Can I Be A Black Woman At Work?

Free Women of Color with their Children and Servants, oil painting by Agostino Brunias, Dominica, c. 1764–1796.

I struggle with how Black to be at work.

This is not a negative reflection of my current job nor of any job I’ve had in particular, really. I also understand that notions of “Blackness” and identity in general are relative and complicated. None of us exists as part of a monolith nor can we be reduced to any one facet of ourselves. Perception is such that one person’s O.J. of the late-’80s may be another person’s O.J. of the late-’90s. This collective struggle is a byproduct of existing as a Black woman in integrated spaces: how Black is too Black for any given environment? Are there consequences for crossing that inconsistent line?

And, let’s be clear, there is a line. One of the most insidious talents of racism (and oppression-in-general) is its ability to make you think it isn’t there. Oppression is the heat around a flame. You probably can’t see it. It doesn’t even exist if you’re not close enough to it. However, it can kill you if you are too close.

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I ask again: Are there consequences for crossing the line from “Black” to “too Black” at work?

Simply? Yes:

It is well known that people tend to favor and promote those who are similar to them — and that this in-group bias is problematic because it reinforces stereotypes and inequality. However, while it is a common tendency, not everyone is allowed to advocate for their own group. Sometimes when women and minorities promote their own group, it garners criticism from others…

Our set of studies suggest that it’s risky for low-status group members to help others like them. And this can lead to women and minorities choosing not to advocate for other women and minorities once they reach positions of power, as they don’t want to be perceived as incompetent, poor performers.

In other words, once my Black-woman-self enters a space that may have seemed inaccessible, it is likely detrimental to my future in that space to advocate for more access for others who may look like me.

What if I want to build coalitions among my coworkers to negotiate for more access for all of us? Unfortunately, I’m going to struggle there as well. Apparently, people are more likely to lie to me because I’m a woman:

Women are perceived as easier to mislead, and are more likely than men to be lied to during negotiations, according to a recent study from researchers at the University of California, Berkeley, and the University of Pennsylvania…

Both men and women lied to women more often than men. In one experiment in the study, 24% of men said they lied to a female participant, but only 3% of men admitted to lying to a male participant in the exercise. Women lied to men 11% of the time but lied to other women 17% of the time.

What if I take Bethenny Frankel’s advice and find my very own Mr. Drummond to advocate for me? The problems with that approach are threefold:

First, statistics show that I don’t know Mr. Drummond. More specifically, they show that while Mr. Drummond is likely to be in a position of power within my organization, he doesn’t know who I am:

Roughly 85% of corporate executives and board members are white men. This number hasn’t budged for decades, which suggests that white men are continuing to select and promote other white men.

In a 100-friend scenario, the average white person has 91 white friends; one each of black, Latino, Asian, mixed race, and other races; and three friends of unknown race. The average black person, on the other hand, has 83 black friends, eight white friends, two Latino friends, zero Asian friends, three mixed race friends, one other race friend and four friends of unknown race…

To put it another way: Blacks have ten times as many black friends as white friends. But white Americans have an astonishing 91 times as many white friends as black friends.

Second, there is no workplace gain in perception for a white man to advocate for diversity:

For all the talk about how important diversity is within organizations, white and male executives aren’t rewarded, career-wise, for engaging in diversity-valuing behavior, and nonwhite and female executives actually get punished for it.

Third, I may not be able to convince Mr. Drummond that there’s a problem worth addressing without hurting his feelings. There are very real consequences to hurting white feelings.





Not to mention that needing a white man to advocate for me is the epitome of racist, sexist, patriarchal garbage. And I’ve done it. I have worked with a few well-meaning, white and/or male allies who have gone to bat for me. That gets really old, really fast for everyone involved. The point is this: being a Black woman at work is a full-time job on top of my full-time job which I need to simply stay out of poverty.

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I have to

I have to manage

The amount of work it takes to simply exist as a Black woman in some spaces is exhausting and I’m not even talking about what it takes to thrive or excel in them. Just to be.

I have to be the type of Black woman you like until you don’t like her anymore then I have to be the new type of Black woman you like.

Yes, arts world, I’m talking about you too. As Elena Muslar so eloquently states:

There is a pipeline issue that seems to keep people of color from engaging in the field and growing in it. There are a very few networks and opportunities that are working to combat this, but more need to be put in place in order to have a greater impact. The arts are still seen as an elitist form of entertainment for people with greater means. There is some diversity onstage through the work of artists, but this does not translate to the people working behind the scenes or in administrative capacities…

‘For a person of color, a sort of duty comes with working at arts organizations. Whether you are comfortable ‘representing’ your culture/ethnicity or not, it is imperative to realize that others may rely on you to do so.’

To be Black at work means I not only get to work on my behalf but also I get to do emotional labor for the benefit of others. This is just more reason that I’m always tired.

However, I am lucky enough to work for an organization that is interested in developing me, and the whole staff, as a whole person. We are actively engaging in crucial conversations about how who we are affects what happens at work. There is space and opportunity to engage around all of this work that is supported at all levels of the organizations.

I am buoyed by the opportunity and saddened by its rarity.

[pullquote align=”right” cite=”” link=”” color=”” class=”” size=””]I turn the word “racist” into a dart.[/pullquote]Recently, a friend told me about another, excellent job opportunity and I declined to pursue it. I’m not interested in leaving my current position, however, one of the main reasons I’m not interested is that I know exactly how Black and how woman I can be at my current job. But what does that even mean?

When existing in integrated spaces, the word “racist” is a nuclear bomb. Calling racism out can leave a scorched earth of hurt feelings and misunderstanding in its wake. And no one wants to feel like they’ve triggered the bomb. So we don’t talk about legitimately racist things because nothing seems to be worth the nuclear option.

I call everything racist. I turn the word “racist” into a dart. I toss it at everything so that the word becomes familiar. I have accused pens of racism for failing to write; stamps of racism for failing to stick. Phones, computer monitors, birds, coffee beans, you name it — I’ve called it racist. I do this not to trivialize the institution of racism, but to trivialize the word “racism.” Because when you make using the word devastating, you protect the institution. And getting white people to say something is racist at work is a task both Herculean and Sisyphean. And If I can’t talk about the racism that exists within and without my workplace, I don’t do well. So I adapted. I call everything racist to provide a space for me to call the right things racist.

But not at Fractured Atlas. Here, people actively engage around racism and oppression. None of us has it right all of the time, but we are all empowered to say something. We have had trainings on how to have the hard conversations because our leadership knows that we have to have the hard conversations. And I feel safe at work: a feeling I’m not entirely used to. It’s also a feeling I’m not prepared to gamble with.

Can I be a Black woman at work? That is very much the wrong question.

Is work prepared to take care of its people with regard to all of their identities? That is the question we must answer. It is not the marginalized person’s responsibility to lead the charge and change the space — though we have and will. It is the job’s responsibility to be the change the world needs. I am #NotYourMule and will no longer stay silent in unsafe spaces to avoid negative responses. Since there is no gain in perception for anyone to promote diversity, I challenge everyone to promote diversity because it is the right thing to do. Because the status quo isn’t serving us. Not really.

Can I be a Black woman at work? For better or worse, I will be. Unapologetically.