Black Women Are Already Leaning In

To be a Black professional woman in a white-centric corporate space is to be constantly aware of how you fit in—or don’t—and to be constantly battling the preconceptions that your white colleagues have about your character and capabilities due to the pervasive negative stereotypes about Black women.

To be a Black professional woman in a white-centric corporate space is to be constantly aware of how you fit in—or don’t—and to be constantly battling the preconceptions that your white colleagues have about your character and capabilities due to the pervasive negative stereotypes about Black women. Business meeting via Shutterstock

A couple months ago, I was invited to be a panelist at a conference hosted by The Baffler that would explore some of the issues Sheryl Sandberg ignored in her bestselling book Lean In: Women, Work, and the Will to Lead. Specifically, I was tasked with speaking about the impact of race in the workplace. While I was honored to have received such an invite, I must admit to having felt an overwhelming sense of dread at first.

I had avoided reading Sandberg’s book because, quite frankly, I really didn’t want to. As I pondered whether I would bother reading the book for this conference, I decided against it. Having read reviews of Lean In—both for and against the book—the inescapable conclusion was that this book is not for me.

My impression of Lean In is that aside from the sort of generic advice that benefits almost everyone in the corporate world—men and women alike, really—the book doesn’t offer any groundbreaking revelations for Black women professionals like me.

Some Black women professionals have clearly found value in some of Sandberg’s advice. Journalist Mary C. Curtis, for example, writes that she and two other Black women professionals found that “some of Sandberg’s basic rules make sense for anyone at every level: look for mentors, find balance, appreciate your worth.” Certainly these are good tips for professionals trying to navigate corporate spaces, but they’re not exactly revelatory.

Others, however, criticize Sandberg for failing to clearly articulate her racial privilege. According to Tamara Winfrey Harris, “It would have been helpful for Sandberg to acknowledge that a Latina or African-American woman in her position would be burdened by gender and race.”

And that’s why I had avoided reading the book. Aside from the fact that it seems like the sort of self-help claptrap that I generally avoid, Sandberg apparently glosses over the intersectional burdens faced by women of color in the workplace. Lean In just didn’t seem to me like the kind of book that any feminist who values intersectionality—who values smashing the patriarchy rather than digging a hole just small enough to fit a handful of white women through it—should be lauding as the next great feminist treatise.

Sandberg’s response to a question a young Black woman posed to her at the Howard University launch of her “Lean In” campus program illustrates her myopia when it comes to the sort of intersectional burdens that Black women professionals like me face in the corporate world. As Jenée Desmond-Harris reports for The RootNya Whitaker, a freshman international business major, asked Sandberg, “As African-American women, what should we do to fortify and prepare ourselves for the trials we’re going to face?” Sandberg’s response, as described by Desmond-Harris, was vague—it felt as if she tossed “women of color” into an answer geared for white women, almost as an after-thought. “As women and as women of color, the bar is higher. We know men get promoted based on potential and women on what they already know,” she said. “We’ve gotta change that, and until we change that, the onus is on us to be super prepared.”

Black women professionals have always understood that “the onus is on us to be super prepared.” That we have to be twice as smart and work twice as hard in order to be considered equal to our white counterparts is advice that most of our parents engrained in our heads when we were little girls. And we know that despite our being “super prepared,” we are bound to face discrimination and bias at work. We know that we will have to deal with microaggressions—a million little slights and indignities that probably are race-based, but then again maybe not, most of which we simply let pass without comment out of fear of how our comments will be received.

The sort of bias and discrimination that Black women face in the workplace was the subject of a recent book called Shifting: The Double Lives of Black Women in America. In that book, Charisse Jones and Kumea Shorter-Gooden detail the results of a comprehensive study they conducted on Black professional women’s experiences with bias in the workplace.

Jones and Shorter-Gooden describe how Black women engage in what they call “shifting,” which they describe as “a sort of subterfuge that African Americans have long practiced to ensure their survival in our society.” Jones and Shorter-Gooden note that “Black women are relentlessly pushed to serve and satisfy others and made to hide their true selves to placate White colleagues.”

Because Black women are often portrayed as inferior to white men and women, we find ourselves fighting to prove that the stereotypes are not true—at least not as applied to us as individuals. We fight back against the expectation that we are incompetent, lazy, or “diversity hires” by changing the way we behave at work and interact with our colleagues.

Shifting manifests itself at the workplace on a daily basis, and most Black women aren’t even aware that they are doing it. Every time a Black woman takes on more than her share of the work in order to prove to her colleagues that she is capable and willing to go that extra mile, she is shifting. Every time she code switches from AAVE (African American Vernacular English) at home to “standard English” at work, she is shifting. Every time she loudly announces her credentials, degrees, and achievements in order to be taken seriously by white people, she is shifting. Every time she ignores racist comments and behaviors in the workplace out of fear that addressing them will make her seem threatening and aggressive, she is shifting. Every time she chooses to relax (chemically straighten) her hair rather than wear her hair in a natural style because natural hairstyles (twists, cornrows, braids, or dreadlocks) are viewed as “wild,” “extreme,” or “political,” she is shifting.

Put simply, shifting is a reflexive defense strategy that we employ in order to assimilate to the predominantly white corporate world.

For many Black women, there’s nothing about ourselves that we don’t closely examine to make sure that our entrance into a corporate world that was built for white men and which only recently has begrudgingly decided to embrace white women will be smooth.

