Things are not always what they seem

Soon after I moved to New York in 2014, I began working in retail at Warby Parker, at their UES location. My interview was, of course, with a White manager, who assured me of the Warby myth that retail employees would experience some degree of a promotion within 6 months at the company. She had also been a former manager at Anthropologie, and I had just left the Union Sq location because of the late nights we were made to work, often till midnight with no overtime pay, which was justified by slashing hours, and where I had first worked in America in Maryland, where I was tucked away in the fitting room amongst an almost entirely White staff, where a White woman customer once said to me, she did not feel comfortable working with me.

I initially loved working at Warby, not because of the entitled customers or the daily early morning cleanings we had to do, but because there were some good people I worked alongside. There were days when a handful of customers would come in during an 8 hour shift, and standing for those hours (barring a lunch break and 15 minute break) while the White manager sat behind a desk was tough. Some of us would squat behind a column or in nooks where managers couldn’t see us for a break off of our heels. One day I leaned against a table for some relief after hours of standing because my back hurt in a totally empty store (as a Brown person in a White space accustomed to policing, I knew better than to lean against a table in the presence of a customer). My manager, a young White woman, appeared out of nowhere, watching me even during a lull, and told me not to lean against the table because what would would it signal to customers? That I was tired? In pain? With ability to sit when there was no one and no work to do? No, that this was a respectable place and it was my responsibility to make our White customers feel at ease. That back pain? It turned out to be sciatic nerve pain, which I still have till this day.

This interaction left me feeling hot and ashamed, as though a school teacher caught me cheating on a test. And in that moment, I knew I was being watched all the time, that from the moment I walked in to the second I walked out, I was being watched. This young White woman stepped up her policing, swooping in to break up conversations I’d be having with a friend and fellow colleague (and I feel as though I must constantly reiterate in a totally empty store), while she was free to giggle and chat with her two close friends, a White woman and a White man. This manager was one I reported directly too, and save for a few scoldings, we never communicated. Around her, I tried to make myself smaller, less visible, so that she could not see me, or less of me. Her hostility towards me left me with a knot in my stomach, and the days when she and I were not scheduled for the same shift brought me some respite. 

One of the Warby rules of retail, was that retail employees had to wear Warby glasses, regardless of whether one needed glasses or not. There was one time my eyes had become swollen, inflamed and red from dryness. The in-store optometrist told me to stop wearing fake glasses and gave me a handful of eye drops to help with the swelling, and advised that I go home and come back when it had healed. What I didn’t know about was the Warby “points system”, something that had never been relayed to me by the store manager, the cultish staff trainer, or my own manager, and because I had need to take a few days off for personal reasons, I had accumulated “points”, which could lead to termination. Little things added up, such as if you were to clock in even a few minutes later than your start time, so the expectation was that we should all be present before it was time to clock in, or if you were sick. My manager communicated these “points” to me only when I was on the cusp of termination, and so I corrected myself, arriving early, dusting and cleaning the store vigilantly, God forbid never leaning, paranoid to speak to friends, showing up with swollen eyes and fake glasses on, and even when I had the flu. I was determined to “make it” at Warby Parker, to rise the ranks as had been assured, even if this meant being smaller. I sucked up to my manager, smiling at her and making pleasantries while the sting of her scoldings still burned. When she left, I felt like I could breathe better.

I performed small rebellions, such as eating as much as I could of the company’s Fresh Direct order. A good friend and I would plough through containers of hummus, bags of chips and pretzels, jars of Nutella, so that managers and the good people at HQ were flummoxed by our food budget, which was the bare minimum compared to stories we heard of the fully stocked kitchen at HQ, bloated with food and expensive beverages. I could not tell if she was conducting a rebellion of her own, or whether she was simply keeping me company. When my friend and I were having too much of a good time during our lunch break, laughing and sharing jokes that made the day tolerable, we were separated, given different shifts and different break times and monitored closely all the time, but particularly if we dared swapping shifts and breaks to spend time together. It seemed that if any of us experienced a moment of joy, of closeness, of perhaps whispering grievances, that the very fabric of this company would be threatened.

