11 People Talk About Confronting Racist Salary Discrimination at Work

"My boss told me I wouldn't be getting a promotion or pay raise that cycle. I asked for some feedback, and he said I lacked 'polish.' When I asked what that meant, he said, 'You know, your hair, and stuff.'"
June 30, 2020, 12:00pm
11 People on Their Experiences of Racist Income Inequality at Work
Photo by Hinterhaus Productions via Getty Images
A series in which people across the U.S. offer firsthand perspectives about how social issues impact their real lives.

As companies across the United States scramble to address racism in the workplace in light of anti-police violence, the stories employees are sharing are at odds with the pro-diversity initiatives employers are cobbling together. Black, brown, and Indigenous people are highlighting that performative "changes" expressed in well-intentioned but tone-deaf emails from CEOs, reading groups, and bias trainings aren't meaningful if non-white people remain underpaid compared to white colleagues.


On Twitter, #PublishingPaidMe and the creation of media salary spreadsheets revealed the stark disparities in pay between white writers and their Black or brown counterparts. This is one of many industries facing a public reckoning about racist income inequality: Pay disparities that overwhelmingly affect Black and brown people are, unfortunately, prevalent across many professions.

VICE spoke to 11 people about how pay inequality and related instances of workplace discrimination affected their professional development as they tried to move forward in their careers.

Answers have been edited for length and clarity. All names have been changed for professional and privacy reasons.

Nawra, 28, Washington, D.C.

I’m a Black non-binary person. There was a lot of pay inequality across a social justice nonprofit organization I worked for. We had an executive director making more than five times that of the lowest-paid staff. Some staff could barely pay their rent or cover childcare. Staff across the organization pushed for transparency by unionizing, and, ultimately, the executive team made pay adjustments to prevent us from moving forward with the union.

Though I knew—because other staff told me—that a white colleague with the same title and role as me was paid more than I was, it was confirmed when I got a letter that they were adjusting my pay to match my white colleague's. My direct manager told me the original pay disparity was because of tenure and my white colleague's overall work experience. That was hard to hear, because I had more experience in the actual field we were working in. Of course the white colleague had more overall work experience, I thought, They're older than me.

To make matters worse, I found out another colleague was offered a higher salary than I was when they were hired for the same role, with the same title. That colleague had both less overall work experience and less experience in our field. This colleague had lighter skin, and while I can't say that was why it happened, it did cross my mind that colorism played a role. When I lifted this all up, my manager promised to advocate better for me. But my manager didn't have enough power within the organization to do that in reality—and their higher-ups became defensive really fast.

I quit a few months after—not just because of the pay issue, though it was part of it. The organization just didn't live up to my values, or to the values it promised to live for our communities. It really took a toll on my mental health, hurt my ability to trust, and made me jaded and sad. I didn't have it in me to fight to make things better at the expense of my mental health—not within that environment, at least.


I don't trust nonprofit organizations to really serve the communities they claim to anymore. Mission statements are often empty promises, while capitalism and white supremacy are what are truly embodied by so many of these orgs.

All that said: I truly, truly believe we can do better. We can change things! We can pay people equitably. We can even make healthcare, housing, education and so on free. so there's not this toxic competition over resources and a false sense of scarcity.

Liz, 33, Seattle, WA

I'm a Black woman. I worked in human resources at a video game development company. In my capacity there, I was involved in hiring a peer, a white guy. My manager asked me to prepare an offer letter for him at a $90,000 annual salary, compared to the $65,000 annually I was being paid for the same job. I didn't raise concerns at the time, but my manager acknowledged that we were hiring him at the top of the range because he was certain that he'd be a rockstar. Rather than seeing this as discriminatory, I blamed myself for not negotiating for higher pay when I accepted my offer.

When this guy started, it was evident that he was not nearly as capable as he'd represented. Our manager frequently asked me to take on significant parts of his workload, and I spent hours correcting his work and training him on pretty basic aspects of the job. He couldn't be trusted to follow through on simple tasks, and at one point our manager asked me to record how many hours the guy actually spent working because there was little evidence that he was doing anything.


