Throughout history white women in America were viewed as needing to be protected and defended. Whether living as a plantation mistress or in rural poverty, there is a segment of the population white women have had agency over – Black people, specifically Black women. Scarlet O’Hara, the widely praised character in Gone with the Wind and Mayella Ewell, a character from To Kill a Mockingbird were characters portrayed in film by Vivien Leigh and Collin Wilcox respectively, but the power over Black people each character depicted, reflected the social structure of superiority white women held. Though valuable and vital, Prissy and Calpurnia were characters depicted with diametrically different reflections of Black women brilliantly brought to the screen by Butterfly McQueen and Estelle Evans. As a Black girl growing up, I appreciated seeing Black women in film, in books, on the cover of magazines, albums or reporting the news. It meant something profound to me. In a world of characters and stories illustrating white women in positions of economic power like Joan Crawford in Mildred Pierce, I still valued Butterfly McQueen’s work in the film, even if I didn’t appreciate that her character was relegated to fumbling to understand a phone juxtaposed with the business savvy projected by the white women in the film.
White women, fall back to a faux fragility, when faced with their own discriminatory actions, hiding behind an artificial outcry of feeling “threatened” by Black women who dare speak up and attempt to use our voice in day-to-day life unapologetically standing in our own space. White women are more comfortable dealing with Black women embodying a white writer’s characteristics depicting a Black woman with the persona of the on-screen characters of Prissy or Lottie.
As I watch the current state of women being heard to a greater extent with regard to abuse, discrimination, and pay equity, I am encouraged. When I see actors or politicians returning money from tainted sources, I am encouraged. When I see men standing with women, I am encouraged. Yes, there is sexism in the workplace, and yes it must be dismantled. I am encouraged that the same space of equity will be engaged for all women, including Black women. I have often found myself as one of the few, sometimes only Black woman in an office, and with this is an intricate set of conditions I’ve had to endure. As a Black woman, who has experienced discrimination from white women in the workplace, I see the precarious nature of bias and workplace discrimination. When discrimination is perpetrated by white women it is often overlooked and dismissed. I am ashamed to admit all the times I lacked the nerve to speak up in the moment to defend myself, opting instead to keep my head down and work, with the fear of perpetuating a negative stereotype and losing a job. I am embarrassed to acknowledge that I comprised part of who I am to appease white people. That I allowed the stereotypical image of what they think of Black people infiltrate what I know of myself.
The pseudo sisterhood projected in the workplace masks the reality of discrimination faced by Black women at the hand of white women and white men. I realize it may be difficult for some to understand the impact racial discrimination has in the workplace, when committed by white women, as I saw my voice be ignored and trivialized when I dared to speak out. That somehow my experiences were not worthy that I was not as valuable as the white women I worked for. It is isolating, painful and intimidating to have your livelihood and professional reputation on the line. For some reason, racial discrimination in the workplace, when perpetrated by white women, is softened. It seems that in this dynamic, discrimination suddenly becomes an instance explained away by personality differences; with little credence provided to Black women. I’ve experienced and observed white women still exercising their agency of power, in the workplace, over Black women. White women have the space to express opposition and challenge the status quo in a manner that Black women are denied. My Sister Outsider, Audre Lorde said, “Those of us who stand outside the circle of this society’s definition of acceptable women; those of us who have been forged in the crucibles of difference, those of us who are poor, who are lesbians, who are Black, who are older, know that survival is not an academic skill. It is learning how to take a stand alone, unpopular and sometimes reviled, and how to make common cause with those others identified as outside the structures in order to define and seek a world in which we can all flourish.” I reach out to my immigrant sisters, I reach out to my migrant sisters, I bear witness to your experiences. Black women know all to well a history of pain in having children ripped away and families shattered by racism.
I have held jobs cleaning white people’s homes and worked alongside white people in corporate America. Working while Black and female carries daily hazards that I’ve always been aware of, as the slightest infraction is magnified with the weight of representing my entire race hanging in the balance. I understand that I must keep receipts, as I know my word does not have an equal exchange rate. I know that the burden of proving racial discrimination, often to predominately white adjudicators, is levied on my shoulders with the implicit understanding that my white female colleagues will be given not only the benefit of the doubt but also justification for their actions and behavior. Black women realize that when we are performing, we must ensure to over execute, Black women have no room for error. As a Black woman I know my every action is under a microscope, every word I speak is parsed, with each component judged. In the office, I am in a state of constant awareness, watching my tenor, ensuring to convey politeness, while trying to anticipate the desires of my white coworkers in order to bolster their comfort level, as often I am the only Black person they may interact with at a professional level. It is a challenge to get a job, much less build a career in which you are equally trusted and treated with dignity.
The difficulties of being a woman is not lost on Black women, it is intensified. On almost every level the task of living with racial inequities negatively impacts Black women. Experiences of discrimination put our very well-being in peril. High blood pressure, depression, disease, it takes a toll on our vessel as we make our way on this Pale Blue Dot as Carl Sagan described the planet. It is reflex for Black women to be shamed when we stand up for ourselves. Shamed for calling out discrimination, shamed for calling out inequity. While we see a different standard for white women, whom recently are associated with bravery and courage for calling out gender discrimination. The word of a white woman historically has carried credibility and influence over Black women. White women need to use their influence to shed light on discrimination with tangible action. Complicity and silence only enables inequity by ensuring its continuation in whatever space it has been allowed into.
There cannot continue to be a false belief among women of there being one female seat at the table and that seat being preferably occupied by a white woman. Writer’s rooms needn’t all be alabaster faces. News anchors need not resemble the cast of White Oleander. While I am encouraged by the actions taken to expose abuse in the workplace, I am hopeful there is courage among white women to expose racial discrimination amongst their own. It is time. Namaste roughly translates to mean I greet the divine in you; I bow to the divine light within you. My mother taught me never to let anyone steal my joy, in the wake of all she and my MamMaw experienced, they looked toward light, it is this legacy, not pedigree I find pride. Therefore, I greet the light in my sisters of all hues and in turn, hope they greet the light in me. Namaste.