During my first few months at Warby, there were lots of changes. Several White employees were experienced degrees of promotions, and new hires were made at the retail level. New retail employees were people of colour and Black people, and it brought me momentary warmth until I looked up and realized that all our managers were White. Our store consisted of two floors, and sales associates were rarely allowed up there unless customers swarmed the space, because I now realize, we would be hidden from the White gaze. Sometimes I would catch a manager look down at us from above, and it made me feel ill at ease. This racial disfunction was, of course, never made known to the outside. To the average customer, we appeared as a diversity and inclusion training dream, like a United Colours of Benetton campaign. One could look at the racial and gender makeup of the retail employees and pat themselves on the back and feel very good about themselves. But everything was not what it seemed. Several months in, the store hired a manager who was Black. It was a bit of a shock, as if our managers and HQ had known how we were feeling, had learned and begun to make its leadership roles reflective of intersectionality. To me, this manager was incredible. He didn’t look down at us from above, he stood beside us, and checked in with employees who did not even report to him. In the evenings, after the store had closed and the highly recap was conducted, he was gracious with acknowledging our work as individuals and as a team, and made lists of adjustments and recommendations. The evenings when he didn’t close the store, some White managers and employees would roll their eyes and complain about how his “speeches” went on “forever”, that he talked “too much” and was just holding everyone back from going home. My face burned but I stayed quiet, terrified of jeopardizing my proximity to whiteness, which could all come undone if I spoke up or aligned myself with him. Managers or “leaders” at retail stores were meant to conduct monthly check-ins with employees, and by the time of my 6 months there, there had never been a check-in. Several employees expressed their concerns, all of which were ignored. Soon after this new manager arrived, the first check-in occurred. 

By this time, my new manager was a White man. I felt less terrorized by this manager, but he was oblivious and aloof, unconcerned by the restlessness and dissatisfaction of the retail employees. He had once been a retail employee, just like us, but instead of advocating for us, he distanced. During this time, we had no formal leadership by means of a store manager, until one was finally hired, a White woman who watched us like a hawk, “correcting” us and “fixing” us so that we could conform to the Warby vision of whiteness. One of the most terrifying form of White person is the one who plays favorites, the one who pits people with less power against one another, who will never recognize your hard work and determination because they had already made their decision the moment they walked in through that door. She was that woman. I must state here that in the time that I had worked here, our managers/team leaders would make us constantly wipe down each and every pair of glasses, each lens on display on slow days and during lulls, even if they had been wiped down multiple times throughout the day, all the managers except for the one manager who was not White. This store manager was merciless, and made no allowances for rest or any pockets of happiness for certain employees. I had begun to feel crushed, and I could no longer hold it inside me. When they pushed, I pushed back, because they did not allow for healthy communication. A new employee joined, a White man, and a new position was available, not one that offered higher pay, but that had more responsibilities, something a bit more challenging, and with great delusion, something that I thought would look good on paper when the time arrived for a new promotion. I expressed my interest in this position to my manager and conferred with my co-workers who were supportive of this move. I thought I had demonstrated myself as worthy of it. But I was wrong, for our store manager had chosen this new employee – who singularly adored her, and whom she singularly adored – for this role. I had finally felt crushed, and when my manager should have been there for me, he abandoned me, actively avoiding me, unwilling to face my disappointment. 

