In Defense of the Guilty

America is in a moral kerfuffle. This White House all the way from the President himself down to the Press Secretary down to the many minions dispatched to the news outlets continue to blithely fill the airwaves with an agenda that's, let's say, not always rooted in the truth. The recently released book "Fire and Fury: Inside the Trump White House" by opportunist author Michael Wolff has definitely turned up the heat in La Maison Blanc,putting many on the inside on blast and scrambling to retract the negative statements they shared with the author, or spin it in such a way as to discredit the author and wave it away as complete fabrication. 

As an intelligent, educated, "woke," law-abiding, Black, gay, American male I have long since checked out of this Administration as it represents everything my Mama told me not to become when I grew up. It doesn't represent me as a citizen. In fact, it continues to perpetuate my persecution with rewrites, repeals, and loose interpretations of specific laws put in place for my health and safety and has created an atmosphere where people who hate the color of my skin or my sexual orientation feel emboldened to curse me, attack me, rough me up a little during a simple traffic stop, not bake me a faggot wedding cake, or refuse to serve me at their roadside diner. Watching it all play out daily on every tv news station and in every newspaper still makes me shake my head in disbelief as if I were Rip Van Winkle waking up to find that the world has gone to hell in a series of inflammatory tweets.

After two-and-a-half decades as a C-suite Assistant in Investment Banking, Retail and Tech, I've had more than my share of situations where I've had to defend the guilty and remain loyal, fully knowing that I was complicit. And hating myself more each day I defended their lies and corruption for fear of losing my job or causing a nationwide scandal if I'd cracked under the pressure. I've had to deal with some very sensitive information and un-see many transgressions of the people I've supported, even calling in favors of friends in law enforcement begging them not to pursue an arrest of one of my bosses (Luckily, I had secretly dated the Police Chief. #leverage). So, in certain ways, I can understand and even empathize with people like Sarah Huckabee Sanders, Kelly Ann Conway, and Sean Spicer. But at what point do you realize enough is enough? At what point does your moral compass right itself and smack you repeatedly with the realization that you're complicit in perpetuating lies, corruption, poor behavior, etc. and force you to extricate yourself from the situation?

Watching the Golden Globes last night was truly inspiring. Witnessing the solidarity among the entertainment community and numerous women's rights organizations sort of reinstalled in me the belief that, en masse, we can still take a stand and make a difference. Oprah Winfrey gave one of the most inspiring speeches I've heard since the days of Martin Luther King. But she brought to light something I've struggled to reconcile internally for years. 

No one in the history of ever has been told, "Oh, you must lie, deny, cheat, misinform, ignore and be complicit without a single objection or breach of confidence," before signing their offer letter. Yet women, who make up the majority of C-suite Executive Assistants, are often put in situations where they are privy to highly confidential and nefarious information, witness abject corruption or are subjected to treatment that would be devastating to the reputation of the transgressor if brought to light. I can think of numerous events in my own career that would have been headline news if the story had gotten out. There were also numerous instances of my own abuse and harassment by my bosses that could easily have netted me hundreds of thousands if not millions of dollars in settlements had I chosen to sue. But I knew that it would mean the end of my career so I chose to stay silent. I've personally had to reconcile whether or not my silence over the years perpetuated the bad behavior of a number of my previous bosses and co-workers who have gone on to work at other companies. In each of those instances there was an internal battle between morality and doing what's right and my personal/financial survival and protecting my reputation as a seasoned, highly sought after, Top 1% Assistant. And I believe that many women, specifically, have been forced into silence and into similar internal moral debates simply because losing their job and being branded a "whistleblower" could jeopardize their child continuing to attend their special needs school, or receiving the life-saving medical care only covered by the company's insane medical plan, or the mortgage continuing to be paid after their husband ran off with his younger Assistant and left the family penniless. 

This is the reality of what many in my community of Executive Assistants have faced for decades. We're taught by our parents, ad nauseam, to do the right thing as a child. But as we grow and learn to navigate our friendships in school and the hierarchies of business and start making that real money and ascending to the tops of our careers, truth, morality and doing the right thing become more of a negotiation instead of a tenet. Mainly because our lives and livelihoods hang in the balance far moreso than those with money and power who transgress and whose secrets we are expected to keep as unwritten terms of our employment.

Business, largely, is not moral. Money is king. It changes and enslaves us all over time and is the overwhelming driving force of the male majority in business. Real talk. Politics is no different. It is rife with quid pro quo and special interests under the guise of being elected by and in service of the people. And, I believe, we are too far down the rabbit hole to do much about it in my lifetime. But my sincerest hope is that we can all take a moment to realize that the individual choices we make and our action or inaction has a far-reaching effect on not only our own lives, but the lives of countless others whose names and faces we may never know. Like the migrant worker forced to work in inhumane conditions by an owner who's Tuesday golfing buddies with Trump. Or the minimum wage earning, single mom waitress at the restaurant who keeps getting touched inappropriately by the boss I should have flamed 10 years ago. Or the young Assistant trying to brush off the increasing flirts and advances of her married exec, as she struggles to pay her student loans and barely make rent each month with a salary that's 30% less than she deserves.

I've been complicit. I admit it. I know that my choice to remain silent over the years has likely caused others to be subjected to the same mistreatment that I endured or empowered transgressors to continue exacting their shitty behavior on the unsuspecting. And, trust me, I've fought with that guilt for years and spent a lot of money counseling away feelings of self loathing. But the fact that I can admit it both publicly and personally has allowed me the opportunity to hopefully right my wrongs through educating Assistants that they actually have a choice and a voice. That my poor decisions don't have to be theirs and they can speak up without fear of reprisal. That they don't have to just take it and keep quiet. 

No one innately intends to hurt another person. I certainly didn't. However, it's important that we recognize that our collective, selfish motivations, greed, and protecting our reputations has led us into this mess. And TIME'S UP. It's time for the default behaviors to change. It's time for our collective, moral voices to create a chorus so loud and so powerful that it trumps the lies, bullying and vitriol that continue to be normalized and accepted as the way things are these days. It's time to stop defending the guilty and holding them to a standard that aligns with what our Mamas taught us. And, in my own way, I hope to lead that charge by encouraging and empowering women and men to do the right thing by shining a consistent light on the dangers of remaining silent and in defense of the guilty. It's not what we were taught as children. It's not what benefits us all as a society vs. an entitled few. And it's simply not right.

Phoenix Normand