For the documentary TO BE US: To Work, each interviewee was asked the same question: “What is your Working While Black story?”
TO BE US Productions filmed its first documentary (TO BE US: To Work) to highlight Black peoples’ dealings with systemic racism in the workplace. The stories that followed were shocking, poignant, and frustrating, sometimes all at once. The documentary, which has been featured in the Whistleblower Summit and Film Festival, the Social Justice Film Festival and numerous other festivals, tackles this question through a series of interviews with Black people in the workforce who represent a wide variety of careers and sectors.
TO BE US Productions, helmed by Tosca Davis and Cedrick Smith, aims “to focus on centering Black stories and making sure that our artistry and storytelling is prominent,” Davis said in an interview with Whistleblower Network News. The production company was “borne out of frustration” that Davis and Smith felt working in nonprofit and activist spaces that failed to “name the culprit” of white supremacy and racism as issues underlying racial inequality.
“The reason why we made this film is because we felt as though so many Black people would have Working While Black stories. Most people work, and this would be a universal theme,” said Davis of the documentary. But Davis had another motivation for tackling this topic as their first production: “my own Working While Black story was so fresh.” Prior to founding TO BE US Productions, Davis was working at a nonprofit when a white coworker showed her manager screenshots of Davis’ personal Facebook page, where Davis had posted about white supremacy and racism. She was brought into a meeting, reprimanded for her posts and ultimately resigned. The irony of the situation is that she had recently attended a conference sponsored by the organization’s national office that covered these topics. “They treated the woman who reported me like she was the victim,” Davis said.
Smith, too, had frustrations working in advocacy spaces where discussions were “not getting to the core of what the issues were and we felt that we could form a company and put the necessary tools together to offer a safe space for Black people to come and tell their stories,” Smith said.
The pre-production research began with Smith going to “popular spots where Black people frequented.” There, notebook in hand, he would start by asking random people: “You know what Driving While Black is, right? What if I say working while Black? How does that hit?” Smith said that “in some cases, you would have individuals who would say, no, that’s never happened to me or no, I’ve never had that experience. But invariably, as the other three people told us stories, that fourth person would say, you know what, I do have a story.” It was after informal interviews that Smith “knew we were on to something. I knew that we weren’t going to have a shortage of stories but still feared many would not want to tell their experiences on camera.”
“Even people who worked on our film, including the editor and graphic designer, were like, oh, okay, well yeah I have a working while Black story, too!” Davis commented. “That’s Black people in an abusive situation. Many times when you’re in an abusive situation, you don’t know you’re in an abusive situation until you step outside and hear someone else tell the story or point out that it is an abusive situation. That is how detrimental to our health it is. We have been socialized to dismiss our own feelings and to question; Am I being too much? Am I taking up too much space? Am I complaining? I should just be happy that I have this job.” She explained that this is a “symptom and function of racism and white supremacy, to gaslight you.” Davis also said, “there are people that really don’t know that they were being microaggressed, or the person was being racist.” Both founders agreed that one core objective of the film was to create a place of liberation for the audience by naming things as they are. (NOTE: A common default expression of “it is what it is” is a loaded phrase in the Black community and naming its components can be liberating.)
Whistleblowing and Retaliation
But what does blowing the whistle and whistleblower retaliation in the workplace look like for Black workers? When asked if Black people disproportionately experience retaliation in the workplace, Davis answered with an emphatic “Absolutely.”
“There’s a fear of retaliation in not just losing your job but, do I feel like doing this? I already have to be someone other than who I am as soon as I walk out of my home and that, too, is exhausting,” Davis said. Additionally, Davis expressed that in cases of retaliation in the workplace, “the chances are very high that you are not going to be the person who wins in the situation. Chances are very high that you will be seen as the agitator, you will be the person who needs to change.” Davis points out that in the film, “a lot of the abusers and retaliators were white women,” who are “typically seen as innocent by default especially when the ‘white tears’ start flowing.”
Additionally, Davis explained that the risk of blowing the whistle was higher for Black workers. “Black people have more to lose financially than white people. For instance, your basic generational wealth. Typically when a Black person has a job, they are taking care of more than one person.Their paycheck isn’t just their paycheck. We don’t have the familial nest egg that so many white families have, so we can’t lose our jobs. We lose our job, and nobody’s rent is getting paid. Nobody’s eating.” Davis said that Black workers “have the motivation of not saying anything and just sucking it up.
Davis and Smith were surprised that the film’s interviewees chose to be in the film because the fear of retaliation looms so large. “Cedrick and I are shocked that people showed up for filming, who are still working in these industries and who agreed to say their names. But imagine the people that you did not see on camera,” Davis said. “Some of the stories that did not make the documentary were because of the fear of retaliation—even though they are the victims.”
A Path Forward?
How do workplaces make it equitable and safe for Black people? Davis and Smith are adamant that the workplace cannot change until the world does. “As a country, we have not dealt with racism. We have not dealt with the “original sin” of this country,” said Smith. “So when you start looking at the subset of the work environment, which is one aspect of where racism’s tentacles permeate, then it again illustrates another example of, ‘Hey, we didn’t create this system, we didn’t create racism, we know as a country we haven’t dealt with it’…so how do we expect a corporation, which is a subset of a country that hasn’t dealt with [racism] in a transparent and meaningful way, to have a system in place that allows for those who are the most under-resourced and marginalized to feel comfortable in telling their valid stories?” Smith questioned.
“To me, it just doesn’t make sense to try to address things one by one. We have to start over. You can’t reform corporate life, that’s a function of capitalism,” Davis said. “You cannot start or begin to repair the harm or heal without discussing the Trans-Atlantic slave trade. You cannot discuss healing unless you talk about the indigenous people of this country whose land was stolen from them. You cannot talk about anything until we go back hundreds of years when blood was spilled, shackles were locked, children were taken away and sold. That is trauma, that is violence, that is abuse. There is nothing you can do surface-level.”
Although the documentary has been chosen for numerous film festivals, Davis and Smith expressed disappointment that the festivals had to go virtual because of the pandemic but completely understand. As first-time filmmakers, they were really looking forward to the full in-person experience.
“We did this film specifically for the liberation and validation of Black people,” Smith said. “Oppression, systemic racism, microaggressions can feel very isolating. Our goal about this film was that it can unlock that isolatory feeling and say, hey look, she’s going through it. He’s going through it. I see myself in all these different stories, and now I can actually name what I was feeling…and that can be liberating.” They hope the film helps people not feel so isolated and be encouraged to speak up.
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