After a year of this, my boss told me during a performance review that I wouldn't be getting a promotion or pay raise that cycle. I asked for some feedback, and one of the things he said was that I lacked "polish.” When I asked what that meant, he said, "You know, your hair and stuff.” At that time, I had just stopped chemically relaxing my hair and only wore it natural or in protective styles.

And, yes—the guy got to keep his job and his $90,000 salary through all of this.

I started polishing up my resume and landed a new job within six months of that conversation. The new job was the very first job interview I'd gone to wearing my natural hair. I figured that if I wasn't "polished" enough to work there, then they could just reject me off the bat. Luckily, they hired me—and for $30k more than the old job.

Fatima, 35, New York City, NY

I am a multi-racial woman. I was a news anchor for a major sports media company where employees shared computers. One day, I was searching for a file on the hard drive and there was a spreadsheet titled "April Budget." Journalists are curious by nature, so I opened it up and found that it contained all our salary breakdowns. I was the lowest-paid anchor by over $10,000, despite having as much experience as the highest-paid white male anchor. I didn't tell anyone at work about this because I was embarrassed. Only recently have I felt comfortable talking about it after all these stories have come out.

I brought it up during my annual review. My executive producer at the time told me that, because of headcount, it was going to be difficult to find the additional money, but that there would be a review of the budgets and he would try to "cobble something together." That never happened. That executive producer was laid off. When I met the new manager, I was on the verge of quitting and I explained why. Twenty-four hours later, I got the raise.


There is this small voice in the heads of minorities that tells you just to be grateful for the opportunity. This mentality led me to believe that if I worked harder I would be compensated for it—except a much more junior white anchor who was eventually fired for gross incompetence was making more money than I was. I needed that proof to convince myself that I was being unfairly paid.

Roxana, late 20s, D.C. area

I worked at a reproductive choice nonprofit doing organizing work. I found out about seven or eight months into my employment that I was being paid a humiliating amount less than a white woman coworker. Employees were strongly discouraged from speaking to each other at this organization. I found that really weird, and so did my co-workers, but we worked remotely and did not know one another except for our interactions online. I slowly started getting involved in basic, but private, conversations with them that evolved into Google Hangouts. One day, over a Hangout, I decided to ask how much we all were being paid, because I was told by my boss upon hire that all full-time workers were going to be paid the same. In the Hangouts conversation, I found out that my white colleague—who held a very similar title with a very similar job role, one that required us to work together constantly—was being paid about $15,000 more than me. I was floored. I literally threw up. I sobbed myself to sleep that night, and many that followed.

After finding out the discrepancy, my co-workers and I tried to have a group meeting about it but my bosses refused and immediately involved attorneys. Every staffer at the time went on strike in solidarity for weeks before resigning. I signed an NDA in exchange for a small amount of severance. I am disabled and have negative generational wealth. I had no choice but to sign, and my boss knew that. The trauma and betrayal that I experienced there shut me out from what I truly believed was my dream career and calling.


Since then, I worked at an environmental nonprofit, an electoral campaign, and doing direct abortion care. Then, I started law school to pivot away from the reproductive choice nonprofit space. Honestly, I don’t know if I’ll ever be able to pivot away from the nonprofit space altogether because of its presentation as a lesser evil under capitalism, but I want to because it's unsafe for women of color.

Mara S., 30, Bay Area, CA

I’m an Asian-American woman. I worked as a content editor in the health and entertainment media among an editorial team of about 80 people.

We were sitting in the common area during lunch when a new hire just asked, transparently, what we were all making. It wasn't a conversation we’d had recently, given how we were previously pretty open about salary brackets at the company, but over the last two years the company had also expanded exponentially. So we answered, in duck-duck-goose order, until a different new white editor, who had zero years of experience, spilled that they made up to $8,000 more than some editors.

