When a Black woman enters the workplace
What Do You
When I arrived at work I knew today would be different. As I prepared for my morning meetings I felt the excitement growing. Based on a previous email, I knew we would be introduced to a new staff. Not just any staff, but a Black woman. I was excited. I was beginning to struggle with being the “only one.” Being the only Black woman in your department or on your team can be difficult. I was completely disconnected from my peers. I struggled with finding the commonalities. During meetings, unfortunately, I did not find the same topics of discussion interesting. Knowing there was going to be another Black woman joining the team put a smile on my face. I am fully aware that all Black women are not the same, and I was excited about the potential of having someone on the team that I could relate to. Also, having someone who could relate to me.
Typically current staff will receive a message of welcome and congratulations, but this message was accompanied by a photo. Based on her photo I thought she was a Black woman and her pronouns were identified as “she/her.” I was correct, she did identify as a Black woman.
We received a brief career background in an email prior to meeting her in person. When she walked into the meeting we briefly made eye contact. I then consciously began scanning the room to read the non-verbals of the others in the meeting. This room, much like others in a professional setting was not diverse. Unfortunately due to often being in the room as the only one I had become accustomed to counting people. I refer to this low number as the 10% rule. The representation of Black women present in a professional room will rarely exceed 10% unless it is a Black organization. The number of Black men is even less. This issue is another blog for another time.
I know it may sound like a form of traumatizing myself, and it may be but it is something that I chose to do and it was the fuel I needed to push these necessary conversations forward. I looked around the room and began wondering what other people thought about the new addition to our team being a Black woman. Did they care? Did they notice? I know a lot of people say they don’t see color. Many thoughts ran through my head as she took her seat and introductions began.
I challenged myself to think about her presence and what this would mean for our team. One might say “What is the big deal?” But if we are being honest it is a big deal when newness enters a space especially if it is rare. Newness and rarity challenge you to confront some of your biases, stereotypes, and prejudice. It is also a big deal because even if society does not want to admit it, something is happening as it relates to Black women in the workplace. We just heard actress Taraji P. Henson speak about her experience on the set of the much anticipated Color Purple musical remake. She not only spoke about this specific movie, but previous movies in which she had to fight for acceptable and competitive pay. Although some may have not liked the delivery or the messenger, actress/comedian Mo’Nique has been speaking about the unfair treatment in Hollywood for years.
We recently heard the tragic story of Dr. Antoinette Candia-Bailey who was the vice president of student affairs at Lincoln University of Missouri (HBCU). It was alleged she was being bullied on the job. To think, these are the stories that make it into the news. I know there are countless others. I also am clear that many employers have intentionally recruited Black women for positions, especially executive positions but they struggle to create a culture of safety and support that will retain them.
In Chapter 2 of my second published book, Hidden Gems: Black Women In the Workplace, I explore the question of what you, see, hear, and feel when a Black woman enters the workplace. The question was raised during the 2022 YOUR Voices Are No Longer Silent (YVANLS) focus group. Although the question was asked specifically of Black women, I challenge all in the workplace to explore this question.
As you read this blog I challenge you to be honest with your thoughts relative to the questions below.
WHAT DO YOU SEE when a Black woman enters your workplace? Do you “see” her? This question goes deeper than the physical or the image of the person who is before you. Do you see how she is dressed? Do you see her hair (color, texture, style)? Do you see her complexion? Do you see her body type (if she has had “work done”)? Do you see her facial features? Do you look into her eyes? Are you intentional to see her beyond her “look?” The depth of this question is important. Historically Black women have been in spaces that we have not been afforded the opportunity to be seen. We are often present, but not seen. There are times we have to go above and beyond to be seen. This often results in us being “labeled.” When in reality we are fighting not to be invisible in our appointed positions.
I remember asking a co-worker (non-Black) if she noticed that I was the only Black person on our leadership team and she said she never noticed. At that time the team was 8 women and I was the only one. I have had similar conversations with other non-Black individuals and the majority of them respond with the same answer. Now, one would say maybe they do not see color. I would venture based on not being heard and overlooked in these spaces that it goes deeper than not seeing color. They do not see me. I did not allow the conversation to rest on her response. I said you probably do not see me because I am the only one. It is easier to dismiss or not see something if it is not the majority. There was a bit of awkwardness, but I could see her thinking. I was fine with the awkward silence because awareness is more important than awkwardness.
