This blog post was originally posted here.
After reading this article, I thought a lot about what it means to be a Black woman and a leader. Usually, people don’t even think to put these three words together. When people reference “Black”, more often than not, the examples are Black men. When they say “woman”, too often images of white and non-Black women fill the screen. And when leadership is described, the case studies, the images, look nothing like us. Why is that?
I learned from direct experience that people read my body and my behavior in ways that sometimes defy belief. For example, when I was a tenured faculty member at the University of Florida teaching a large lecture in anthropology, the buzzer would sound to mark the beginning of class, and although I was standing in front of the podium, students would ask when the professor was going to arrive. For some reason, they could not imagine ME as that person, and especially teaching anthropology. Why is that?
Another example of how Black women’s bodies are read in unexpected ways surfaced during course evaluations. Students would write comments like “all she talks about are Black women,” when I deliberately did not use Black women as examples to illustrate the points I wanted to make about the construction of social inequality or the impact of racism. And so, I could only surmise that students were reading my body, and despite what came out of my mouth, all they heard was “Black woman.” And, just an aside, what do the clothes I wear have to do with my teaching quality or competency? And yet, there they were, always comments about how I dressed (nice compliments mostly). I had one Black woman friend say she did not read her teaching evaluations until months later, and with a bottle of Jack Daniels on hand.
The comments on my teaching went something like this “she’s brilliant, but…” usually followed by assertions that I was “threatening and intimidating.” Certainly I was rigorous and challenged students to push them to more critical thinking, but no more than what my colleagues did, who were applauded for being tough. While I was often cast as the “B.tch.” Why are we judged so harshly?
It was my students of color who pointed out this inequality of descriptors. They noted that my standards for excellence were no more demanding than those of one of my (white male) colleagues, who was worshiped for being “tough” while my requests for the same level of engagement was constantly critiqued. I even had colleagues who warned students away from taking my classes because I was “too tough.”
But those brave students who ventured into my teaching environment came out more than satisfied, and not so long ago, I received a comment on twitter from a (white) student of mine from a decade ago who wrote “Best teacher I ever had.” I remain in touch with many of my students because that bond of rigor where I pushed them to be critical writers and thinkers has served them well, and at conferences, I am often rewarded by those who drop by my panel to say “thank you” after all these years.
There is more I could say on what it means to be a Black woman in America today, and even more to on being a Black woman leader. I could describe how I’ve seen some Black women crumble under the constant critique and accusations that somehow we are not meeting other people’s expectations of how we should perform socially. Our passionate assertions are misread as “angry”, our willingness to critically engage colleagues who have a different point of view are described as “threatening”, and our silence (due to exhaustion from having to constantly defend oneself) is interpreted as “not a team player.” Even our joy is thought to always be “over the top” and I can’t tell you how many Black women have been informed by their supervisors that their white counterparts think “you talk too loud.” How we dress, the level at which we speak, our inflections on words, and even our silence are read and interpreted by people who sometimes have never said one word to us or bothered to interact with us.
Now might be a good time to understand how many of the examples I’ve described above illustrate unconscious bias and microaggressions. If you are in Raleigh, NC during the next six months, drop in on the exhibition, Race: Are We So Different?
It is a public education project of the American Anthropological Association designed to answer some of the questions I’ve raised, and provide historical and experiential evidence of how some of the thinking about us has evolved over time.* If you can’t get to Raleigh, then check out the accompanying website.
There is more I could say, but what has been your experience of being a Black woman in America today, or of being an ally of a Black woman in America and witnessing how the world stands in constant judgement?
Add your comments and share this post. Black women deserve to heard and nurtured. When was the last time you stood up for one of us? When was the last time we stood up for ourselves?
(c) 2017 Irma McClaurin
* (Full disclosure, as a consultant, I designed the Speakers series for the Museum and was the Program Officer at the Ford Foundation who funded the development of the exhibition).