My sister has made a career in commercial property management. She was once employed by one of the largest commercial real estate companies in the U.S. Her office space was nestled inside a beautiful building, which testified to belonging to a well-resourced company. Yet she experienced a level of racism that while we know it exists, put her on her heels. Mentally, she wondered how she would cope. Physically, she began to experience headaches, stomach discomfort, and severe anxiety on Sundays before returning to work. After nine months of verbal insults by and threats from management, she quit. When she did, she didn’t have another job waiting for her. She preferred to face unemployment than endure a toxic workplace where she felt unwanted and unwelcomed. She made a painful choice, but she did so for her mental and physical well-being.
Many Black women enter the world of work with something to prove and someone to disprove. If we were raised to believe that we were less than, we want to prove everyone wrong. For those of us who have been taught that we need to work twice as hard to be considered half as good, we may work ourselves into the ground attempting to fulfill this mandate. For those of us who want to live up to the legacy and the hopes of our families, we are focused, dedicated, and inspired to work as hard as possible. When we do what we think is right and what our families of origin have suggested, and consequently experience success at work and in school, we are surprised to realize that racking up degrees, promotions, opportunities, and experience doesn’t always translate to acceptance or the ability to truly exhale. We still enter spaces where people expect us to fail and get upset when we don’t. We may have fatter bank accounts or more resources than we did when we began our careers, but that doesn’t mean that we are treated with the respect or given the authority commensurate with our experience or position.
I will never forget taking my daughter to her first dental appointment. The hygienist was white and the dentist was Black. The hygienist cleaned my daughter’s teeth first, and then the dentist came in to examine my daughter. Yet the hygienist failed to acknowledge her seniority or experience level. The hygienist did all the talking. She finished the dentist’s sentences, talked over her, and took up so much space that I was literally shocked into silence. I kept looking at their uniforms, the age difference (the hygienist was definitely younger than the doctor, which I assume means she was less experienced). Her privilege was on clear display. I kept wondering if she was aware of, or concerned with, how she was appearing. Moreover, I wondered if the dentist pulled her aside after the appointment to tell her that her behavior was inappropriate.
Those of us who grew up in poverty are determined to ensure our families don’t experience lack the way we did. Those of us who have experienced overt racism in the workplace may have moved beyond the trauma, yet we may still experience aftereffects such as self-doubt, anger, and depression. In many cases, we carry the weight of wanting and needing to succeed in workplaces, even though many of those spaces weren’t set up for our success. To be clear, workplaces that are not actively working to be antiracist and antisexist are not set up for our success. Leadership books that are silent on issues of race, sex, and gender cannot speak to the unique needs of Black women.
When you hear the word hostile, you may think of the most egregious forms of oppression. But a hostile environment is one with explicit and implicit bias. It is one where there is overt discrimination, yes, but more subtle types of discrimination—being overlooked, undervalued, and uninvited—create hostile work environments as well. People who call themselves liberal and progressive may still be anti-Black, racist, sexist, and hostile to Black input and expressions. In a phone interview, entrepreneur and political commentator Tezlyn Figaro describes it this way:
In my career as an entrepreneur, often as the only Black woman in the room, I have noticed that Black women are rarely seen. Although white women may feel ignored in the workplace, my experience has been that not only were they seen but they were also heard. Whereas Black women aren’t seen, heard, or valued. Although we stand out in the room literally, our experience, our perspective, our diversity of thought are ignored and unvalued, and often we are not even recognized as living beings at the table. When I do speak, often people pretend to listen but disregard everything I say.
One of the most fundamental human needs is to belong and to be accepted. Regardless of how much we have accomplished, we still want to be accepted, and we want to belong. So, it is important to consider the full range of harmful environments.
Many Black women have experienced the pain of being overlooked or having our observations discarded, and we have experienced it in multiple jobs. So, it is important not to minimize the trauma that blatant disregard for Black women, or women who are different than the norm, can have.
We have a choice in how we respond. As Black women, when we move and operate in hostile work or social spaces, we develop conscious and unconscious coping strategies that are influenced by our backgrounds, professional experience, and even unresolved wounds. Some strategies serve us better than others, and some work in some situations but not all. For instance, I have been in hostile environments, and my response in some situations was to turn inward, to shut down. I learned, however, that eventually all the pent-up frustration and agony was going to boil over. I would say something and say it in a way that was destructive. Sure, I may have backed people off me in the immediate moment, but the longer-term consequences of the blowup were disastrous. In other situations, I would confront the challenge head-on without mincing words. In these scenarios, I was often told that I needed to “be nicer.”
We may choose different strategies at different times. Depending on our background, personality, and experience, our responses to racism and sexism lead us into one of several camps.
Assert Ourselves Boldly
Some of us boldly stand for what we believe in and proudly assert ourselves in as many situations as possible. Sometimes when we do this, we are reluctantly listened to and let in. Other times we are ignored or our colleagues placate us, telling us what we want to hear without any intention of honoring or acting on our requests. Our colleagues may belittle us or deem us too outspoken. But when we have brought our full selves to the table, we experience satisfaction. While we may not be able to change the outcome of various situations, when we advocate for ourselves, we show up for ourselves. We stand with and for ourselves and this, my friends, is power. As Audre Lorde said, “I have come to believe repeatedly that what is most important to me must be spoken, made verbal and shared, even at the risk of having it bruised or misunderstood. That the speaking profits me, beyond any other effect.”
