s the list where there are warnings and experiences no company can ever get off the list because those experiences will always have happened. What they can do is meet certain criteria to become a safe job, and that can be proving that they are an equitable workplace. And then kind of the third pillar is the resources that I want to provide people. I did not know that I had suffered a constructive dismissal until an attorney told me, and I didn’t know how common it was. Companies bank on us being ignorant, and they bank on us being too afraid to act.
And if we can come together as all underrepresented communities, as Black women, as queer people, as people of different ethnicities and abilities, then I think we will be unstoppable, and companies are going to have to step up to the plate as younger generations are taking up more of the workforce and they’re not playing around.
NOTABLE: Do you really think these companies care?
ANSA:Well, the people who did that to me at Change.org made that man the head of HR after I left. It was a slap in the face. And to your point, I don’t think that the people who work at these companies genuinely care to make safe spaces. I think we need to hit them where it hurts. We need to hit their pockets, and we need to hit their recruitment abilities. So as younger studies show that younger generations millennials, Gen Z – I’m a millennial – and Gen Z especially, they’re not working for work’s sake. They will quit a job. They would rather be unemployed or underemployed than work at an organization that doesn’t match their values. So, companies are losing their workforce to gigs to underemployment. As boomers are dying off. Millennials are going to be 75% of the workforce in 2025.
Companies are going to hurt. They’re really going to hurt. And I’m trying to get a jump on that by saying, ‘Look how much revenue you’re going to lose. Look how much churn you’re going to have. Look at the turnover rate. Look at the attrition. Look at all of these numbers that are going to suffer if you don’t address this.’ So, I want to harm their brands enough that they say, ‘okay, even if we don’t mean it, we have to do something’.
NOTABLE: Is it effective? The people at the companies carrying out the abuse aren’t called out, so they stay with the company or go elsewhere and continue to abuse others.
ANSA:That’s a really good point. And I tried to do that on a Glassdoor review, which is what kind of started to prompt me to build Blacklist. Glassdoor is for the company, and they are trying to legally protect these companies and themselves. And they got to the point where if you look like you’re what they would call bullying, naming specific names, if it looks like you might be identifying someone, they’ll take it down. Blacklist, based on the legalese that I’ve been able to parse, based on my legal recommendations, I don’t have to do that. You can name names and protect yourself. If you’re telling the truth, let that person come and try and fight you over it.
But I want people to feel free to write the truth on other review sites or sites that are somewhat similar. There isn’t anything like Blacklist right now, but on similar sites, on company review sites, I think that people are kind of prompted to be polite and broad strokes, and they can’t really get to the root of “this specific thing happened to me under these people’s watch, and they haven’t changed.” That’s what I want Blacklist to be. I want it to be a space for stories, not just reviews.
Masking is a mental health term that describes ways to hide, suppress or camouflage symptoms of anxiety, depression and post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD). In the workplace, it refers to fitting into the cultural environment to maintain your job and relationships without anyone knowing what is going on inside. For Black women, masking happens often, and long term, it can spike the stress hormone cortisol leading to mental and physical health issues.
“We’re so into mask-wearing that we don’t pay attention to what our internal sensor, our intuition, our common sense is telling us,” says Dr. Angela Neal-Barnett, director of the Program for Research on Anxiety Disorders in African Americans (PRADAA) at Kent State University in Ohio.
Neal-Barnett says dreading going into the workplace could indicate one is struggling with anxiety or depression. “If you’re out in the parking lot willing yourself to go into the building, okay, that’s a sign that something is wrong not only in the workplace, but you want to take stock of your anxiety, depression and PTSD.”
“Anxiety can show up as agitation, irritability, hostility and anger, which can feed into the ‘angry Black woman’ stereotypes we often try to avoid.”
Symptoms of anxiety disorders can present differently in Black women. “Anxiety can show up as agitation, irritability, hostility and anger, which can feed into the ‘angry Black woman’ stereotypes we often try to avoid,” says Dr. Shaakira Haywood Stewart, a psychologist in New York.
