Like many Black women I know, I’ve been incredibly fortunate to have had some amazing Black women as mentors and colleagues. We’ve supported each other, shared our knowledge, and championed each other when other folks didn’t want to see us succeed. But, recently I was speaking with a new friend and the topic turned to the less satisfying relationships we’ve had with other Black women at work. “Another Black woman tried to take me out,” she said. The experience was several years in her rearview mirror, but the sting was still just as disappointing. Then, in another conversation, a young Black woman asked me why the support she needed from more experienced Black women at work was so hard to come by. And, while I am grateful for the amazing Black women who have blazed trails and been my sponsors along the way, I too have had to contend with women who looked like me who worked steadily and steadfastly against me.
Here are my top six ways of learning to put these disappointing experiences into perspective without losing your faith.
Black Women Are Not Monolithic.
The idea that every Black woman you meet wants to see you do well, is a fantasy. People come to the workplace with their own set of values, experiences, and objectives. There is no prototype for Black women in the workplace. Before you come to expect someone’s support and understanding, vet them as you would any other professional in the workplace. Do they share your values? Are they amenable to mentoring? What are their relationships like with others at work? What is her brand at work? Don’t assume that just because someone shares your cultural, racial, and historical experience that she is wired to be in your corner. And, remember, Black women aren’t immune to jealousy, competition, and poor character. Figure out what you’re dealing with, and do what you can to mitigate the damage.
What Landmines is She Navigating?
Sometimes, we wrongly assume that a Black woman who appears to have “arrived” isn’t still negotiating her own set of challenges just to maintain her position. She may be struggling to maintain her position, jumping through interoffice political hoops, or just not have the bandwidth to have her own back and yours. She may have a position but not have the full power of her role or the institution behind her to help position you. Some organizations believe in visual diversity, but they aren’t built to lean into Black women’s decision-making and power. While white men are said to be judged for their potential, women – and, Black women in particular – often find themselves in situations where their track records and successes are challenged on an almost daily basis. If she doesn’t have your back, she just may not have it left to give. Try and walk away from these situations with a spirit of generosity and forgiveness. We don’t know what battles folks are contending with.
Yup, Internalized Racial Inferiority is a Thing.
In short, internalized racial inferiority refers to the acceptance of white superiority by folks of color. In practical terms, it leaves Black women vulnerable to normalizing and elevating white values, processes, perspectives, and supremacy in the workplace. It leaves some to almost always defer to and defend white supremacy in the workplace and to question not only her own value and worth, but the value and worth of other people of color at work as well. It can be likened to a kind of racialized Stockholm Syndrome – but it’s always a clear signal that this particular sister won’t have your back. Internalized racial inferiority is compounded by the fact that many workplaces that espouse mentoring and collaboration as core values, generally look askance at Black women circles of support – Are you a gang? What are you up to? Black women who support each other may find themselves penalized in the workplace, and conversely, Black women who choose to go the road alone may find themselves rewarded. Either way, it’s real, and it complicates things.
What’s Your Brand?
Sometimes the reason other Black women don’t have your back at work has everything to do with you. Are you messy and prone to drama? Do you participate in idol gossip at work? Are you as good at your job as you think you are? How do you present yourself in the workplace? Are your speaking skills, writing skills, and work-related skills on point? My greatest mentors emerged when it was clear I was already on a path to success. People have to see something in you that stirs their desire to hitch their wagon to yours. Mentors and sponsors are successful because they know how to identify winning teams. By your excellence, you can attract the right proponents to help you get to the next level.
Your Mentors Don’t Have to Look Like You.
My Black women mentors have helped me to navigate the racialized waters of the workplace over the years – waters where I am almost always being judged and where my words, actions, and achievements are always weighed by the scales of my dual identities in a sexist, racist society. That being said, I’ve had wonderful white male and female mentors. I’ve been mentored by white folks who understood the nuances I’ve had to traverse, and who were in a unique position to help me view my capabilities and potential beyond the constraints of race and gender in ways that might not have occurred to me. If you’re committed to advancing your career, you need to have access to people with multiple and differing points of view, and differing spheres of influence.
Mind Mapping Your Way to Success.
If you’re anything like me, you’ve meandered your way through your career to some extent. I’ve enjoyed leadership, but I generally just tried to move in the direction of work that made my soul sing. Recently, I’ve seen examples of folks who are approaching their careers with tremendous specificity – they know what organizations they want to work for, they know what roles they want to have, and they know what skills and education they want to master in three, five, and ten years. Even though I’m not a planner, I think it can be empowering to view your career as a journey. Make a plan, and whenever you’re feeling stuck review the plan and redirect your energy to executing the plan. The fact of the matter is that work is about relationships. Sharpening your tools and taking a broad view can release you from the disappointment and resentment that comes with betrayal at work. Remember, the reality is that no one owes you anything, hurt people hurt people, and you are in control of your own destiny. It doesn’t matter who supports you and who doesn’t. Be clear about who you are and what you’re capable of. The best is yet to come!
Remember, the reality is that no one owes you anything, hurt people hurt people, and you are in control of your own destiny. It doesn’t matter who supports you and who doesn’t. Be clear about who you are and what you’re capable of. The best is yet to come!