For the past few years I’ve kicked around possible answers to a very personal question: What’s worse, being black or being a woman? The answer? Being a woman.
Race is not a small issue by any means. But since most white people aren’t secretly white nationalists, you can win them over even if they have not been exposed to diverse people.
That’s often the root of the problem, a lack of exposure. If you grow up in an area where everyone looks and acts just like you, it makes sense that your encounters with diverse people might have a few bumps or cause a few bruises.
Should I have to convince anyone that I’m nice, deserving, that I’m not like the black women they see on the news or in music videos and popular media? No. But I’m old enough to know that what should be isn’t always what is. Thus, I act accordingly.
So, I try not to be impatient, to employ a bit of empathy and understanding. I let people spend time with me. I don’t do anything different. Despite this blog, it’s not my responsibility to educate adults on the value of diversity and inclusion. I’m in media. I observe, comment and analyze, and I help others perform better in their interactions with the media. But by letting people in, allowing them to see who I am, I understand that I am raising the collective consciousness about my race.
So, I let the uninitiated/unawakened watch me work, speak and interact with others in a variety of situations. I try to answer their questions, no matter how silly or rude. Then, when there are no stereotypical explosions forthcoming, most eventually see that I’m not so different from them.
We have opportunities to ask each other questions as the relationships evolve. We become more comfortable with each other, better able to communicate fully, to engage in complex dialogue about potentially contentious topics and listen with respect to each other’s points of view.
They come to understand that their preconceived notions about my color are not in fact rooted in reality. I may get a lesson or two along those lines as well, and we both emerge as more fully formed people who happen to be different races.
That same understanding could occur in a male female context where race is not the dominant issue. But too often it doesn’t. The same time, dialogue and interactions may be exchanged, but in the end because I am a woman who is sexually attractive to the other party, the understanding that moves us beyond the issue is conspicuously absent.
Baldly, when there’s sex on the table, all rational thinking goes bye bye. Understanding is supplanted by ego, hurt feelings, hormones and how dare you’s. I’ve seen it happen over and over again to me, and I’ve heard the same stories from countless other women. A deluge of which have come forth in the past few weeks thanks to Harvey Weinstein.
So, yeah. It’s harder to be a woman than it is to be black. Aren’t I lucky to be both? Don’t get me wrong. Despite myriad unnecessary irritants I’m forced to deal with because I was not born a white male I like me, black, female, and all the rest.
But not suffering from low self-esteem does not mean I’m under any illusions. I know that my femaleness is a trickier construct to conquer in the world – especially the world of work – than my blackness.
Being black can be a subjective thing. People have so many ideas about what it is and isn’t, that when I show up to the party acting completely different than expected, black may become a pleasure. Being a woman can be a pleasure too, but too often no one cares whether or not that pleasure affects me, so long as it involves me.
I suppose it’s the perceived weakness of our sex that does it. When a certain type of man feels entitled, and/or has made a habit of successfully abusing his authority with those under him, being a female can be like waving a red flag at a bull. Breasts and curves seem to shout “take what you want! Why not? She’s just a body.”
It’s rarely about looks. You could be the most beautiful girl in the world and walk around in the office unscathed, while the mouse/plain Jane of the office is being chased around the desk every time her boss’ office door closes. It’s about power.
Black people have power. We’ve given a good chunk of it away, or have not claimed it for whatever reason, but everyone knows we can wield it if we want to. Women? It’s tougher.
So many systems penalize us for being female. There are pink taxes and gender pay gaps and inequities and every excuse in the book to prevent us from ascending to senior leadership ranks in most organizations in most industries. There are also systems that punish black people excessively, but those systems are easier to beat. Why? Because as a female you are a special kind of less than. Less capable, less rational, less physically fit or emotionally sound. All of which is crap.
So, if you want to be a friend to woman and you are a man in a position of power or influence remember to:
Listen to her. If you’re a manager and a female direct report comes to you for help because she is being harassed, listen. Don’t talk, listen. Find out what happened, how long its been going on, what was her response, what happened then? Don’t judge. Listen. Then say sorry. It wasn’t you, but it will mean a lot to her that you feel bad she’s been put in this position.
Put yourself in her shoes. Realize how hard it is for her to come forward to share something gross and potentially ridiculous, to be a party to anything unsavory. Understand that her reputation is on the line, and a woman’s reputation is far more easily damaged and far more difficult to repair than a man’s, even when she’s done nothing wrong.
Imagine she is one of your female relatives. One that you love and respect. A little outrage, well cloaked in professionalism of course, would not go amiss. And employ a goodly amount of empathy to ensure that you do not stray into the realm of judgement where none is called for. And don’t you dare suggest that she misunderstood the situation or that it wasn’t what she thinks. To do so is to call her a liar and question her integrity because you may not have enough information to make any kind of determination one way or the other.
Bring the other party in. Ask her if she wants to be a part of the conversation. They should be allowed to tell their side of the story, and she should be able to confront her abuser in a safe place.
Ensure there are sanctions. After the hearing, it’s time to act. Punishment is not pleasure, but it is often necessary to affect behavioral change. Don’t insist that she continue to work with this person, even if a project swap or other work situation is inconvenient.
Now, I’m no HR expert. I’m not sure any of these things are completely legal in this litigious society of ours, but I do know that leaders must make it easy for women to step forward and be heard when sexual harassment occurs. They must support us, even protect us when others seek to take our power and sense of self away.