I love proving people wrong. It’s not that I go out of my way to do it. In fact, for so long I deliberately hid my light under a bushel. But over the years it’s something I’ve learnt to take real pride in. And I’m not just talking about showing up the haters, though they also motivate me. No, I’m talking about those who don’t know any better, don’t know me and are quick to presume. They are the people that I tend to encounter in the corporate world who have a propensity to believe that black people are one-dimensional characters for whom what you see is what you get, the stereotypers. And it comes as a great surprise to them when, over time, it’s revealed that I, like most people of whatever race, have many hidden, multi-layered depths. That’s why from the moment I enter a room, to the moment I conclude the delivery of an eloquent, well thought-out presentation they’re utterly baffled that someone so dark could shed so much light.
I remember the time when I started my last job. I was about two weeks in when I had a meeting with my boss and a colleague about a youth marketing campaign to encourage 16-18 year olds to register to vote. My coworker – a 25-year-old, white, middle-class male – had drafted some copy for a flyer. My boss said it sounded too corporate at which point my colleague immediately turned to me and said, “Come on, Sylvia, help me out. You’re from round here, you’re down with the kids. I’m just a public school boy from the country.” I was shocked. So many assumptions in such a short sentence! First of all, I wasn’t from ‘round there’. Just because I was a black person working in a deprived area with a large black population didn’t automatically mean I was at home. Secondly, in what way did he deduce that I was ‘down with the kids’? Though I was completely dumfounded by this man’s presumptuousness, I caught my breath in time to reply, “Well, how would I know? I’m just a public school girl from the country.” Which, to a large extent, I am.
This is me: I read the classics, watch the news and engage in political debate. I go to galleries and museums, watch foreign movies and attend debates and seminars. I follow pop culture, adore the theatre and care passionately about the planet. This doesn’t make me bougie, it makes me a normal, 21st century black woman. I’m living the black life. And I love it!
If I look at my own group of friends they too are black, female, highly educated and overwhelmingly professionals: doctors, lawyers, writers, publishers, public sector workers and private entrepreneurs, all of whom are representative of the diversity of black women today.
Cora Daniels’ excellent book Black Power Inc. is a must-read for black professionals. I read it at a time when, after a few years in the world of work, I was starting to feel disillusioned with the brazen cronyism and lack of prospects that reinforced the old maxim that it’s not what you know but who you know. It was a real eye-opener. Though I’m not yet at the top of the corporate ladder like the men and women featured in the book, it was nonetheless comforting to read the experiences of other people like me and recognize my predicament in their own. It confirmed to me that there was no chip on my shoulder, I didn’t have an attitude and I was, in fact, in the right place at the right time. We may have to work longer and harder to get there but it means that success, when achieved, however we define it, is all the more sweet.
Take, for example, Sharmadean Reid. The young nail stylist and entrepreneur was listed in British style magazine Grazia’s Cool List. Sharmadean, it says, is fashion editor on Arena Homme Plus, a consultant to Nike and Adidas and is working towards an MA in cultural studies while writing a stream-of-consciousness blog. Yep, the only black woman to make the list really does do it all (the only other black person on the list was President Obama!)
But there are problems for black women who do it all because, apparently, unlike women of other races, we can’t have it all. A report on MSNBC in August revealed that high achieving black women are consigned to a life of singledom and childlessness. According to a study by two Yale researchers, “marriage markets” for black female high-flyers are restricted because we can’t find black men of equal education and men of other races “devalue” us compared to our European and Asian peers. I tend to agree. In my experience, trying to find a black man to willingly go to the ballet is like looking for a needle in a very large haystack while the idea of dating outside the race is fraught with anxiety, both for the sister and any potential partner. It’s a lose-lose situation.
Despite all this, our climb up the corporate ladder can’t be halted. Black women continue to strive and thrive in our numbers, making up 71 percent of black graduate students in the US. Slowly but surely, we’re getting the respect and recognition we wholeheartedly deserve. So watch out, world. We’re diversifying the ranks en masse, one rung at a time. And we’re headed straight for the top, right where we belong.