Seeing anger in Black women can illicit negative labels from others. “We’re quick to say, ‘she’s crazy,’ but not necessarily recognizing the number of boundaries that person has had crossed, and the resentment that can build up from years of neglect or emotional trauma,” says Dr. Afiya Mbilishaka, head of psychology at the University of the District of Columbia, hairstylist and founder of PsychoHairapy.
While many avoid being angry because of the stereotypes and labels, embracing that emotion can be a healthy choice. “Getting angry is better than internalizing it,” says Neal-Barnett. “Because what happens when you internalize it? It’s all your fault. But racism, which is what you’re experiencing, is not your fault.”
Another symptom is being in a perpetual state of fatigue. “Exhaustion can be a silent killer,” warns Haywood Stewart. “You’ll hear from patients, ‘I’m so tired,’ and they think it’s because of working a lot, but it can lead to hypertension, pre-diabetes and fibroids.” Haywood Stewart cautions against preoccupation with trauma, which can manifest through repetitive discussions about the traumatic events, persistent flashbacks and recurring dreams of the incidents. It is important to find an outlet and someone to talk to about the issues that are causing mental anguish.
“Getting angry is better than internalizing it.”
For many Black women, the initial person who notices something is wrong may be an unlikely source. “Probably the first person who’s going to tell you something is wrong is your hairdresser,” says Neal-Barnett. They often hear about the issues in-depth, and see you regularly enough to be aware of mental and physical changes. For this very reason, she has a licensed hair professional on her research team because she says they are vital in diagnosing mental health issues. “You may sit in the chair and hear, ‘Girl, what is going on?’ because our hair tells a story about what we are going through.”
At that point, Neal-Barnett emphasizes the importance of seeking mental health assistance, making an appointment with your physical doctor and seeking legal advice—which may be difficult for some as they worry about the stigma associated with complaining and their job security. “For many women, they feel if they are not working, then what happens to the family in terms of keeping a roof over people’s heads.” She recommends using accrued Personal Time Off (PTO) for self-care and talking to your doctor about whether using resources, such as the Family Medical Leave Act (FMLA), are options.
When asked if the workplace is safe for Black women, Haywood Stewart answered emphatically, “No, it’s not.”
The workplace can be a harmful environment, and it is easy for Black women to become complacent and accept marginalization when it has become commonplace. “Some of the things happening to us in the workplace are traumatic and harmful,” says Haywood Stewart. “We’ve become used to being harmed because it happens over and over again.”
When your symptoms begin affecting personal relationships outside of work, that’s a sign that you need to seek help. “When the people you love start avoiding your calls, you find friendships and romantic relationships deteriorating; it’s time to get help,” says Haywood Stewart.
Neal-Barnett highlights that although workplace-induced stress can feel isolating, talking to others about these experiences is important. “You are not alone, and you are not the only one.” She says that it happens every day in corporate America and academia, which has adopted a corporate model. She explains that Black women may need to venture outside of their comfort zones if they want to see changes in their lives. “I know it feels embarrassing, and you feel shame, but if you can set aside that feeling for one minute and tell someone else who is Black, you are going to find hope and a plan to move forward.”
Chronic phycological stress can lead to trauma in the body, hair and skin. Black women report higher levels of psychological stress than white women due to their intersectionality between race and gender. In addition, they face unique social issues, such as discrimination, finances, safety and family, which are all considered top stressors for Black women according to the Qualitative Assessment of Gender- and Race-Related Stress Among Black Women.
Over an extended period, stress can limit the body’s ability to adapt, causing damage to the central nervous system, cognition and learning, immune system functions, cardiovascular and endocrine systems and the gastrointestinal tract. There are signs Black women should look for in their bodies if they are experiencing high levels of stress and anxiety.
“Weight gain, skin breakouts, palpitations and breaking out in a sweat are pretty consistent signs among patients, especially women,” says Dr. Robin Moore, DO, a primary care physician in Houston specializing in women’s health.
Moore says that Black women have to do better about finding ways to minimize stress in their lives, including being more vocal about their needs and learning to set boundaries.
“We have to learn to say ‘no’ to things that don’t serve us.”
Workplace stress is a common complaint among Black women in her practice. “Black women especially have to wear many hats, they are overwhelmed and can never show weakness,” she says. “It can produce an unrealistic and unsustainable reality leading to burnout and anxiety.”