We want to blend in—to be invisible—so that we can conform to white-centric standards at the workplace. Eventually, however, we begin to yearn for visibility, because after we’ve sufficiently proven ourselves to our white colleagues, they tend to “forget” that we’re Black, or they view us as “one of the good ones,” and therefore feel more comfortable making racist remarks or exhibiting racist behaviors. And when that happens, how we choose to react can undermine that initial work that we put in trying to conform and be invisible. 

It’s a pickle—one which millions of Black women live every day.

During my ten years as a litigator, I shifted like crazy. When I started work as a first-year associate at a big law firm, I removed my tongue and nose rings and stopped dying my hair platinum blonde, wistfully watching white women in my first-year class who flaunted their pink hair and unusual body piercings.

As my career progressed, I would walk into depositions or meetings where I would be the only Black woman in a sea of white faces. And because I look as young as I do—I’m 40 and can easily pass for 25, so imagine how young I looked when I was actually 25—I looked like a kid playing dress-up in a lawyer costume. I felt like I didn’t belong. And so I would overcompensate by working into conversations the fact that I was whatever age I happened to be at the time; that I went to a top-ten law school; that I “wrote on” to law review (the “write-on” process is a competition in which first-year law students have the opportunity to compete for fifteen slots on law review—25 slots are reserved for the students with the highest grades); that I was admitted to Yale Law School and turned them down. I found myself being overly cocky about my achievements—even though I’m usually quite modest about them—just so my white colleagues would know that I had earned my place at the table.

To be a Black professional woman in a white-centric corporate space is to be constantly aware of how you fit in—or don’t—and to be constantly battling the preconceptions that your white colleagues have about your character and capabilities due to the pervasive negative stereotypes about Black women.

That’s why Sandberg’s ideology, as it’s been described in the media, rings so hollow for me. The notion that if I just speak up more and make myself heard—if I just lean in—somehow that will translate into more respect and more career advancement is ludicrous.

Take this paragraph from Sandberg’s book, as quoted by Jill Filipovic in the Guardian:

In addition to the external barriers erected by society, women are also hindered by barriers that exist within ourselves. We hold ourselves back in ways both big and small, by lacking self-confidence, by not raising our hands, and by pulling back when we should be leaning in. We internalize the negative messages we get throughout our lives – the messages that say it’s wrong to be outspoken, aggressive, more powerful than men. We lower our own expectations of what we can achieve. 

As a Black woman, I read the above paragraph and can’t help but scoff. It’s not a lack of self-confidence that keeps me from raising my hand and leaning in. It’s that I have learned to pull back—to shift—because when I don’t, I run the risk of being viewed as emotionally unstable, angry, or aggressive. 

Sandberg’s advice simply doesn’t feel relevant to me.

Sandberg advises women to speak up. True. Women should speak up. But Black women have to make calculated decisions about when to speak up, and how to do so. If we’re too opinionated, we risk raising the specter of the Mammy, a stereotype that casts Black women as loud, brash, and comical, like the woman turned famous meme Sweet Brown.

I’ve been a victim of that stereotype. At my first law firm, there was a rumor circulating about me that when a partner called me up to ask if I was planning on performing a specific task, my response was “HAIL NO!” Can you imagine?

On the flip side, if we’re not opinionated enough, white colleagues view us as incompetent and question whether or not we’ve “got what it takes.”

Sandberg advises women that it’s OK to cry at work. For white women, maybe; some may elicit sympathy when they do. But when Black women cry at work, they push up against another stereotype—one that casts Black women as the unflappable Strong Black Woman. And if we counter that stereotype—if we dare show any emotion—then something must be wrong with us. And the fact that we showed vulnerability and emotion is likely to be used against us in future performance reviews. 

I felt it over the course of my ten years in private practice.

The simple fact is that corporate culture is hostile to Black women who cry at work. Tressie McMillan Cottom, who also was a panelist at The Baffler conference, has felt it too:

Crying at work is a euphemism for the myriad ways in which black women are sanctioned for demonstrating behavior from which white women benefit. My particular story is about the day I started bleeding at work. I was pregnant so bleeding was cause for extra alarm. I may have cried a little. The VP of the department saw me and was aghast that Tressie has tear ducts. My co-worker, a darling petite brunette, had cried over lunch choices, returning from maternity leave, and being asked to move offices. In every instance, I witnessed how her tears garnered positive reinforcement and support from managers and peers. When I cried it was a clear violation of the “strong black asexual woman” archetype and I sensed the shift in how I was subsequently treated.

When Sheryl Sandberg encourages us to “ban bossy,” she fails to understand that white women who are bossy aren’t viewed as negatively as Black women who are bossy. Indeed, “bossy” is not a term that is generally applied to Black women in the workplace. We are more likely to be called angry, aggressive, or to be accused of having an attitude. Being bossy can be positive for white women, but for Black women, it almost never is. 

The bottom line is this: Black women have always leaned in, and, for the most part, it hasn’t really gotten us anywhere. In fact, a growing number of Black women are abandoning the workplace and becoming entrepreneurs —perhaps because Black women are limited in their advancement in the workplace and consistently face a larger wage gap than white and Asian-American women. While it is true that Black women face hurdles when starting their own businesses, it may be that Black women feel they can overcome those hurdles better than they can navigate corporate business waters. 

Certainly Black women are not a monolith. Many Black women have been able to lean in and grab the corporate brass ring. But I find it hard to believe that they needed Sandberg’s advice to help them do it. I doubt there are many Black professional women out there who aren’t already constantly thinking about how they can progress in a corporate culture invested in ignoring them.