Updated: Sep 22, 2021
Bianca Barratt - Senior Contributor
The light touch against your waist as he moves past you to get to the coffee machine; the constant interruptions when you’re in a meeting; the insistence by your manager that the reason your male counterpart earns more than you is because his role truly is ‘different.’
If you identify as a woman, you’re probably well-versed in these subtle yet damaging gender microaggressions - have probably even complained about them and the men who perpetuate them to people you feel safe around.
There’s no denying the fact that, no matter your racial identity, being a woman in the workplace is tough. The fact of the matter is though, being a Black woman in the workplace is even tougher. Why? Because not only are they subjected to gender-driven microaggressions, they’re also being subjected to racial ones from - and here’s the crucial part - both men and women.
A discussion that has gained more attention over the last few weeks of the Black Lives Matter movement is that white women, despite belonging to a widely marginalized gender group, are also often marginalizers themselves in their continual reticence and apathy towards the fight for Black female equality. From being more likely to face occupational segregation to earning less than white women (women on average earn 19% less than white men in the United States; Black women specifically on average earn 39% less) Black female professionals are facing discrimination for both their race and gender and, given how widespread the problem is, the chances that you have been a part of that discrimination, even if you’re a woman, are very high.
As all women know, the reason we call the negative gender-based actions previously mentioned ‘microaggressions’ is because they’re often small, subtle and difficult to pinpoint. The aggressiveness of these actions lies in the fact that many women feel they’d be seen as ‘overdramatic’ for flagging them, meaning the perpetrator keeps all the control and the sufferer is left to deal with the feeling of being undermined. Often delivered in a ‘well-meaning,’ not overtly aggressive way, microaggressions are their own form of gaslighting. For Black women, this experience is only more concentrated, as they suffer for both their gender and race.
The time has come, as Marketeer and Diversity and Inclusion Consultant Bonita Darkoh says, for all professionals to step in to properly care for and support their Black female colleagues:
“Firms must understand that diversity and inclusion has to become a priority through education and tangible actions. The lack of diversity within businesses - especially in leadership - should be an ongoing discussion, rather than a reactive response to what is happening around us - leaders must become accountable for there to be real change through education, insights and data. This requires a long-term approach and cannot be fixed overnight.”
As Bonita says, learning is the first key to overcoming this situation and though acknowledging that the part you have played in the oppression of Black female professionals is difficult, it is necessary.
Robin DiAngelo, author of White Fragility, made a really important point in an article for the Guardian last year: that we have to get over the idea that racism is a series of “individual acts of intentional meanness.” We have to challenge the assumption (and I speak for myself here as well) that niceness and identification as a feminist does not automatically make us an advocate for all women.
These are some of the most common microaggressions Black women are subjected to at work.
Assuming that all Black women have had the same life experiences
“In the work place I tend to be either the only Black woman, or a minority. I have always been seen as the representative, whether it’s a question about Black hairstyles, what to do about the diversity issue within the business or “what do you feel about knife crime,” explains Bonita. “I seem to always get asked these questions as if we all have the same experiences.”
Expecting your Black female colleagues or employees to be the spokesperson for all Black women shows a lack of understanding, empathy and respect for each person’s individuality. It also puts pressure on them to a lot of unpaid work and singles them out as ‘different’ to everyone else.
Tone policing based on racial stereotypes
“I remember once being informed by my white female manager that I was quite 'assertive' in meetings,” recalls Global Publicist, Brenda Gabriel. “It was said in the way that indicated she wanted to say ‘aggressive.’ To be honest, I wasn't assertive enough. As a project manager, I would attend team meetings and make suggestions for the way forward and be ignored. Two minutes later my male white manager would say exactly the same thing as me and it would be cooed over and added to the action list.”
Black women have dealt with the ‘angry’ stereotype for years, enforced by a white privileged agenda to stamp out their voices and keep them quiet. Often labelled aggressive or over assertive, Black female professionals are regularly subjected to tone policing - a silencing tactic used by oppressors throughout history.
Before flagging up a Black female colleague or employee’s tone, ask yourself this: are you focusing more on the way she is speaking rather than what she is saying? And would you have the same issue if it were a white woman or man speaking in that way?