She adds that racism and discrimination in the workplace can affect physical health because it causes Black women to apply added pressure to be the best just to receive the same as others.
Moore says stress can lead to severe health issues like diabetes, heart disease, ulcers, stroke and inflammation. Thus, it is important Black women insist their doctors check their heart, thyroid, cortisol and blood sugar levels, iron and electrolytes.
Stephanie Serlin recommends her clients wash their face 30-60 times per month. Serlin, an esthetician and owner of So Hum Skin in Houston, says that a good skincare routine is a relaxation tool that can relieve stress while also combatting breakouts.
“I believe in the phrase, ‘Black don’t crack,’ but when we are facing trauma, we need to do more than rely on our genes.”
Serlin says that congestion (pimples) can appear both underneath and above the skin’s surface, along with skin inflammation and puffy eyes resulting from anxiety disorders. The inflammation is caused by high cortisol levels—a sign of stress.
“A good skincare routine can be a way to decompress from the day, take a moment for yourself and relax.”
Getting a professional facial regularly with extractions and an enzyme peel can help get the skin back on track. If unable to visit an esthetician, home facials can be purchased and used with caution. “I am not big on suggesting home remedies because a lot of times when people want to pop their pimples, the pressure of their hands causes more damage to the skin.”
Steaming the face by placing it over a bucket of hot water and wrapping your face in a hot towel are ways to open the pores at home. Serlin also suggests Aztec Secret Indian Healing Clay to detoxify the skin and Jan Marini products for a regular skin regime. She says it’s crucial to spot-test new products on the hand before applying all over the face to ensure no allergic or adverse reaction.
Hair loss, breakage, shedding, oily or flaky scalp, and brittle texture may be signs your hair is telling you that you are depressed, or your stress levels are too high. Tecovia LaShe’ sees it every day with clients who come into her shop for braids and other protective hairstyles. LaShe’, stylist and owner of Crowned by She’ Hair Salon in Houston, says that her clients are often unaware of their stress levels until they sit in her chair.
“I spend a lot of time consulting with my clients about the symptoms of depression and anxiety showing up in their hair.”
“They are often surprised how their hair is communicating that something is wrong,” she says.
She says many of her clients can leave hair issues untreated for long periods because they focus on coping and surviving. “Clients confide in me about their life issues, including workplace trauma and how much pressure they face in difficult work environments.” She adds that protective styles that cover the damaged areas are popular because so many Black women are dealing with the same issues.
LaShe’ helps her clients customize healthy hair regiments that may include special shampoos, conditioners, masks and oils. She may also suggest clients look to meditation, exercise, a change in diet or seek help from a mental health professional when she learns their struggles with mental health are not being treated.
“I listen and empathize because I am a Black woman, and I know how difficult life can be for us,” she says. “My role is to help them leave the shop looking better and feeling better than when they arrived.”
Quiet as it’s kept, I’ve known Undra Celeste, designer, owner and creative director of the fashion brand Undra Celeste New York, for 25 years and counting. After more than two decades, while she has evolved, thankfully, she hasn’t changed. This interview is a long time coming. The process started as a therapeutic phone call in 2018 and continued during a vibrant trip in February this year to celebrate her birthday in Marrakech, Morocco, until now on an 11 a.m. Zoom video call (New York time) at our respective desks across the world to round it out for the first issue of Notable. Without skipping a beat, she agreed to be the cover story years ago when the magazine was a planted seed. When I reminded her of her promise while haggling in the souks with a relentless amo (uncle) over a black and white shag rug, her high cheekbones popped as she smiled, “Of course. I am so happy you’re finally doing this magazine, girl. I can’t wait!”
We walked through Marrakech for a week, purchasing items for our new apartments and her upcoming brick-and-mortar shop in New Jersey and finding inspiration for her designs now in Bloomingdale’s and Saks Fifth Avenue. Like in New York, she stood out. Everywhere we went, men called out to her, “Hey, Lady Gaga!” We were both stunned at how a petite, beautiful dark-skin Black woman with a button nose wearing a silky, blunt, middle-part bob could be called someone equally as fabulous but the complete opposite in appearance. We didn’t get it. At best, we thought maybe it was a cultural disconnect; at worst, something a little more sinister. We asked everyone we encountered what it meant because it was happening everywhere, and no one would explain. On the final day of our trip, we found someone who reluctantly shared that it wasn’t derogatory in nature but due to her fly and avant-garde style that stood out among the locals. Although we side-eyed, we could live with that.
