I recently attended an accounting conference where the keynote speaker was Ms. Kimberly-Ellison Taylor. Ms. Taylor was named the first African-American chairperson of the AICPA, a very prestigious title. I watched how laughter turned to tears of joy for the crowd as they understood the historical significance of this event. Blacks used to be seen as less than and now here were are, not only working in prestigious institutions but leading in them as well. It began to remind me of my own career journey.
I am a black woman in corporate America. Yes, BLACK. As if being a woman is not already enough, I had to be “dipped in chocolate, bronzed in elegance, enabled with grace, toasted with beauty – yes a black woman!” (Dr. Yosef A.A. Ben-Jochannan)
I started my career in corporate America in Fall 2011 and I’ve learned several things that I want to share with other minorities as they begin their own journeys— three of which I’ve listed below.
The stereotype of a black woman precedes me.
In society, women as a whole are considered to be more emotional creatures. But being black on top of that? It’s like a double-edged sword. Black women are often denoted in society as, well, let’s face it, “crazy.” Inside and outside of our race, we are stereotyped as being loud, boisterous, “ghetto,” etc. So it’s no surprise that corporate America (sometimes) views us by the same token.
I remember getting upset with some last-minute instructions that my boss gave me a half hour before I was scheduled to leave. Instead of verbally expressing my anger, I got silent as I tried to calm myself down so as NOT to have an attitude with her. Nonetheless, my boss told me that I had a bad attitude. However, that same boss went around, cursing about her superior (a partner) after the partner made her mad. Yet she didn’t think she had an attitude?
How I Respond
I’ve learned that positivity is the key factor to ensure that stereotypes don’t precede me. It’s unfortunate, but since people already see you as emotional (being a woman) and having an attitude (being black), you have to work twice as hard to display a positive image. For me, this meant that I had to also learn to control my non-verbal reactions so that my mere silence wouldn’t be perceived as threatening. Is it fair? No. Is it reality? Yes (though not in all situations). We can’t do much to change corporate America’s preconceived notions but we can ensure that the stereotype stops with us.
My looks play more into my role than some of my non-African American counterparts.
Women are so objectified in society that it comes as no surprise that our looks play a huge role in our professional appearance by others. But with black women, sometimes, this can be more challenging.
I am a black woman-all the way! That means on some days I wear my natural hair, other days I opt for a sleek bun, and sometimes I will wear wigs/weaves.
There have been several occasions where my looks have come up in conversation with my non-black coworkers, specifically about my hair. One coworker asked me if she could touch my weave and if I took it off at night; one manager told me she liked my hair much better when I straightened it and my partner told me that I look so professional when I wear my hair in a sleek bun. And to be honest, these comments greatly affected my confidence in the workplace. I had become insecure about rocking my natural hair for fear of not looking as professional as others.
How I Respond
As black people we are taught to suppress our emotions in order to be respected and not retaliated against. However, in order to change some stereotypes, we can’t just ignore the ignorance of others – we have to educate them. And that’s what I have chosen to do at my job. Instead of being offended and upset, I now try to teach my coworkers the difference between black and non-black hair and why those differences are still acceptable AND are still professional. We sometimes may be the only black women these people ever see so it is imperative that we do our part to minimize those stereotypes. I’ve had much success by educating my coworkers and I feel it’s created a more welcoming environment for me.
I have to work twice as hard for half the recognition and respect.
This isn’t just true of black women – this is true for most women. Women as a whole, oftentimes, have to work harder than their male counterparts in order to be measured by the same standards of success. Being dipped in chocolate only means you have to work just that much harder.
No one likes to feel their work is not valued or they aren’t recognized for their successes but sometimes it’s easy to slip through the cracks. There have been numerous times where credit for things that I’ve done was given to my coworkers and I just sat there and said nothing while my coworkers smiled brightly taking the credit as though they had done the thing all along.
How I Respond
One black partner at my firm told me this, “Videllia, while you’re out here playing checkers, your [non-black] coworkers are playing chess.” Seeing the puzzled look on my face, he explained to me that I can’t be silent in my career. I’m going to have to actively take charge and make moves so that my skills and career successes are recognized. I can’t just be basic; I had to learn how to be strategic, always thinking about my next move and that of my opponent (i.e. coworkers) so that I too can have a fighting chance at recognition within my company.
That was probably the best advice that I have ever received in my career. And look at me now.
I am a Manager in my firm at the age of 29.
I am actively involved in our firm’s hiring and recruiting efforts.
I am avidly using my intelligence to teach those in my firm who are ignorant to the black culture about the black culture. I don’t choose to get mad. I choose to educate.
I AM a black woman in corporate America.
Photo by Tanja Heffner