How Antidiscrimination Law Fails Black Mothers

One July night in 2019, Tiffinni Archie felt a stranger’s fingers closing around her throat and woke up screaming. Too scared to fall sleep again, she took a shower and tried to get ready for another day at work. At night, in her dreams, it was always strangers who attacked, chased, and strangled her; by day, it was her supervisor who slapped her on the back and called her the “token African American” at their small police department in Washington state.

Every day she braced herself for a new attack: Her coworkers wrote a letter to the chief of police accusing her of sleeping with another minority police officer for favors on the job. They accused her of putting her hand on her vagina and then rubbing her coworker’s face. One coworker told her that he had to work twice as hard because “minorities have it easy.” They cruised past her home at night to intimidate her. She lived in fear of what they might do or say to her next.

Her police department was a white men’s club, and it was clear that they didn’t want her there. But no matter how bad it got, she couldn’t afford to leave her job: She was one month pregnant, and as a single mother, she needed health care and an income.

The night terrors had begun when she reported her supervisor and coworkers’ abuse to the chief of police. He told her to look for another job. She tried reporting to her sergeant and the deputy chief—they, too, ignored her complaint. When the police department fired another minority police officer for filing his own discrimination complaint, she finally contacted the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission (EEOC). But reporting, she said, was “almost worse than being harassed. Each time, I had to relive the trauma. It was a physical pain, like a knife in my stomach, stabbing me over and over.”

Her anxiety skyrocketed—she suffered heart palpitations, panic attacks, and was diagnosed with a sleeping disorder—but her doctor advised that she shouldn’t take Zoloft, her anxiety medication, as it could increase the chance of birth defects. “I couldn’t put my baby’s life at risk,” she said. Forced to choose between her baby’s health and her workplace rights, she withdrew her complaint.

Tiffinni gave birth in March 2020 after a difficult labor. Shortly after, she grew disturbed when she found orange dust in her baby’s diaper. “Brick dust,” a concentration of uric acid crystals in the urine caused by inadequate milk intake, can signal a baby’s failure to thrive. Her baby had dropped a pound in weight. She saw a lactation specialist and joined a breastfeeding group. But her doctor told her that anxiety had stopped her milk production, causing her baby’s weight loss and dehydration. Desperate to avoid anxiety at all costs, she decided not to renew her complaint—at which point her breast milk returned. Her Title VII statute of limitations expired in September 2020.