Bend and Contort
Some of us bend and contort ourselves into microcosms of who we used to be, erasing our identity and the very aspects of our personality that make us unique. Fearful of being called an “angry Black woman,” the label often used to silence and shut Black women down, we may withhold our truth, tolerate abuse, or fail to persistently advocate for what we need to succeed. To avoid this label, we may tolerate microaggressions, sexism, and other forms of subtle abuse. This can lead to social anxiety. Psychologist and professor Angela Neal-Barnett reports that coping with the “angry Black woman” and the “strong Black woman” tropes can lead to social anxiety. “In workplaces, college, and professional school settings around the country, Black women often find themselves the only one or the first one,” she writes. “In these situations, they have been taught that they have to be twice as good to go half as far, that they are representing the race and that they are being watched more closely than their white counterparts; beliefs that are not necessarily inaccurate. These beliefs coupled with the Strong Black Woman image increase risk for social anxiety.”
When we withhold our truth, a part of us dies. We remain quiet and “go along to get along”—a tactic I have employed and many of you probably have too. While this approach may work for a time, it is not the path to freedom and happiness. It is a form of denying oneself, and such denial can lead to depression and resentment. We must be careful about thinking our silence will protect us. It will not.
Others turn inward and vow to do the bare minimum in order to keep the paychecks coming. Sure, we show up to work, but we will not offer ideas, tell the truth about how we’re feeling, support our colleagues, or work to advance the organization’s mission. In some cases, we show up and are less productive because our minds are focused on so many other things. If we are not mindful, we will show up and do everything except what we have been hired to do. In these situations, we watch the clock, waiting for the end of the workday. We go to meetings but remain silent, or we give surface-level responses to deep, probing questions. We turn the pain of our work experiences inward. While this may work momentarily, it can also lead to depression, melancholy, or destructive coping habits. While some of us may seek relief through therapy, some of us turn to addictions to food, improper relationships, shopping, or other sources. But as the title of Dr. Bessel van der Kolk’s book so succinctly states: The Body Keeps the Score. We become depressed, we engage in self-destructive behaviors, or we withdraw completely. We may still be physically present in the workplace, but we shut down. Our bodies are there, but our creative genius is long gone.
Those of us who were raised with an overinflated sense of responsibility may work to fulfill all that is on our plate—even when doing so compromises our health, happiness, and well-being. When we choose this strategy, we attempt to be all things to too many people. In the process, we burn out or lose our spark.
Some of us internalize the negative feedback and begin to see ourselves the way our critics see us: without context, compassion, or concern. When this happens, we practice negative self-talk. Our internal chatter is so destructive that we wouldn’t feel comfortable uttering these same words out loud or to a friend. We spend time ruminating about whether our supervisors and colleagues are correct about us. We wonder if we have been wrong about ourselves and tell ourselves that perhaps we’re not that talented after all. For instance, during one era of my working life, I experienced a pregnancy without the support of my child’s father; had another child who was arrested in a very traumatic experience; and was simultaneously navigating a new job. I was getting feedback at work that I needed to be “nicer” and that my approach was too harsh. I was given this feedback at the exact time that I was under-resourced. Given where I was in my personal life, I lacked the capacity to meaningfully act on the feedback I was receiving and instead shut down. I was being judged without context and expected to perform as though these traumatic circumstances weren’t occurring.
The point that I want you to keep in mind is that if you are in a hostile work environment, your body, psyche, and spirit will respond. If you are not conscious about how you will protect yourself and cope with the environment, or leave the environment altogether, you will default to old patterns of coping. If you do not seek support from a counselor, therapist, friend, or trusted colleague, you will feel isolated and unsupported. As you reach out to others to help you make sense of these experiences, the mere act of speaking to people who are not a part of your organization will help you sort out the work that belongs to others and the opportunities, even in the pain, for you to grow.
Why This All Matters So Much
At the height of the #MeToo movement, during which mostly middle-class and upper-income white women shared harrowing tales of sexual abuse, the accounting firm Ernst & Young (EY) organized a leadership training for its female executives. The one-and-a-half-day course was offered after a partner at the company went public with sexual harassment claims. It was supposedly an “empowerment” workshop, but it ended up being something else entirely.
Numerous sources, including HuffPost and the Chicago Tribune, reported on what was said. “Women’s brains absorb information like pancakes soak up syrup so it’s hard for them to focus,” the attendees were told. “Men’s brains are more like waffles. They’re better able to focus because the information collects in each little waffle square.” Women were also allegedly told, “Don’t flaunt your body—sexuality scrambles the mind (for men and women).”
It is hard to believe that in the twenty-first century, a reputable firm such as EY would sanction such problematic and sexist content. But this underscores my point that leadership texts and talks must speak directly to the needs of women without centering men in the process. They must be mindful of race and given by people consciously doing their own antiracism work. They also shouldn’t be delivered or offered by people who hate the subgroup in question. I’d argue that the facilitator of the EY talk—regardless of whether the person is male or female—disliked women and distrusted them at a fundamental level. Why else would they say women had smaller brains?
Many leadership books were written by white men without the needs of women in mind, let alone the needs of Black women, who navigate the landmines of race, sexual orientation, and gender. I will acknowledge that I am writing as a heterosexual Black woman whose social location includes single parent, system impacted, and squarely middle class. Yet my perspective as a woman and as a Black woman illuminates what I believe many leadership texts and leadership workshops get wrong. When Black women are not told to complete one more thing, we are given outdated advice to fix ourselves rather than to expect more from the environments we work in, or from the men and non-Black women around us. For instance, we have been told not to be argumentative, not to show emotion, not to discuss our families or their needs—essentially to become robots without cares, concerns, or priorities. If leadership books are not emphasizing the layers of our existence and speaking to the trauma that we have faced collectively, and if trainings are hostile, then they perpetuate harm.