Bully, Inc: Rhonda A. Lee, Black Women, and Workplace Bullying

Friday, December 21, 2012

Former KTBS-TV news anchor, Rhonda Lee 

By Jazmine Walker

Reposted with permission from Furious and Brave

A little over a week ago, meteorologist Rhonda A. Lee lost her job at KTBS-TV, an ABC affiliate in Shreveport, LA, when she responded to a Facebook post criticizing her short afro. The viewer wrote:

"the black lady that does the news is a very nice lady. the only thing is she needs to wear a wig or grow some more hair. im not sure if she is a cancer patient. but still it’s not something myself that i think looks good on tv. what about letting someone a male have waist long hairdo the news.what about that" (cq)

Despite responding with patience and tact, while acknowledging how outrageously offensive this viewer was, Lee was not only reprimanded, she was fired. Like the good folks at Feministing implied, I recognize that unlike the white anchor who publicly spoke out against bullying with the support of the news station, Lee continues to be depicted as a person who violated an unwritten, unofficial rule. What is most striking about Lee’s unfortunate situation is that it’s part of a larger trend in how advocates define bullying. People continue to limit bullying to certain contexts, and though the viewer/commenter has been described as a “bully,” the term implies that this is an isolated incident perpetrated by an individual, while not fully acknowledging how Lee’s employer(s) were also acting as "bullies" by enforcing rules that benefit their dominant status within this workspace.

The relationship between black women and bullying at work is an interesting one. The bullying of black women at work is commonplace and rarely contextualized as “bullying.” In order to be thought of as being “bullied” one must be a worthy victim. Embodying the “angry matriarch” or “black bitch” stereotypes, as black women so often do, renders them incapable of being bullied as they are framed as perpetual aggressors and instigators that need to be controlled. Bullying is seen as simply necessary when dealing with black women, and therefore, acceptable. This control manifests in white normative workplaces where black women are undervalued and subjugated to being overworked with narrow opportunities for advancement. These inequalities are constantly reproduced and rarely framed as bullying.

One of the ways these inequalities are reproduced is through symbolic boundaries. Symbolic boundaries are created when stereotyping is used to classify groups by race and gender (Fiske, 1998; Lamont & Molńar, 2002). These symbolic boundaries create racial frames and maintain systemic racism through symbolic violence, which Pierre Bourdieu (2001) defines as a “gentle violence, imperceptible and invisible even to its victims, exerted for the most part through the purely symbolic channels of communication and cognition...” (p.2). It is a form of social or cultural domination that seems so natural that it is unperceivable to the people experiencing it. Though I do not wholly agree that black women are unaware of the multiple physical, emotional, and psychological oppressions they experience at work and in their everyday lives, these oppressions are normalized and not contextualized as bullying.

Black professional women commonly report being forced to transform themselves within the workplace, a concept that has been called “dissemblance” by Darlene Clark Hine (1989) and “shifting” by Charisse Jones & Kumea Shorter-Gooden (2004). According to Durr & Wingfield (2012), black women feel judged based on their dress and communication skills and rely on racialized and gendered impression management in order to “fit into gendered and racialized norms of these environments” (p. 558). They must conform to the imagined white male worker which devalues the perspectives black women bring to the workplace as well as their ability and competency as workers. As a result, black women are excluded from social circles and struggle to find mentors, which makes advancement--largely based on inter-office relationships--difficult. What's more, they must suffer in silence, as speaking out against these injustices can result in increased stigma that further limits their potential for upward mobility or jeopardizes their employment status as in the Rhonda Lee example. These factors combine to create a stressful working environment that is omitted from the bullying discourse.

The general public needs to expand the ways that it conceptualizes bullying: currently understood with children as both the primary victims and also castigated as the key players in reproducing such violence. It is important to remember how adults within institutions use symbolic violence to maintain and reproduce inequality. Maybe if people can recognize how bullying is a means to maintain and reproduce race, gender, and class hierarchies, we can actually have meaningful mainstream conversations about racism, sexism, classism, and the many “isms” that form the foundations of the institutions in which we work, learn, worship, and socialize.

Jazmine Walker is a participant in the Black Women's Media Collective, a project of Strong Families. She lives and works in North Carolina for Rural Support Partners. Her personal blog is Furious and Brave.


Durr, M. & Wingfield, A.H. 2011. “Keep Your ‘N’ in Check: African American Women and the Interactive Effects of Etiquette and Emotional Labor.”Critical Sociology 37 (5): 557-571

Fiske, S. 1998. “Stereotyping Prejudice, and Discrimination.” Handbook of Social

Hine, D.C. "Rape and the Inner Lives of Black Women in the Middle West." Signs 14 (4): 912-920.

Jones, C. & Shorter-Gooden, K. 2004. Shifting. New York: HarperCollins.

Lamont, M & Molńar, V. 2002. The Study of Boundaries in the Social Sciences. Annual
Review in Sociology 28, 167-95.