Why you should care
She’s offering a solution to women who don’t have the time, money or energy for drawn-out legal battles.
A Black woman recently came to Marie Dasylva for help. One of her colleagues kept touching her hair at work, a common affront with racist roots and misperceptions going back to slavery and colonialism. So Dasylva instructed the woman to employ the “shit boomerang” strategy and to touch her co-worker’s hair right back next time.
“You return the stigma,” Dasylva says. “If you’re going to touch my hair so I feel different, I’m going to touch yours so you feel different. Because in a way, touching a Black person’s hair is reminding her that she’s outside the norm, that she doesn’t belong, that she’s different.”
It’s with these kinds of simple methods that Dasylva, 35 and a single mom of one, wants to help women of color navigate hostile work environments. With her agency Nkali (Igbo for “to be greater than another”), this straight-talking Parisian entrepreneur has formulated what she calls “survival strategies” for women of color, developed with a psychologist and a lawyer who specialize in workplace discrimination. The strategies might go from dressing to impress after a workplace gaffe (“the Naomi Campbell”) to aggressively ignoring a bigoted co-worker, to keeping a careful record of instances of harassment to back an employer into a corner. Or, as Dasylva demonstrated for a client in the Jardin des Plantes botanical garden recently, screaming “You stop that right now!” at a sexual harasser, wielding her voice and body to convey power.
What’s unique about Dasylva’s approach is that through her one-on-one consultancy, group workshops and tweets she helps women of color deal with bigots and bullies head on. “Honestly, we should all be taking more legal action, but most of the women I coach aren’t necessarily interested in going to court,” Dasylva says.
It’s forbidden by law to collect statistics on race and ethnicity in France, so it’s hard to gauge the population (by comparison, ethnic minorities make up about 13 percent of the population in the U.K. and the Netherlands). What is clear is that women of color don’t have it easy in the workplace. According to the International Labor Organization, 54 percent of women of color in France ages 18 to 44 experience harassment on the job.
Marie Mercat-Bruns, a French-American professor who specializes in anti-discrimination law, points out that race is a taboo subject in France and there are few spaces for women of color to discuss their experiences. “From a pragmatic viewpoint, what she is doing sounds great and empowering, and like she’s creating support groups and forms of resilience,” Mercat-Bruns says of Dasylva, whose work she calls “a very useful temporary measure.”
When you’re in these environments where you feel completely robbed of power, how do you give back power?
But Mercat-Bruns says Dasylva’s methods don’t address the structural nature of sexual and racial harassment as, for instance, class-action suits do. “This is not an interpersonal issue. It’s the environment that allows people to do this; it’s managers that allow colleagues to do this,” she says, adding that the burden should be on employers, not individual employees, to address instances of harassment.
“I’m not opposed to legal action, and it can be a solution,” says Dasylva. “My strategy is determined by the goals of my clients. If they want to go to court, I’ll help them with that.” But she points out that legal action isn’t the only way to obtain justice. Justice can also mean negotiating a 20,000-euro financial reward, getting a harasser fired or quitting without prior notice so a company has to scramble to find a replacement.
Born to immigrants from the West African nation of Guinea-Bissau and the eldest of four children, Dasylva grew up in a working-class neighborhood in Paris. She started working as a shop assistant in a luxury store after high school and climbed the ranks as a manager for different luxury brands.
Then, in 2014, she was fired over her poor performance. Dasylva says her inability to get the job done was directly tied to her position as a Black, plus-size woman. “When people think of luxury, they don’t think of you,” she says. “I was treated like an alien, like an industrial accident.” In the end, that sense of not belonging paralyzed her as a manager and left her unable to make everyday decisions. Still, she says, she was unjustly fired because she was given no room to improve her performance.
As a result of the dismissal, Dasylva went into a two-year depression. Toward the end of it, she began imagining alternative scenarios to the racist and sexist incidents she’d experienced throughout her career, how she might have handled them differently. The idea for Nkali was born.
Since launching Nkali in 2017, Dasylva’s appeal has spread outside of France, and she now leads coaching sessions, lectures and master classes in Belgium, Luxembourg, Switzerland and Germany. She meets with two to three clients a day, compared to just one per day in 2017.
Lisa, a 30-year-old Cameroonian-born computer engineer, enlisted Dasylva’s help in 2017 after four years of workplace harassment (she did not wish to have her real name used because she still works for the company). At the time, her manager patronized and humiliated her in the presence of co-workers on a daily basis. Although Lisa is a native French speaker, he ridiculed the way she spoke, jeered when she made small linguistic lapses and repeatedly mocked her Cameroonian last name. He also nicknamed her “the migrant.”
At Dasylva’s instructions, Lisa first took 10 days of sick leave. She then met with Dasylva twice to learn to speak the language of human resources. “I didn’t know it, but she made me understand that the role of HR is to defend the company first and foremost — not the employee. So preparation and a fact-based argumentation were key,” Lisa says.
With Dasylva’s help, Lisa achieved her goal, which was to no longer have to work with the manager (she was transferred to a different city). “Marie did point out to me that I could take this to court if I wanted to, but I don’t think I would have had the energy for that,” Lisa says. She doesn’t know whether the manager was ever sanctioned. “Marie saved my life. Thanks to her I was able to take my life back into my own hands. I have no idea where I would be now if not for her,” Lisa says.
Often the only women of color in their office, Dasylva’s clients typically feel powerless against their harassers. “So the goal is: How do I ensure that David doesn’t feel crushed by Goliath’s largeness?” she says. “When you’re in these environments where you feel completely robbed of power, how do you give back power?”
When I ask Dasylva whether she’d still be working in the luxury industry if she had been coached by herself, she lets out a delicious deep-throated laugh. “No,” she says finally. “I would have told her: ‘Marie, you deserve better.’”
Read more: He shall overcome? Meet the Londoner building a European NAACP.