by Tianna Spears
My name is Tianna Spears. Many may recognize me as the Black diplomat who ultimately fled the State Department after being harassed by U.S. Customs and Border Protection officials while crossing the border into the country where I was born. At the age of 26, I was diagnosed with debilitating mental health conditions and left traumatized. But I am not my trauma— I am a friend, sister, daughter. A person. I am now 28 years old. This year has been bittersweet for me. My grief, disappointment, rage, and sadness are not just personal, but as a Black woman in America, I’ve grappled with the question of how do I grieve a personal loss that is also systemic?
On May 25, 2020 George Floyd was killed in the middle of the street in Minneapolis, MN by a police officer. He told officers repeatedly that he couldn’t breathe as an officer kneeled on his neck. People of all backgrounds took to the street to protest such a violent act of police brutality against African Americans in the United States. Protestors continue to demand systematic change and an end to police brutality. We continue to protest for Breonna Taylor and our sisters and brothers that were unjustly taken from this earth at the hands of extreme violence.
I watched the news from my couch with deep sadness, having by now had no choice but to leave the State Department after my own traumatic experiences. An exceptional America that I was encouraged and taught to believe in did not exist because here we were once again, protesting for basic human lives.
A few days later after a heated conversation with a friend about white supremacy and its perils, I drank a cup of coffee at 11PM and sat down to share my story. In my blog post, I wrote of my experience as a diplomat and how that intersected with my experience as a Black woman living in America.
In a September article titled Diversity at State: A Dream Deferred and a Collective Responsibility, authors spoke of a State Department with two separate experiences for those who are white, people of color, and the dream deferred for all of us. However, my dream is not deferred. My dream of being a Foreign Service Officer did not dry up like a raisin in a sun, it was stolen from me. And quite frankly, that dream is dead.
I’ve spent the last five months on the receiving end of over a thousand emails, comments, direct messages, LinkedIn comments, etc., many from State Department employees disturbed by my story. I’ve found my power and my voice with my pen. I’ve written for my blog more than I have since its creation in 2016. I’ve talked to people from different and similar backgrounds with the exact story. I’ve continuously rehashed an extremely traumatic experience to the media and told others about my experience.
Since coming forward, I learned quite a bit. The thing is with trauma sometimes you tend to carry it alone in silence because you don’t know any better. You may think your experience is an anomaly. Unfortunately, there are so many others out there with my exact same story. Many fear coming forward because once you do, it may be re-traumatizing to stay in the same workplace. It may be re-traumatizing to continue to discuss your trauma. You may lose your career, financial security, and every single thing you worked so hard for. Trust me when I say I completely understand why it is easier to not come forward.
I spent the longest amount of time thinking my experience was unique, but how many of us had dreams that were deferred? Stolen? I wondered what it would be like to reimagine the State Department and what a better world looks like.
The thing with institutional, systemic change is that it feels like you are up against a beast. That beast is upper management, directors, and those in charge. For months it felt like I was pleading for the State Department management to acknowledge me. I waited for someone to acknowledge my loss of a dream, their loss. I waited for an apology, which I never received. Months in therapy taught me that I do not need anything but what I give myself. By telling my story, I took my power back and I let others know that they are not alone.
Rather than the burden being placed on the person who was victimized, it is up to the State Department to decide if it will reimagine a better institution.
Instead, we can redirect our focus and start small. For those of you who read my story and continue to ask what they can do, you can listen to Black women and people of color. You can uplift people of color in the workplace. Bringing more people of color into a hostile and unsafe environment does not create change. If you are in a position of power, it is your responsibility to make the workplace safe and inclusive for people of color. You can make our workplaces safe, inclusive, free of racism, discrimination, harassment, sexism, sexual harassment, and microaggressions. You can donate to causes that uplift people of color, do your own research to eliminate your biases, vote, and be the change.
This is how we begin to reimagine our world.
Raised in Durham, NC, Tianna Spears graduated from North Carolina State University in Business Administration and holds a Master of Science in International Relations from Northeastern University. She has written for the LA Times, Matador Network, POLITICO, and was featured in ABC News, Business Insider, CNN, New York Times, NPR, and PRI’s The World. Tianna is the founder and creative director of a storytelling collective called Tianna’s Creative and creator of the blog “What’s Up with Tianna”.