Working While Black: Are Black Women Obligated To Support Each Other In The Workplace?
By Davina Britt
I was recently catching up on Being Mary Jane and watched the episode where the character Ronda Sales plays Mary Jane by bringing her arch nemesis Justin Talbot to work at the station. As I was watching, I immediately found myself getting angrier and angrier, to the point where I had to take a break from the show. After I finally finished the last episode I sat and thought for a while about why that Ronda character got me so riled up. I realized the reason I hated the character so much is because I had worked for her before.
When I got my first “real job” in my field in Corporate America I worked for an older Black woman. I was so excited. I imagined this woman becoming my mentor, helping me navigate through the white seas of racism, misogyny, and racial biases. She would tell me all the secrets she wished someone would have told her, be a sounding board when I needed to vent, and my climb up the corporate ladder would be just a little easier thanks to her. That could not have been farther from the truth. Now just to add a little perspective, this was early in my career so the tactics used in my situation weren’t exactly like Being Mary Jane but it was still disheartening. I quickly learned she was not looking for an assistant or a mentee, she was looking for someone to assign trivial assignments, boss around, yell at, and, when appropriate, bring to Black networking functions to pretend like she was doing her part to help out the community.
After one particularly stressful day, I finally asked her why she was treating me the way she was? Why wasn’t she helping me? Why couldn’t we get along? She looked me straight in my eyes and told me she was not going to help me replace her. Me being young and naive I had no idea what she meant. I knew I would experience many challenges WWB (working while black) but I expected those challenges to come from people that did not look like me. I was not trying to replace her — I was hoping we could be allies — and I certainly didn’t want the only two Black women in the office to be enemies. What I had to do was familiarize myself with the crabs in a barrel mentality. Usually, there are only a few Black people that make it to executive positions, so when some Black people in those positions see someone younger come on board they immediately feel intimidated and see their “replacement.” As I moved on in different positions with different companies it was the same story, different cast. That particular woman I worked for was not the exception.
Women, in particular women of color, have enough challenges in the workplace. Despite those challenges, many of us have made great strides which opens the way for more women to be successful. The last thing we need is to make it harder for each other. There is enough room for all qualified Black women the workplace; we don’t need to compete with each other. We need to compete with the environment that is set up to make us feel like we need to compete with each other. I’m not suggesting that you be every Black woman’s best friend, but I am suggesting that you respect one another. A simple hello, smile, even acknowledgement of a good job goes a long way. So the next time you see another Black woman in the office, even the one that always seems to be upset, say hi. Let’s start supporting each other in the workplace.