The entire group was livid, and I feel bad for that coworker who spilled because they didn't know. At the time, I didn't have the lowest-lowest salary of the group, but I definitely have had to help that editor with a beginner's level of editorial knowledge. Essentially, on a legacy-editor to new-editor basis, the discrepancies made no sense. I'm not even sure it was intentional, but that's what made us so angry: that one position had so much more money thrown at it without the consideration of existing employees. It made us feel extremely undervalued.

A few of us didn't feel like we were able to say anything. Some of us our salaries weren't too far off (like, about $1,000–$2,000 difference), while others had, like, $8,000–$10,000 discrepancy. Chatting with some other colleagues, we ended up rationalizing that new hires would naturally get paid more. Most of us thought the best way to get raises was to find new jobs— we'd also had salary reports done in the past, but they always told us that we're paid “market.” We just didn't have a lot of faith in the company.

This lack of faith was exacerbated when one of the braver editors, who had 10+ years of experience to this other co-workers' zero, spoke up to management, which led to a lot of internal conversations that dragged on for months. At one point, a white HR rep—on a fucking PowerPoint slide—told folks not to talk about salary. That rep was eventually let go, but not before my co-worker who brought up the discrepancy left.


Personally, I didn't want to leave, because I've seen media salaries. We didn't have it great, but we also didn't have it "Condé Nast" bad. Still, I got progressively irritated, especially when I had to help the person who was paid more than me do their job. I didn't feel like waiting for a raise, so I went ham with internal applications. Funnily enough, they made me do the work associated with the promotion I had applied for for three months before I got the title and raise. By the time I did officially get the job, it just felt like back pay. Three months later I wanted another raise.

This time, I mentioned that I was interviewing at other companies and outlined their salary ranges, despite not having an actual job offer. I didn't say I had a job offer, but I definitely implied I was going to leave. By this point, I'd been doing the work all by myself again, and so I was pretty upfront about not only needing a raise, but also an assistant. I'm pretty sure they were scared I'd leave, so by the next review cycle, I got an $11,000 raise and a title change. By the end of the year, I totaled a $25,000 raise.

It feels important to add that none of this was "overnight," but basically four years worth of work. I spent three years building a very trusted and strong relationship with my manager and had proven myself by carrying a team for at least two years before I spoke up. I also literally worked my ass off. By the end of 2019, I was so burnt out I dissociated for six months and lost a really important relationship. In my head, I thought I was investing in the financial security of our future. But by then, I was so completely disconnected from my emotions that I'd forgotten the concept of emotional intimacy. I only stopped dissociating when he broke up with me and my manager told me to take time off.

Some days, I look back and I'm not sure it was worth it, but I'm glad at least I didn't have to trample on anyone to get raises. It was a very solitary experience in that my coworkers were only ever happy for me without ever being successful in the same way. Looking back, I was doing the #girlboss shit: defining success on my terms and narrow-mindedly thinking other people should be able to do the same. Today burning out to succeed is never something I could comfortably advise. And I can't help but think about whether or not my experience set the expectation with management that they can just wait for people to ask for fairer pay, rather than give it to those who deserve it without those employees having to ask.

Having two extremely negative negotiating experiences helped me take no bullshit. With managers at previous teams or companies, I was either gaslit, or belittled because of my age. Both those experiences definitely angered me into action. They made me realize that if management is willing to lie to me, I had no reason to be honest or considerate of management's feelings. I could just ask for money in terms of business and not disclose personal reasons for why.

M. Pearson, 30, Philadelphia, PA

I am a Black genderqueer person. I found out about the pay disparity at my previous job at a market research company three months ago from a white male colleague who worked with me at the company where the disparity occurred.

I had recently quit my prior job and come to a new company that paid me double my previous salary, in part because this colleague referred me. He is a tall, younger (~26 years old) white man, whom I trained. The two of us were complaining about working at the company because the environment was hostile and the boss/owner was actively cruel to those around him when my colleague mentioned how little he was paid relative to our new jobs. Then, he told me what he had made previously—$54,000—which was over $2,000 more than I was making after working for the firm for over three years. He also alerted me that the young white woman, who I also trained, who was hired with him, was hired at $52,000, which was almost a thousand dollars more than I was making as her supervisor.


