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Lizzo Scandal Evokes Awareness of Toxicity in Black Work Environments

Lizzo Scandal Evokes Awareness of Toxicity in Black Work Environments

Work culture can be tricky. Employees want to feel connected to the work they are doing as well as to their colleagues and the company’s mission. Simply put, employees want a positive, healthy place to work. People deserve to work free of harassment and a hostile work environment.

In a lawsuit filed last week, three of Lizzo’s former dancers have accused the singer of sexual harassment and creating a hostile work environment. The lawsuit also alleges weight shaming, failure to prevent sexual or religious harassment, disability discrimination, and assault.

This news was surprising to us all, as Lizzo has been a champion for embracing body positivity and inclusivity. Her songs like Good as Hell and Juice have been self-love anthems for not just women but everyone. It’s disheartening, to say the least, that she is being accused of the things her former dancers allege.

In our society, celebrities receive more attention than most other people. Yes, they are well-paid, are catered to, and receive considerable social reverence. Yet, the second they do anything unfavorable or are accused of doing something wrong, they get tossed in the cancel bin. The truth is, social media doesn’t sympathize with Black women celebrities. It’s a tough place to be — guilty until proven innocent. We’re already starting to see the results of that, when Queen Beyoncé left the name “Lizzo” out of Break My Soul (Queen’s remix) at her performance in Boston.

It’s sad to think that Lizzo, someone who has been open about challenges and hurt she has faced over her body and weight, would turn around and cause that same hurt to anyone else. All of Lizzo’s dancers are beautiful, talented, and high-energy big girls, just like her. We love to see it. Yet, the accusations have shined a light on toxicity in Black work environments.

I believe we have to be careful about how we use the word “toxic” when talking about the workplace. Every workplace can be annoying and exhausting, but that doesn’t necessarily mean it’s toxic. A toxic workplace is more than just a place you don’t really want to go (in person or virtually). It’s not just disliking a coworker or having a difficult time working with them. It doesn’t mean a workplace where there is conflict, because that is normal and, honestly, expected. People in the workplace can disagree, and some can have bad energy.

Although the working environment for Lizzo and her dancers is quite different than in a typical office, the dynamics for a true hostile work environment are the same: The words and actions of a coworker or someone in charge negatively impact another employee’s ability to do their job. This is the difference that creates challenges that impact an employee’s satisfaction, engagement, and productivity.

Black people in the corporate space often feel as if they have two versions of themselves — the person they are, and the person they have to be at work. The mask you wear allows you to do your job, and to be seen to a certain extent. W.E.B. Du Bois wrote about this in his book The Souls of Black Folk: “It dawned upon me with a certain suddenness that I was different from the others; or like, mayhap, in heart and life and longing, but shut out from their world by a vast veil.”

We wear the veil, navigating levels of racism and sexism. You can be Black, but not too Black. You can be a Black woman, but stay out of the way. That sentiment covers everything, from our hair to our clothes, from our language to our bodies. The veil can be exhausting, but it can also turn into a means of survival.

On the other side of the coin, as we see with the accusations being made against Lizzo, it is possible for a Black woman to victimize other women of color. It may seem hard to believe that a fat woman could be accused of fatphobia. However, when power rears its ugly head, it corrupts regardless of how many marginalized identities are in the room. There are situations in which some Black women believe that in order to be promoted to a leadership position or maintain a top spot, they have to mirror the behaviors of white leaders around them. Instead of being able to identify with someone who looks like them, they resort to being condescending and unapproachable.

When I used to work in corporate America, I did not lack the skills or intelligence to perform my job well and could handle any task my supervisors assigned me. Despite my competence and work ethic, I was still on the receiving end of racism and microaggressions. I also had the experience of working for a Black woman manager who placed unattainable expectations on my performance. In other words, she made stuff up knowing that I wouldn’t be able to meet the objectives. The goal was to make my work life miserable so that I would quit.

The sad part is that going in, I was excited to work for someone who looked like me. I anticipated it being a mentoring situation — engaging and supportive. She definitely saw that I was capable and felt threatened by that. She was the only Black woman manager in our division and wanted to keep it that way.

The systemic nature of a toxic workplace shows up in different ways. The people who behave abusively are rewarded through raises, promotions, or access to power.

Regardless of what we think, we don’t know what happened between Lizzo and her former dancers. However, we can say that when any employee takes the tremendous risk of going public with their experiences — especially when the boss is an international superstar — it’s not good. The truth is that abusive bosses who fail to respect their employees’ humanity deserve to be called out and held accountable, whether they are celebrities or corporate executives.

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