“It feels a little like sweet revenge because it feels like, okay, you really tried to crush me; you really tried to put out this fire you knew I had inside of me, but I won. I won despite it all.”
Throughout our friendship, we have maintained an “ain’t no mountain high enough” level of love, respect and unwavering support. However, we struggle to see eye-to-eye on many global and social issues, and that’s what’s true about Undra. She is fervently opinionated, wildly optimistic, painfully loyal and blindly steeped in faith. Yet, there is room for disagreements that allow friendships to thrive and trust to grow. She is the poster child for “come as you are” and works at crafting a life that mirrors what Jesus would want for her, with a little bit of gossip and cussing from time to time. While we may disagree on the economics of Guyana (where both her parents were born)—the South American country that borders Venezuela, Suriname and Brazil—we find common ground on corporate America and its ability to traumatize Black women into entrepreneurship.
Maybe a win is a win because here we are, living our dreams despite the trail of white women bosses who pushed us into finding ways to never go back to corporate. Having both worked in fashion in different capacities, we had a shared experience. Still, the Brooklyn-born Howard University graduate remained in the industry and made a name for herself through the brand, her collaboration with Harlem’s Fashion Row and the groundbreaking Nike design partnership in 2018, where she teamed up with fellow Black women fashion designers, Fe Noel and Kimberly Goldson to create Lebron’s first-ever women’s basketball shoe. When I brag about her, these are some of the accomplishments I list. However, if you ask Undra, she’ll tell you that what she’s most proud of is her longevity in the fashion business.
“The number one thing I count is that I’m still here. This industry is very hard—it’s even hard for the white girls. My brand has been around for eight years, and I am still here. I’m growing, and I’m being recognized for my work, for my talent.”
This wasn’t always the case.
Undra’s first job was in marketing at Nissan, in their old South Bay headquarters in Los Angeles. She was a Howard ‘School of B’ graduate and went the expected route of getting a job. “It was ingrained. I am the youngest of three sisters; my mom and grandma all lived in the same house, so everybody just worked. At the time, I could not imagine that drawing, something that I loved to do, could be a job.”
She found life in Los Angeles a little slow and her heart a little unhappy. At first, she thought it was homesickness. Close-knit ties with family and friends on the East Coast were strained from the other side of the country where an afternoon drive home to bathe in a bowl of her mother’s famous pepperpot—Guyana’s national dish consisting of braised beef with cloves, wiri wiri peppers, cinnamon and thyme—was no longer an option. Yes, she missed everyone, but something else in her spirit would not go quiet, leading her to follow her passions: drawing and drip.
“I actually signed up for a sketching class at the local Long Beach City College, and I remember my class was Tuesdays and Thursdays from 6 p.m. to 8 p.m., and it got to the point where my entire life revolved around Tuesdays and Thursdays.” By the end of the semester, Undra decided to quit her corporate job and move back to New York to start over as a fashion intern. Yes, an intern.
But that doe-eyed excitement of finally following her heart turned into one traumatic workplace experience after another, which caused periods of depression and withdrawal from activities and people that were once a source of joy. “The thing about the corporate fashion environment is that it’s like corporate America for us, but it’s on steroids because in the fashion industry, I believe—and I think most designers of color believe— there’s another set of barriers.”
One of the biggest set of barriers Undra encountered was a series of white women bosses who she feels abused her. The experience with her white male bosses was the opposite when they were her direct supervisors; however, even when they could attest to her elevated eye for design, business acumen and negotiation skills, they failed in every instance to protect her from the discrimination she experienced. “They chose being white over my safety and doing the right thing.”
“White women’s tears trump everything. Every time.”
She quickly moved up the ranks to management and found her footing with a boss who supported her work and promoted her to her rightful place. “I specifically took a job as a product development manager because of the male designer who was going to be my boss, and I loved it. Then they restructured and put this white woman between us. So, I went from being one of the best they had to suddenly being the worst and needing to be fired. So, there’s that.”