I watched as all the managers, mine included, finally conducting their overdue check-ins, or what they called “one-on-ones.” As time went by, all check-ins had been conducted, my manager had gone down the list of all employees who reported to him, all employees but me. I was bewildered, my friends were bewildered. My manager failed to take responsibility for me, to hear me out and provide me guidance, and instead I found myself chasing after him, demanding the one-on-one I had earned and deserved. I thought at any moment I would burst into tears or stop breathing, because I had been made to feel so small, so undeserving. I had to force the matter to be seen, and he relented to what was his duty as a manager, what he had been paid to do, and we agreed on a time for a one-on-one. We had our meeting at the end of the day, and as I walked up the stairs to meet him, I looked back and saw my friends and co-workers looking back at me. My invisibility had been made invisible in the most humiliating of ways. When I walked up to take my seat, it wasn’t just my manager seated before me, but the store manager, too. She had not sat in on other one-on-ones, because they are called “one-on-ones” not “two-on-ones”, but here she was violating my privacy, and my manager had allowed her to violate my privacy. I knew she was there to intimidate me, to strong-arm me into silence, because for months I had observed the micro-aggressions and had begun to question the status quo, and orders from HQ was to always maintain the status quo. She spoke throughout our one-on-one, while my manager remained largely silent. I voiced my disappointment as being passed over for the work opportunity, and only then did my manager chime in to inform me that those “points”, those long unmentioned precarious “points” had rendered me unqualified for the position, and that these “points” would reset after 6 months, something that had never been communicated to me, not even when I spoke to my manager about applying for the opportunity, the man who was supposed to be responsible for his team. I was in awe. I had already been passed up for a White man in this company before, in the capacity of an office administrator at HQ. I had previously worked as an administrator, I had the qualifications and skills, I knew that he and only a handful of people had applied, and that he lacked my qualifications and skills.

That night I realized it was all a sham, that the assurances of promotions only applied to certain people, preferably if they were white, that the diversity and inclusivity they touted in their ad campaigns and in their stores did not reflect the rot that had set in on the inside, guarded and upheld by its leadership. That night I suddenly remembered my only time at the company headquarters, “HQ” they affectionately called it. Prior to beginning work as a retail employee, I had to attend a week of training at headquarters, “training” taught by a very young, very white women, who propagated the greatness of the company, but failed to train us in the very real experiences retail employees encountered, from abusive customers to racism to something as basic and preliminary as “the points system.”Every morning I’d walk in and every afternoon I’d walk about, looking at the rows and rows of employees, dreaming about how, if I worked hard enough, I would one day be there, amongst the ranks of those rows. But in the haze of that dream, I was unable to see clearly a company that had staffed a majority of White people and one that created limited opportunities and very little space for people of colour and Black people. A few days later I gave in my two weeks notice to the manager who demonstrated no respect for me at a company threatened by those who challenged it – most commonly its Black employees and employees of colour, because our White colleagues, as much as we loved them and their friendship, stood by in silence and watched till the end, as they rose and we left. On an employee’s last day at work, the manager is expected to get a card and organize a small parting celebration. On my last day at Warby Parker, my manager avoided me, perhaps afraid to see the hurt he had caused me, that him and his fellow White managers had caused me, or perhaps because he was ashamed of himself that he had failed so miserably, in allowing me to be disrespected he had ultimately been the fool. As I said my goodbyes and left that store once and for all, one dear friend presented me with an enormous jar of Nutella, an inside joke, and a notebook sold at the store, which opened to parting words from my friends and co-workers, from everyone but my manager. This friend would tell me from time to time that I deserved so much more, and finally I had believed her.

At the retail location I worked at, many employees were treated with the utmost of disregard, but what is laughable it that without us, this company would not be half of what it was. For the profit of this company, we jeopardized our mental and physical health, most days necessitating invisible armor, and for our hard work, we were compensated with low paid grade, no benefits, no security, and White managers who tried to reinforce how inconsequential we were to the company. For all this, we were given nothing in return. During my time at Warby Parker, I’d witnessed a lot, things that had been said and done to me, and to other employees. It’s not my place to expose their stories, because it requires consent and arouses feelings of anguish and hopelessness many of us had to bury deep in order to keep going. But know that a great number of injustices had been perpetrated by the company’s White leadership, and too many attempts were made to strip Black employees and employees of colour of their dignity, perhaps in the hopes of diminishing us to the extent that we would not be able to face ourselves, because they knew what we already knew – that we were better than them.