Note: I have a master’s degree, nearly a decade’s worth of experience in research, and multiple research publications, compared to his two years of low-level work at a market research firm straight out of college. I had tried multiple times to raise the issue of higher pay with leaders at my firm, only to be told “it wasn’t about the money” and that I “should be thankful for gaining such valuable experience.”

Until I left, I had no idea that I was being paid so little—talking about salaries was quietly discouraged culturally, especially when the CEO would constantly affirm that salaries were not important. I have not pursued action, since I'd left the role when I discovered this, and I work in a right-to-work state (right-to-work states have laws which prohibit union security agreements, or agreements between employers and labor unions). I’m not sure what action I could have taken, to be honest.

Once my white colleague told me about our salary discrepancies, it completely altered my perspective about my work experience. It was a very hostile environment and deeply unsupportive, but I had internalized much of the negative experiences I had as the result of some failing in myself, despite being responsible for millions of dollars’ worth of work. I was afraid to talk about issues in the workplace because the boss is actively hostile to any negative feedback and he is petty and vindictive when confronted. I was screamed at and made to cry on multiple occasions by my CEO. Managers are clearly frightened of him, and work to shift blame for any and all mistakes or issues onto less senior employees to shield themselves from his wrath.


I broached a raise last spring, using a job offer I received as reasoning for why I deserved it, only to be systematically punished for months following for daring to bring it up. I had my projects taken from me and then had my raise request thrown in my face for months afterwards as a sign that I had lost investment in my work after it was denied. If I were still working there, I would not feel safe bringing this issue up with my employer. I would be lying if I said I am not afraid he won’t seek retaliation if I were to speak publicly on these issues.

Kanha Engels , 23, Toronto, Canada

I am an Indian trans femme person. I worked for a tech company in Toronto. I was the operations manager working alongside the service manager and assisting the CEO of the company.

It was an incredibly toxic and abusive workplace. The service manager—who started as my co-worker—demanded to be made my superior and insisted that I report to them.

During a week in which that co-worker was away because of the flu, I was given the responsibility of managing our expenses and entering them into QuickBooks. I also had the responsibility of approving and entering employee expenses, so while I was entering their expenses into the system, I saw how much they were paid.

I saw that the co-worker’s salary was 1.25 times what I was given when I signed. I was given a wage below asking, which I took because I wanted the management experience on my resume. Our experience was about the same in our respective fields, and given our fields, I should’ve been making more.


The main difference between us was that they were white, and they were of the same ethnicity as the CEO and the Vice President of the company.

The company didn’t have an HR department—which should’ve been a red flag—so I raised their abusive behavior and the pay inequity to the CEO. I was shut down immediately. I was told that I should be glad I was given the opportunity. It wasn't even a job I wanted! They called me in after I turned down a position with them as the exec assistant to the CEO a year and a half before. They said that, maybe if I wasn’t on my phone all day, like the rest of my generation, I would be deserving of a raise. (When I started, I was told by the CEO it was OK to have your phone out; I like to listen to podcasts when I do reports.) All of our other staff also frequently used their phones during work hours—it’s a tech company, after all. Half of the dudes played table tennis all day.

I swallowed my pride for about a week before the abusive coworker berated me in front of the entire company staff. It all sort of blew up one day over our company’s phone and internet bill. I entered the bill as she’d taught me to, and with all the breakdowns on the paperwork. I double checked the math. It turned out that the bill had an outstanding balance on it. I didn’t factor in the taxes for that outstanding amount because we weren’t charged for it on the bill. She called me out in front of everyone and said I was incompetent and that before I came along she had no time for a vacation or to even take lunch breaks but she’d rather go back to that than share an office with me.


I left the company after that. This all happened within the first month and half I worked there.

