The Respectable Black Woman at Work

         My Dear Free Agents, today’s post will be brief for a few reasons. First, as a clergywoman, these past ten days have been hectic. My activities have run the gamut from podcast recording to sermon preparation to worship participation to planning Easter Egg Hunts and Easter games. Easter is the holiest day of the Christian year, and, for many a clergy person, it is also the most exhausting. Second, this post will be briefer than usual because thanks to you, my ministry consulting business is growing. This week, I begin work with some new clients. I am grateful that God has blessed me with the opportunity to partner with ministries and ministry leaders as they pursue their call. Finally, I will keep this post brief because of all the recent conversation about this topic. My hope is that this post will be part of the conversation that is already happening all around us on what life is like for black and brown women in the workplace. I also hope that one day soon we will be able to stop having conversations and instead that we will be compelled to make changes that will make professional life better for people of all races and genders.

           This post is part of our continuing series on the complications of the Politics of Respectability Politics. By way of reminder, the term “Respectability Politics” was coined by historian Evelyn Brooks Higginbotham in her book Righteous Discontent. In her book, Higginbotham explains that many of the black Baptist churchwomen of the early nineteenth century taught black people to carry themselves in ways that would cause their white Baptist counterparts to want to ally with their causes. These women created a firm divide between the church and the “street.” They assumed that quality of life would improve for the black community if only black people would elevate their social behaviors. Higginbotham’s influential book discusses the history of black Baptist women in the early 20th Century and the impact they made both within their communities of faith and in society. For much of the nineteenth and twentieth century, the black church was a center of black life since few public spaces were available for open gatherings of black people. So, Higginbotham’s study of the lives of black Baptist women from 1880-1920 gives us significant insight into what the lives of black women, in general, were like during those years.  

               Both men and women of color experience racial hostility in the workplace. So, many black and brown men will probably relate to much of what I will say in the forthcoming paragraphs. I hope that men of color will confidently share your experiences in the workplace after you read this post! However, women of color suffer a double portion of that hostility because of our race and gender. We are forced to encounter and overcome racist stereotypes, and then we are told that we don’t face racial discrimination because we are women. Then, we deal with sexism but are too black for our concerns about sexism to be taken seriously. I cannot imagine the additional trauma that must by those women of color who belong to additional marginalized groups endure.

            Lately, there have been many articles about what it is to be the only black or brown woman in your workplace. Two of the recent articles are, “Five Things I’ve Learned as the Only Brown Girl in the Office” by Jas of the “Liv Magical” Blog and “Five Things I’ve Leant Being the Only Black Girl in the Office” by Martha Jay. Both women write about their personal experiences as the only women of color in their workplaces, and, when I read their articles, I would sum up the experience to be that the only woman of color in the office must conform while also understanding that she will never be fully accepted. What women of color are expected to do in the workplace (socially) is respectability politics at its best. We must do our jobs and do them well without receiving the same credit or accolades that may go to our colleagues for lesser quality work. Meanwhile, we are also expected to hold ourselves to a high moral standard while continuing to be completely accessible to everyone in the office who might need a shoulder to cry on. We are simultaneously workhorse, advocate, supporter, and babysitter. I have worked with enough white women to know that the rebuttal to the experiences these women explain in their posts is that all women go through it and that perhaps we are just being too sensitive or reading into it. I reject that rebuttal. White women endure sexism in their workplaces daily, and many of them name that sexism. Women of color take the claims of white women seriously. But, when women of color name the everyday microaggressions we endure, white women become offended, why? (NOTE: The word microaggression refers to the subtle but offensive comments or actions directed at people who belong to nondominant groups to reinforce a negative stereotype.) This conflict between white and black and brown women in the workplace is one with a long history that I will not go into here, but you can find it among the scholarship about women’s work in the World War II era.

               Over the past several weeks, the conversation about black women in the workplace has intensified. In late March, Fox News host, Bill O’Reilly, found himself at the center of a controversy after his disparaging comments about Representative Maxine Waters’ (Democrat, CA) hair when asked a question about the content of one of her speeches.

               O’Reilly’s response is both racist and sexist. He states that he could not hear a word she said because of her hair as though a woman’s choice of hairstyle ought to determine the worthiness of our ideas. He also chooses to compare her hair to that of a black male performing artist which is a slight to black male artistic expression or perhaps a feminization of the black male artist. During the same week, we also witnessed a heated exchange between Press Secretary, Sean Spicer, and April Ryan because of a disagreement not over the facts but rather over whether it was acceptable for her to shake her head in disagreement with what he said to her.

               Both incidents compelled activist Brittany Packnett to start a conversation on Twitter using the hashtag Black Women at Work. She wanted black women to share their professional experiences, and share they did. I will post just a few of the tweets here:

Free Agents, we have options. If you are not a person of color in the workplace, stand beside people of color in your workplace. Ask them how you can be an advocate, and when they take you up on that offer, believe what they tell you. Take our thoughts and feelings seriously. If you are a person who is enduring racism, sexism, or another form of discrimination in the workplace, stop trying to conform. As the two posts I linked to my own noted, it does not change anything. I say do your best work, be a team player, but also take the time to care for yourself during your workday and understand that you are not alone. It might be time for you to create or join a network of professionals of color in your area or to volunteer with organizations that empower black and brown youth or something else. Only you to know what you need, but I implore you to never stop creatively resisting. See you next week.