What’s left out of the ‘gender in the workplace’ debate: the race factor

Advice for women of colour to ‘lean in’ falls flat when being strong and black is still viewed as a threat.

By: /
October 29, 2015
Commuters take the subway, New York City. REUTERS/Carlo Allegri
Ijeoma Oluo
Ijeoma Oluo is a Seattle-based writer, speaker and internet yeller.

“Is that your real hair?”

I thought I had heard him incorrectly. “I’m sorry, what?”

My boss asked louder this time, so that everyone at the table stopped talking to listen, “I said is that your real hair?”

I reflexively touched my braids and answered nervously, “Yes, well, I’ve braided in extensions for hold.”

“Ahh,” my boss smiled approvingly, “well that’s definitely better than a weave. I saw that Chris Rock movie about hair. What you all do to your hair is insane. So much money and time on your hair!”

A coworker joined in, “I saw that movie too. Those chemicals you put in your hair are very dangerous!” She looked at me with both concern and fascination.

I looked around and tried to process what was happening. I was sitting at an orientation dinner for my new job, a promotion I had fought hard for. I was one of three women on the team of 17. I was the only person of colour, and at that moment, everyone at the table was staring at my hair like I was on exhibit at the zoo.

As I rapidly did calculations of the various ways in which I could respond to this conversation, one thought kept running through my head: “Keep smiling, keep smiling, keep smiling.”

No matter how inappropriate, sexist, racially insensitive and condescending this conversation was, the one thing I knew was that I couldn’t afford to quit smiling.

Everyone was staring at me expectantly. I faked a laugh and muttered sheepishly, “Yeah, hair’s a big deal to some people.”

My boss shook his head like I was a naughty child, “Well it shouldn’t be – it’s ridiculous! Spending hundreds of dollars a month on your hair. You got bills to pay! It’s ridiculous!”

I was saved from further conversation by the round of drinks brought by the server. Everyone looked away and started talking about their hometowns, their excitement about the new job, their previous experience. But I was shaken. In a few minutes and with just a few sentences I had been openly identified as the other. A mysterious creature to be studied in film. A frivolous woman obsessed with beauty. A fiscally irresponsible child. And all I could do, as I stared out into a sea of white faces, was smile.

As a woman in a male-dominated industry, I was a veteran of the battles that the majority of women face. I had learned how to balance the need to appear polished, professional and attractive while not veering into territory that could be perceived as ‘girly’ or sexual. I had spent years cultivating my speech to remove any ‘feminized’ traits. All ‘um’s and giggles were gone. My naturally high pitched voice was both deepened and softened through years of practice. I had learned to balance sick leave policies geared towards men while caring for my young children when they were sick. I had learned how to negotiate occasional schedule flexibility in order to attend parent-teacher conferences without making my motherhood seem like too much of a distraction. I had carefully crafted my resume over the years, putting in extra hours to make up for the fact that I couldn’t schmooze the boss over a game of golf like my male friends could. I had managed my reputation with the skill of Olivia Pope, the formidable Washington fixer from the TV show Scandal. I had worked so very hard to get to this place, a mid-level role at a tech company, only to come up against the one factor never written about in books for women in business – my blackness.

When I was 16, I learned that my blackness could get me accused of stealing from my employer. When I was 18, I learned that it made my hair ‘unprofessional’ in its natural state. When I was 20, I learned that it caused my seriousness to be viewed as anger. At 22, I learned it made me the punchline to a joke. And at 25, I learned that my blackness caused my anger to be viewed as violence. I learned that my blackness isolated me from the allies and mentors that women are encouraged to find, but it also made any friendships with black coworkers seem cliquish or exclusionary. I learned that no matter how hard I tried, ‘opinionated’ and ‘strong personality’ would show up in my evaluations not as praise, but as a warning to other managers when I interviewed for promotion.

Whenever I have voiced frustration at how difficult it is to be a black woman in business, I’ve been told to ‘lean in’ and stand up for myself. I’ve been given self-help books and sent advice articles. But there are no books that can help me. There’s no advice for black women on how to seem strong in the workplace when being strong and black is viewed as a threat. There’s no advice for black women on how to look professional when your very skin and hair are viewed as unprofessional. There’s no advice for black women on how to speak in meetings when your accent is viewed as ‘hood’ or ‘ghetto.’

Efforts to increase paid maternity leave mean nothing to undocumented women being exploited and harassed by their employers under the threat of deportation. Efforts to increase the amount of women in management mean nothing to women of colour when the white women in management feel more comfortable working with white men than brown women. Advice on how to get a promotion as a woman means little when having a ‘black sounding’ name means you are far less likely to get a job at all. For many lower class and minority women, talk of how to scale the corporate ladder when you are struggling to feed your kids on an hourly minimum wage is just cruel.

Having clawed my way past minimum wage and entry level positions, after enduring the countless talk of how ‘exotic’ and ‘unpronounceable’ my name is, after completely reshaping my demeanor to seem relatable to white interviewers, bosses and coworkers, I was once again reminded at that dinner table that no matter how far things would come for women in the workplace, I was going to have to fight these battles for the rest of my working life, and I was going to have to fight them alone. 

In discussions on how to advance women in the workplace, the women most in need of our efforts — poor women and women of colour — are consistently left behind. As middle class and wealthy white women rise up the ladder, their reach down does not extend to the brown woman cleaning her hotel room. Many women of colour will never be lucky enough to even touch the glass ceiling.

When we discuss gender in the workplace, our goal should not be equal standing within a system rife with inequality and oppression. Somebody will always have to be at the bottom. We need to focus instead on radical change — the questioning of the system itself, and the building of an alternative. Equality never trickles down, and justice always rises up. Our commitment should always be to those among us who need it the most, and progress which leaves any woman behind should never be called success.

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