Elif, 26, Baltimore, MD

I am a mixed, Muslim immigrant from Turkey. I was working for an environmental nonprofit organization in Washington, D.C. when I found out that I was paid less than a white colleague of similar age. We had applied for the same position of an administrative assistant, but I was given a higher position in marketing instead, considering my background operating a media platform for years. Despite her having a more junior position and less experience than I did, she was paid more. This position was also salaried, so I was not paid overtime, even though I had to stay at work longer than she did.

I only knew this because she’s now my best friend and she disclosed it within the year. I was shocked. On top of that, I had soon after asked them if they could sponsor my work visa since my student visa/OPT (Optional Practical Training, for one year after graduation) was going to expire in less than a year. They told me they would sponsor my work visa only if I paid for all of the application and lawyer fees, which can be up to $10,000. It would have been illegal for them, according to my lawyer then, to ask me to pay for it because they should be paying for it. I’m not sure if I would have been breaking the law in that case as well, but I didn’t end up going through with it.


I did not raise my discomfort around the discrepancy. I was scared that it would have impacted the company's willingness to sponsor me. I stuck to the lower pay the whole time. I ended up quitting a few months afterward, but only because I started working on my book with Prestel/Penguin Random House and had to move to West Texas.

Many people in my family and friends have been working under the table and, as a result, get taken advantage of. They know that we either have no or inadequate protection. This is a financial crisis in more ways than one; it’s not that we are just underpaid, but as a result, we cannot afford lawyers to pay for protection, visas, and higher pay.

It reiterated to me that, even when I am documented, I still cannot compare to my colleagues who are white citizens. Even before I step foot into the office for an interview, my worth—in skill and deserved pay—is judged upon my foreign name compared to a white colleague who has a familiar name. And lastly that such an experience that undervalued me, in pay and skill, is not an isolated event but one that carries itself over into future jobs, as it sets precedent in the monetary value of my skills. I did not deserve to be paid less, but systematically was set up to be undervalued as the capitalist and racist systems reflect themselves into organizations like mine.

Sundiata, 26, East Coast

I'm a non-binary Black person. I was working in politics—specifically, digital organizing—when I realized a white colleague who started after me and got promoted at the same time I did (to the same level) was making 10 percent more than me. I can say with confidence that I was one of the only people who went into negotiations with a plan for my team and for the org, so much so that I received praise for coming to the table prepared.

I found out when we were catching up at a conference. The colleague had the sense to look ashamed and said they felt bad because their director had advocated fiercely for their salary, but I couldn’t help but wonder why they didn’t use this guilt to advocate for other people. In their position, I have, and I continue to, advocate for higher pay and more equity for my teammates. I was obviously disappointed when I found out, because I went into nearly $7,000 of personal debt to relocate and accept this job; with this debt, I was barely making ends meet. It took me two years to finally pay everyone back, including my dad, who borrowed from his credit card to help me.


After I found out, I plotted to have another conversation about my role and my salary for the next four months. For context, my organization had scheduled biannual raises, and I had just received a promotion a few months prior. But I was exhausted from being cheated out of fair compensation while watching people who did the same amount of work get paid more. After I put my plan in place, I had a conversation with my director to negotiate—once again—and didn’t mention that I knew a team member made more than me. I relied only on what I had already done for the organization, and what I would continue to do when compensated fairly. The conversation began a process to clarify pay bands and role responsibilities across our department, which were already a stated priority, but which hadn’t been a transparent process.

It’s incredibly painful to see and know about the disparate pay. Any organization or company that is “committed” to combating anti-Blackness must begin with a full audit of how they have harmed their Black employees. Full acknowledgment of this harm, coupled with accountability for addressing it, is the only way forward.

Monique, 26, Bronx, NY

The nonprofit I worked for specialized in helping formerly incarcerated people transition back into society via college application help, inside-prison college credits, policy work, internships, etc.