She laments that New York racism is more nuanced, subtle and covert. “They’re not going to touch your hair, right? They’re not going to do anything stupid like that. They’re not going to make a comment about your skin. They’re not going to compare you to hip-hop artists. They’re not going to do those textbook things.”
We agreed that the feeling is akin to being ‘put in your place’ because you’re shining too bright and venturing too close to the sun for their comfort. As they can’t voice it, they manufacture performance issues that, even with proof to the contrary, determine whether you belong. “I felt like because I felt good about myself—I thought I was pretty, I knew ain’t nobody outdressed me or outworked me at no job I ever had—it was kinda like, ‘oh, you’re getting too far above your station.’”
Her final corporate fashion job was the stitch that broke the seam. She describes the first few years as amazing, even with a boss who was indeed a white woman. She shares that this was the first time she had a white woman boss who showed her professional respect and supported her gifts. “I was at this job the longest I’ve been at any job—three years. I was the teacher’s pet and my boss’ favorite.” In the span of 11 hours, after an incident where Undra politely stood up for herself and protected her team from a visiting colleague described as a Texas white woman with a chip on her shoulder, Undra went from a confident, trusted manager with a thriving team to a pariah in the office. She was stripped of her authority and shunned by all, including her boss. “Before this incident, everything was at my disposal, and now I had to ask for simple things because I didn’t want to get out of place.” Though she felt she and her boss had a relationship bound by mutual trust and respect, it didn’t matter after the colleague complained. “White women’s tears trump everything. Every time.” Undra felt she had “been fired but wasn’t told to leave.”
Her boss never spoke to her about the colleague who complained nor asked Undra’s side of the story, and she refused to communicate with her. When the annual review approached, Undra showed up prepared for the meeting. All her accomplishments and exceeded goals were typed neatly and printed out, only for her manager to show up with a blank sheet of paper. “I didn’t write anything because I don’t think you did anything this year,” her manager said. Undra was crushed.
My brand has been around for eight years, and I am still here. I’m growing, and I’m being recognized for my work, for my talent.”
She did all she could to save her reputation and her bonus. She provided documentation of every contribution and all the positive feedback received from her boss and other business partners. Then she gave a copy to everyone: her boss, human resources and the president and CEO of the company. All that effort fell on deaf ears. Her boss was given the authority and support to marginalize and mistreat her. No one batted an eye. Nothing changed. No one came to her rescue, and it seemed as though no one, except Undra, had lost any sleep.
This experience pushed Undra to focus on starting her own brand, and almost a year later, she quit, launched Undra Celeste New York and has been showing up and showing out ever since. In retrospect, she wouldn’t change her reaction to the abuse from the colleague and still doesn’t see a problem with her actions as a manager. Undra takes issue with the fact that she was not allowed any (perceived) missteps in a company where she was constantly cleaning up her white colleagues’ mistakes. Unlike her, her white colleagues received the benefit of the doubt; they received grace.
How does someone with such negative experiences in the workplace create a company dedicated to workwear?
“When my mom and aunts came to this country, many of them started their career in domestic work, so they wore uniforms, but they were very particular. You don’t get in between a West Indian woman and her uniform because she’s going to be the sharpest.” Undra recalls that outside of their uniforms, these women transformed into stylish fashion icons in their own right, and she saw a disconnect. “It was such a code switch. I’m like, the ‘Diana Ross and Donna Summer’ I see on the weekend is the same woman. The same feeling and power those clothes give her shouldn’t be put aside to go to work.”
Could it be that Undra wants to empower women in the workplace through their wardrobes as retribution for the powerlessness she felt throughout her career?
“This beautiful part of us that shows up on weekends, has friends and family and camaraderie, and is respected and loved, should pour into everyday life for us.” In a full-circle moment, a former co-worker told her that after Undra left her final corporate gig, their boss printed out all of her accomplishments and bragged about her in the office. The nerve. With all she did to try and make Undra feel less than, she somehow felt she had the right to be proud and celebrate her triumphs. “It feels a little like sweet revenge because it feels like, okay, you really tried to crush me; you really tried to put out this fire you knew I had inside of me, but I won. I won despite it all.”