Being a Black Professional Woman

I’m probably wrong going into this: posting something about what it’s like to be a black woman in corporate America when I’m white.

523400310-black-professional-womanI probably don’t get extra points for being a member of a mixed-race family
either. In today’s
hypersensitive, hyper-volatile,
racially divisive
environment, I tend to shy away from my biracial nephew’s political Facebook posts and stick to our shared summer-vacation pictures, and our beautifully diverse family updates. What right have I to even “Like” something I can’t possibly know?

But I decided to post this release anyway, about a documentary airing this coming Wednesday in Oakland, Calif., Head Not The Tail Productions’ Invisible Women: Being a Black Woman in Corporate America. Not because I’m vying for any points, but because what happens to black women in or pursuing corporate careers should be something we all take seriously. And dealing with it should be all our jobs as well.

The disappointment, discrimination and rejection described by the many women in the documentary (the link above includes another link to a short teaser trailer worth watching) is often subtle, say diversity experts, as is corporate unconscious bias, which we’ve reported on on our website and here on HRE Daily.

“In conducting the research, we found the corporate practice of discrimination to be a common harsh reality faced by countless women of color,” says Melody Shere’a, HNTT Productions’ founder and CEO, and director of the film. As her release states,

“The playing field isn’t level and well-qualified black women are too frequently denied the opportunity to explore similar career-growth opportunities as their white and other female counterparts. The facts and details you will learn from this documentary will surprise you.”

Granted, most of you are nowhere near Oakland, Calif., but I imagine a call to Shere’a at the number provided in her release would prove fruitful in getting your hands on the film. It’s worth a try. You can’t improve diversity in your corporate culture if you don’t fully understand all forms of discrimination and how they’re being perceived by those on the receiving end.

For that reason, I encourage you to give this a read as well, a professional black woman’s response to a white friend of hers asking for a better understanding of white privilege. Like the documentary, this piece by Lori Lakin Hutcherson, founder and editor-in-chief of Good Black News, centers on the subtleties she has had to contend with throughout her career — including her education at Harvard University. As she details for her friend:

“When I got accepted to Harvard — as a fellow AP student, you were witness to what an academic beast I was in high school, yes? — three separate times I encountered white strangers as I prepped for my maiden trip to Cambridge that rankle to this day.

The first was the white doctor giving me a physical … .:

Me: ‘I need to send an immunization report to my college so I can matriculate.’

Doctor: ‘Where are you going?’

Me: ‘Harvard.’

Doctor: ‘You mean the one in Massachusetts?’

The second was in a store, looking for supplies I needed from Harvard’s suggested ‘what to bring with you’ list:

Store employee: ‘Where are you going?’

Me: ‘Harvard.’

Store employee: ‘You mean the one in Massachusetts?’

The third was at UPS, shipping off boxes of said ‘what to bring’ to Harvard. I was in line behind a white boy mailing boxes to Princeton and in front of a white woman sending her child’s boxes to wherever:

Woman, to the boy: ‘What college are you going to?’

Boy: ‘Princeton.’

Woman: ‘Congratulations!’

Woman, to me: ‘Where are you sending your boxes?’

Me: ‘Harvard.’

Woman: ‘You mean the one in Massachusetts?’

I think: ‘No … the one downtown next to the liquor store.’ …

The point here is, if no one has ever questioned your intellectual capabilities or attendance at an elite institution based solely on your skin color, this is white privilege [or bias, as some might say].”

A later example comes from Hutcherson’s work as a film and television writer/producer:

“While writing on a television show in my 30s, my new white male boss — who had only known me for a few days — had, unbeknownst to me, told another writer on staff he thought I was conceited, didn’t know as much as I thought I did, and didn’t have the talent I thought I had.  And what exactly had happened in those few days?  I disagreed with a pitch where he suggested our lead female character carelessly leave a pot holder on the stove and burn down her apartment. This character being a professional caterer.

“When what he said about me was revealed months later — by then he’d come to respect and rely on me — he apologized for prejudging me because I was black and female. I told him — not unkindly, but with a head shake and a smile — that he was ignorant for doing so and clearly had a lot to learn. It was a good talk because he was remorseful and open. [The subhead of her piece, by the way, is “Nobody is mad at you for being white.”]

“But the point here is, if you’ve never been on the receiving end of a boss’ prejudiced, uninformed ‘how dare she question my ideas’ badmouthing based solely on his ego and your race, you have white privilege.”

If ever there was a compelling treatise on what goes on between the races inside our buildings of business as opposed to the far-more-combustible streets below, especially over the past year, this is it.

Hutcherson’s last example, especially, should give us all pause: Perhaps the only way to shore up the divides, even at their most subtle, is to start — whether we’re the CEO, the head of HR or a direct supervisor — by admitting that certain behaviors or patterns of communication that are allowed to exist in business today are just wrong. Then start the conversation.

And then the training, if necessary.