I found out I was being paid less than a white colleague about six to eight months in as a program associate. I worked on different areas of the job and was tasked to manage the inside-prison program on my own, due to the constant amount of staff turnover from a toxic work culture and dictator-like leadership. I began fighting for a title change and raise given that I had taken over coordinator/director responsibilities for the program.


One day, I was having casual "girl talk" in the office. My white female colleague (who had been hired one month after me with the same level of credentials) was speaking about how she needs a raise to come from her annual review. We were all in agreement because we felt the same. Some of my other Black colleagues who had been there a little longer than I had and myself had already spoken about the lack of pay given the work. She went on to say, “Yeah, $42,000 isn't enough for a program associate.” I sat there in awe, locking eyes with a Black colleague: We were hired at $38,000, and we both had more responsibility than the white colleague.

I used the moment to craft a proposal for a title change and raise 10 months in—I was not going to wait for my annual. I was overwhelmed with work, pulling in 70 hours a week with no overtime, and had the biggest workload of anyone in the office. I met with my supervisor before the director, explained that I was aware others were being paid more, and that I deserved a raise and a joint meeting with the director. My supervisor told me if I said that I knew others got paid more, the conversation will be DOA.

I felt discouraged, but still decided to ask and go ahead with the meeting. I was told that there was no money they could give me because that was the starting rate for everyone at that position. I left the meeting defeated. I attempted to ask for my raise and title change at my annual, and I was put on a “maybe” time trial period. I was given even more responsibility with the understanding that a title change and raise came with my ability to complete more tasks. I was younger and motivated and took on the challenge because I was deeply committed to the work and mission. Shortly after, the same white colleague had their review and got offered a coordinator position with a raise. I was more than crushed—not just by the lack of respect, but because it was made to seem that some people were performing better while I had to beg and fight for the title and raise. I did get both three months later, but the pay was $10,000 less than any other coordinator in the office.

I ended up quitting about two years in because the microaggressions became too much considering I was the person who worked the most and got paid the least. My mentors around me helped me see the emotional and physical abuse I was enduring.

I was able to confirm my white female colleague was getting more than any other associate because someone left a salary data sheet in the printer one day with every single person’s pay. That was also the day I realized that almost every person of color who worked there was paid drastically less than anyone white. It was an abusive place to work. Everyone was constantly on their toes because of scare tactics employed against us, including people getting fired without any notice. People of color were fired at higher rates than any other group. Over 20 staff were fired or "left" during my time there and it was a small office. Staff were forced to say they left for personal reasons by leadership to prevent negative work culture impact. More than half of the staff who worked during my time there barely lasted a year and more than half were people of color.

I remember the day one of our few formerly incarcerated staff members was fired the day before Thanksgiving break with no notice. It was after he called out a long-time director with a history of microaggressions and blatant racism. He was let go midday and wasn't even allowed to say bye. We all received an email stating he had chosen to leave. I later learned from someone else that he was indeed fired. This was rich, considering the organization claims to hire formerly incarcerated people, but, during my time there, we had maybe a total of five staff members who had prior involvement, and two of them were Black men who were both fired.

J., 26, Brooklyn, NY

I’m a multiracial woman working in media. I work for a fairly large digital publisher that you’ve likely browsed once or twice.

My white coworker told me what he was making in confidence. At the time, I was making $78,000 and he was making $96,000. While these salaries seem fairly substantial for our age and industry, our paychecks were not nearly indicative of the multi-millions of dollars we were procuring for the business at that time. Despite him making nearly $20,000 more than me with the same level of experience, he was vocally displeased with his salary and actively negotiating for higher. He left for another job and higher salary, even after being offered a $10,000 raise.

I had planned to raise concerns in the next reviews cycle (which was days away). They eventually offered me the salary they had offered him to prevent additional attrition. I tried for more, but didn’t have much success.

I have strong female mentors who I look up to and consult in many of my career decisions. I’m equally as thankful for the honesty and persistence of my white male co-worker who never failed to remind me that he made more than me “for doing less.” It’s always helpful to have trusted allies at work who are transparent and share a common goal of not being or working alongside those who are underpaid.

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