I am blessed with a unique situation in life in that I work mostly with African American women. When I look back over my career, I have been in environments in which I was one of the only black people, and some which were much more diverse. Through these contrasting experiences, I have learned that there are particular sets of pros and cons that come with being surrounded with women who thoroughly understand your perspective. Black women can support each other in a powerful way, or we can tear each other down using intimate knowledge of our insecurities. Often, we do both.
How do black female co-workers nurture one another?
1) We never doubt how racism and sexism affect our lives.
In a work place in which you are in the minority, experiences of discrimination are often silenced. We are left alone to ponder professional slights. When working with black women, your colleagues know your experiences are true. That compassion helps maintains your sanity.
2) The joys of children are easily shared, as well as stories of complex families.
Working with black women, I never have to be ashamed of sharing the stories of my unmarried cousin who has five children, who I love, by two different women. I understand that my co-worker has a child with her husband, and an older child by a different man. These stories would make co-workers of different backgrounds slather you in stereotypes. Black women are accepting, even if their own families are more traditional.
3) Family customs are shared with happy familiarity.
Talking about holiday foods or church events in most workplaces will leave you feeling like you are giving a sociology lesson, creating a sense of alienation. With black female co-workers, you can discuss cooking ribs or eating fried chicken without feeling like a trite lexicon of blackness.
4) Slang can be used without the fear of seeming unintelligent.
Urban slang use by many young employees is seen as cool. For a black woman it is a kiss of death if you want anyone to take you seriously. Working with black women, you can enjoy the fun of using any funky phrase you want to – or not. The real freedom comes in the fact that acting “black” is not a professionally charged choice.
5) We can take action with less self-consciousness.
Why? Because, while working in other types of environments, one must constantly ask, “What will they think of me saying/doing/suggesting this as a black woman?” With that extra layer of rumination out of the way, creative energy is freed to increase the flow of productivity.
And now for how we break each other down…
1) One “angry black woman” is tough. Five is a nightmare.
By angry black woman, I don’t mean only the eye-bulging, finger-waving variety. There is also the territorial hoarder who attacks with bureaucratic blocks when you enter her bailiwick. Or the sister who freezes you out when you have incurred her wrath. The complex, intense emotions black women often hold can conjoin into a mountain of dynamite in an office environment, leading to tension levels only known of in spy novels.
2) Sometimes the “get over” mentality takes over.
Let’s admit it. A minority of black folks like to come up with excuses for why it’s okay to come in late, leave early, or otherwise abuse workplace privileges. Some black women have the largest range of justifications, from hair appointments to fetching kids. Because familiarity with the “get over” mentality is wide spread, we accept it as a natural part of life even if we find it reprehensible. The result? A mixture of exemplary workers and lackluster performers with nobody willing to change things.
3) Class issues are magnified and brought right to the forefront.
In most work places, class issues are present, but never made visible. Among black women, calling someone out of touch, uppity, ghetto, bourgie or a whole range of money-related slurs as a means of discrediting a colleague’s perspective is par for the course. With women, these jabs can be hurled without even saying the words through our expertise with subtle communication. Thus, it’s easier for us to use long-standing class divisions in the black community to make each other cry inside while looking professional outside.
4) Body and beauty issues become more obvious.
In a group of black women, issues like light skin/dark skin, “good” hair/”bad” hair, thick vs. thin and more are integrated into the work environment. Even the most enlightened group of women will have to skirt around these issues, discussing them with the utmost delicacy if they are discussed at all, in order to keep these sensitivities from becoming hurdles to collaboration. In a typical office space, you would be so inwardly focused on just being a black woman, you would forget about these subtle antagonisms. Working with black women, you are constantly reminded.
5) Complaining about racism and sexism keeps us hemmed in.
Our mutual understanding of the discrimination we face can be affirming, but if indulged in too often without looking for solutions, it becomes a curse. If we complain but do nothing to combat barriers to success, the forces working against us, combined with our ritual commiseration, will wall us in further. Time spent venting would be better used to discuss increasing our opportunities.
It is my hope that by illuminating these points, black women will work together more fruitfully. Things are changing in our society, with African American females taking on more diverse roles, from first ladies to CEOs. If we as women can learn to overcome these obstacles and maximize the benefits of black female partnerships, we will lift each other up as we move forward. Otherwise, the “crabs in a barrel” effect that has hindered us throughout history will keep us down — with more potency than it affects men. Now is the time for us to soar into a new era. Let’s do it together as sisters.