HER TRUTH (YVANLS Focus Group)
“One time everyone but myself on my small team was assigned an area to present on during a market call. They were able to share their success and shine as subject matter experts. The next day, my supervisor raved about how proud and amazed she was by every individual. When I stated that I would have loved to present alongside everyone, she told me…don’t worry, maybe next time.”
WHAT DO YOU HEAR when a Black woman enters your workplace? Do you “hear” her? This question goes deeper than the words that are coming out of her mouth. Do you hear her broken English? Do you hear her slang? Do you hear her “talking White”? Do you hear her accent? Do you hear her as competition?
Have you ever been in a room and realized you did not hear anything the speaker said? You were listening, but you did not hear what was being said. In speaking to other Black women I know that they have experienced, not being heard. One example is you make a suggestion and no one acknowledges it. Moments later, someone else makes the same suggestion and now it is acknowledged, and suddenly everyone in the room can hear. Just imagine how this must feel when it happens consistently. In my experience, I have felt invisible when this has happened to me. I have begun questioning if I should be in the room. If what I am contributing to the conversation even matters. This is where imposter syndrome begins to kick in. Imposter syndrome is when you question your abilities and purpose in a space. This occurs despite your skills, education, or accomplishments. If I am being honest at times when I have experienced this I have felt defeated.
HER TRUTH (YVANLS Focus Group)
“On many occasions, I must repeat myself whether I’m answering a question or making a decision. Recently, I decided to not move forward on a project due to not being ready, not having resources to support it, and not thinking it was the right time to introduce it to providers. I emailed my decision at first, then reiterated my decision in a following meeting, and then another meeting was scheduled (by someone else) about it for me to explain myself again. It was very frustrating and belittling.”
WHAT DO YOU FEEL when a Black woman enters your workplace? Do you “feel” her? This question is just deep! It does not go deeper than anything it is just a deep question. The ability to feel someone’s presence is real. What you do with what you “feel” can be impactful in the situation. Do you feel intimidated? Do you feel excited? Do you feel concerned? Do you feel angry? Do you feel a sense of security? Do you feel sadness? Do you feel fear?
Do you feel the essence of who she is? The essence of who she is means the necessity of who she is. If you have the ability to feel her essence then you would know that she matters, you would treat her as such. Having the ability to truly feel who someone is, is not easy. You have to dig deep into who you are as a person and reflect on your values. Do you have empathy for others? Is demonstrating humility important to you? Have you done any introspective work? These things matter because they allow you to see beyond yourself.
HER TRUTH (YVANLS Focus Group)
“It may be my own personal insecurities rooted from attending predominately white institutions (PWI). I’ve constantly felt like I had to work twice as hard to receive half the recognition. It’s to the point now that my focus is being status quo. I have no desire to progress within the company anymore.”
Pain of past and present experiences can run deep and impact who shows up in the workplace. It is important to take time to see beyond a person’s look (quote from my first book, W.A.S.H. Time To Do YOUR Laundry). It is important to hear beyond the words that they are speaking. It is important to stretch yourself to feel the essence of others.
These things are not just about trying to build relationships for the sake of having friends in the workplace but it impacts productivity and the ability to foster a positive workplace culture. Your place of employment is a relationship. We often think of relationships as being with a family member, intimate partner, or friend. The reality is relationship is defined as the connection of objects, concepts, or people. Making healthy connections with others is vital to your workplace. It is important to create a true and transparent workplace culture. I know that it is not realistic for everyone to “get along,” but that is not the intention of this blog. Nor is the intention to bemoan the struggles of what Black women experience in the workplace instead the purpose is to acknowledge the struggles.
There may be others who do not think they are seen, heard, or felt. I am writing from the perspective of myself and countless Black women whom I have had the opportunity to discuss this topic with. This is a call to action for individuals in the workplace to take notice, be intentional, and be consistent as it relates to change. Being intentional and consistent will not only create a healthier workplace environment for Black women but for your system as a whole.
In Spite Of It All Keep Shining