A comment that someone made on my LinkedIn profile inspired this blog. I had shared a story about the pay gap for Black women, and someone commented Bullsh%*. In a way, I wasn’t surprised, the experiences of Black women are often hidden in gender stories that focus more on White women or lost in case studies about racism which disproportionately focus on Black men’s experiences.
Reflecting on the casual abuse, I had received I was going to call this blog “Why I hate being a Black woman” but frankly I don’t. Being a Black woman puts me into an identity space that is as complex as it is unique and frankly it’s a magical place to be. Furthermore, when I mentioned this blog to a friend of mine using the title “Why I hate being a Black woman” she said “Really? But who or what else would you be?” And she’s right who would I be? The answer quite simply is no one. This is my destiny and my birthright, and as part of my journey, I have chosen to help other people understand why Black women deserve to be valued as much as anyone else and to give an insight into the experience of being a Black woman.
Well let’s start with a definition magic according to the Google dictionary magic means “the power of influencing events by using mysterious or supernatural forces”. I’m not suggesting that all Black women have supernatural powers or that they are witches but what am I unequivocally saying is that Black women are forced to influence almost everyone they encounter. Black women are forced to be chameleons and mind readers to gain success, and it’s this unique combination of race and gender that sparked Kimberle Crenshaw’s work on intersectionality.
Maybe I sound a little dramatic but let me tell you about the four distinct groups who have an impact on Black women as leaders and business women and how we could all be more aware of how these relationships can be both negative and positive.
White men- let’s start with the powerhouse. White men hold most of the influence in business and industry, and as a result, they have the chance to have a major impact. As a Black woman, I’ve been lucky to have the mentorship sponsorship of some very senior white male leaders, but equally early in my career, I also had the misfortune of working with a white male leader whose misogyny was only exceeded by his racism.
He actively belittled my efforts, didn’t invest in my development and openly favoured the white women in the team. It became clear within a brief time that for my career to flourish I would need to leave that team and so I requested a transfer. The reason for my transfer was an open secret, and I was asked to see the group director once my transfer was agreed ostensibly to say goodbye.
I remember walking with him as we talked. He was another influential white man. He asked me whether the rumours about why I was leaving were true. I was happy to know that he had heard and I confirmed to him the experiences that myself and other ethnic minority women had faced at the hands of this man. This director, a quiet yet imposing man, walked beside me in silence, a thoughtful look on his face as he listened. When I was finished venting, I fell silent, and we continued walking.
As we neared our destination, he turned to me, took my hand shook it and thanked me for leaving without a fuss. That conversation had a lasting impact on me. As a Black woman, I’m expected to acquiesce and to “not make a fuss” if I want to progress. Standing up for myself and others are interpreted by some as histrionics and drama, and no one wants to deal with that. The lesson I learnt though was that I needed to refine my intuitive skills so that I would recognise quickly the people who would perceive me as too much like hard work.
White women – In most organisations, this group are the second most influential. Much like their male counterparts, they have the chance to be great fulcrums for change or to make things more difficult for Black women. Think colonialism and slavery. The impact of White women in those days is a relatively little recognised and highlighted issue. White women are put on a societal pedestal, and sadly some of them use that privilege to elevate themselves on the backs of women who don’t look like them. I call it the damsel in distress phenomena which plays out in workplaces all the time. I’ll give you two examples:
- I’ve been walking with a White male colleague who would hold doors open for White women but not afford me the same courtesy because my blackness negates my femininity. I’m sure other Black women have experienced something similar.
- As a Black woman, I know I must do better. I know I must work harder but like anyone else I have limits and sometimes I have conceded that my workload is too heavy. I remember doing this a few years ago, explaining why I couldn’t take on more work and being given a “pep” talk by my White female manager as she patiently explained that she had every confidence that I could do it. She had fundamentally misunderstood my issue was capacity, not capability. A few days later a White female colleague bemoaned her “heavy” workload in the team meeting. Our manager rallied the troops immediately “recognising” that my colleague needed help.
These two examples show how difficult it can be working with some White women whether as colleagues or managers. Their needs will always be superior to yours and your calls for parity will be ignored or mistaken for jealousy and envy. Sadly, policy has reinforced this with the Davies Review failing to address that women aren’t a homogenous group and therefore diversity and intersectionality should have been fundamental principles enshrined in the targets for female progression.
Black men – It saddens me even to type the words that some Black men can be problematic for Black women, but in some cases, they are. This challenge is due to traditional views of gender which means that some Black men find strong, ambitious and independent Black women challenging. They feel threatened, and they feel that fundamentally a woman’s place is supplementary to a man’s. In the workplace, this can have impacts on structures such as Employee Resource Groups if the leader is a Black male who isn’t advocating for the progression of all Black people. I know one of these men, he created a structure where women did the work while he took the spotlight and the credit. Because of his charisma and magnetism, it was easy to get swept away by him, but after a while, the veneer faded, and his sexism was clear.
Other Black women – This is one of the most complex groups to navigate and belong to. Internally as a group we represent so many identities. My identity is also contextual depending on who I’m talking to and where I am. In Guyana, I’m a “Dougla” (someone mixed with East Indian and Black), in the UK I’m Black, and to some Jamaican people, I’m “coolie”. While I’m comfortable with being these things, I’m most comfortable being me. I sometimes struggle to “fit in” within groups of Black women. In the past, I’ve felt and been told: “I’m not black enough”. I’m not conforming to the norms of the stereotypical Black female leader.
My cultural context means that I’m also close to my East Indian roots leading to confusion and assumptions about my authenticity as a Black woman in the UK. I also watch as people expect certain things from me and when I don’t present as angry, loud, aggressive or grateful I can feel the confusion and consternation emanating from them. Because I do not neatly fit into the stereotypical Black woman box and frankly I never will because my strongest identity is Roianne Nedd. I love being one of a kind. Conformity is not one of my aspirations and like we say in Guyana “I was born alone” so I don’t need anyone’s approval to be me. Professionally, integrity overrides friendship.
So back to my original point Black women are powerful and magical. We navigate relationships having to hone our intuition so that we can recognise the people who will have positive impacts on us but also aware that there are people in the above four groups who can be active or passive detractors. Any successful Black woman has assessed her territory and will be able to articulate their experiences of navigating relationships.
So next time you meet a Black woman lean away from your biases, ask her name and get to know her. Look beyond her race and her gender and understand the magical being in front of you.
To close, I’m going to share a quote from Jessie Williams that I fell in love with the moment I heard it.
“Just because we’re magic doesn’t mean we’re not real.”
*This blog was first published on LinkedIn on 20 September 2017