Expressing surprise, or worse, judgement in their appearance
Asking a Black female colleague uninvited questions about her hair is a microaggression. Implying that her natural hair is either ‘messy’ or ‘unprofessional’ is an outright aggression. Both imply that natural Black hair is ‘substandard’ and that Western hair is the default, something of which Digital PR Specialist Gabrielle Ashanti has had plenty of experience. “I've been questioned about my changing hairstyles often and dealt with many of my co-workers wanting to touch my hair (sometimes without asking). I absolutely understand their curiosity and complements but their ignorance made me feel like the office pet.”
Iphie Mottoh, a Sex, Intimacy and Relationship Coach, has also dealt with this and challenges white women to think before they ask.
"I was asked so many questions about why it is curly, why do other black women have it long and straight...the list goes on. Due to these questions and the attention it brought when other ladies changed their wigs, I chose to wear the same wig to work, simple and straight, so that I would be taken seriously. I am sure most of the behaviours displayed were not intended to insult or offend, beings usually followed by the comment, 'Hope I didn't offend you', Is it ok to ask?' I always wonder what I am expected to say to this. The only option I have is to reply 'of course not' because I don't want to come across as aggressive.”
The distinct lack of Black women in high powered roles has absolutely nothing to do with a lack of desire, drive or talent. It’s the result of a system that continues to uplift and reward white people. The women that do break through this barrier are often left feeling isolated, tokenised or worse, shamed into ‘acknowledging’ their ‘luck’ at being in such a position at all. This is an experience that Documentary Filmmaker Rochelle Newman is all too familiar with. “I was filming with a white male producer/director and we talked about our careers so far in the TV industry. He began to say how ‘lucky’ I was to be there, like I didn’t deserve to be.”
Implying, as highlighted by Ruchika Tulshyan, that a Black woman may only have her job because she is the ‘diversity hire’ may be something you’d consider an overt aggression - something you’d never do - but think about this: if you’re an employer and have felt that after hiring one Black woman you can ‘relax’, you are part of the problem. If you’ve ever singled out a female colleague to be part of company representation (either at meetings or events or during marketing campaigns) because she is Black and you think it will make the company look good, you are part of the problem. Both of these examples are a form of tokenising; a microaggression that proves you are not actually committed to providing true equal opportunity but are more interested in looking like you have.
Making assumptions about seniority
This was a story that cropped up again and again in my research. Many of the Black women I spoke to recalled multiple incidences in which they experienced the microaggressive assumption that the most senior person in the room must be white. TV Presenter, Freelance Writer and Public Speaker Marilyn Devonish recalls one incident in particular in which she arrived at HM Treasury for a meeting and the man who came to collect her spoke to every other woman in the lobby (all of whom were white) before finally turning to her. “It didn’t occur to him for a moment that the Management Consultant he had spoken to at length on the phone might be Black.”
Dr. Abigail Takyi has also been subjected to this on multiple occasions whilst working for the NHS, with patients telling her she ‘spoke good English’ or asking to see the ‘real doctor’ after she had assessed or treated them.
Uprooting the problem
As Dr. Takyi highlights, the roots of racial-gender microaggressions towards Black women run deep and need to be dug out if any real change is to happen. “We don't feel we belong in the work environment in UK and that’s because the work environment in the UK was never designed for us to belong. We are an after-thought, an aberration in the system, a square peg being forced into a round hole, having to compromise who we are to be accepted.”
If we don’t want to be part of the problem, we have a responsibility to flag rather than ignore these microaggressions when they occur because to brush them aside is to suppress the Black female experience. It comes back to the fact that to be active or complicit in this form of microaggression is a form of gaslighting. Is a form of racism.
“When we are made to feel these incidents are small and trivial, we are taught to second guess ourselves, which takes a toll on mental health when they keep accumulating.”
Today marks Juneteenth - a historical day that marks the official end of slavery in the U.S. (it is important to note that not all Black people enslaved were freed on this day, though). Perhaps one of the best gifts we can give our Black female colleagues today is taking the time to learn from our own inherent complicity* and in doing so, begin to provide a safer, more equal professional environment in which they can thrive and feel supported.
*If you’re looking to learn more, consider supporting one of the many Black women educating on this topic by buying and participating in her books and works. A great place to start is More Than Enough by Elaine Welteroth and Me and White Supremacy by Layla F. Saad.