Let’s talk about the life cycle of the Black woman in corporate America. I have a zillion stories of how this has played out for me, and many of the women I coach. In each situation, there are three R’s: Reality, Response, and Retaliation.
Setting the Stage
The cycle begins when an organization decides they want to increase diversity. White leadership goes out and puts, from their perspective, a lot of effort into bringing Brown or Black people into their organization.
They hire one of us and feel good. They feel they’re able to check “diversity” off their to-do list.
Let’s say they hire a Black woman. She is often a token hire. There’s no question about her qualifications. In fact, she’s likely more qualified for the position than many. But the idea that she was hired based on her skin tone creates an undercurrent in the organization that the only reason she was hired was her skin color. She is frequently the only Black person on the team.
In the beginning, everybody is happy about this hire. The Black woman comes in and does good work. She leads and starts tackling some of the important systemic issues that are going on.
This is the honeymoon period.
The First R: Reality
After the honeymoon inevitably ends, the reality sets in.
How do you know when the honeymoon period is over?
It’s over when the woman of color starts addressing the systems or issues that other people in the organization are afraid to discuss. They start to panic. They become uncomfortable about her leadership and her desire to create change.
The undermining begins. Conversations are happening behind the scenes to sabotage her and give leadership “food” for the review that impacts her earning power, which is the very thing that impacts her ability to have comparable access and power in the organization.
Even though the issues she brings up are what the leadership said they wanted when they set out to make that hire.
The Second R: Response
Next comes the organization’s response. This is where the woman’s colleagues start to push back on her ideas or disagree with her publicly. They start to question whether she is the right person for the job.
The pushback comes from their discomfort, not from the work she’s done while she’s there. When she starts to address issues — even issues that the organization said they wanted to address — the response is often stifling. And from my perspective, the strongest pushback comes from other women. White women.
The Brown or black woman doesn’t have any natural allies. She needs them in order to move forward. She needs white allies — both men and women — because, without allies, her message falls flat. Her instincts tell her to find white women who can be her allies. So she does.
But what she doesn’t realize is that the white women who she thinks are her allies simply aren’t. They’re likely operating from a place of competition and fear, and do not actually have the Black woman’s back.
She’s looking to create a world — within this organization — where everyone thrives. But she’s finding resistance because she’s realizing that the rest of the people she’s working with have been pretty comfortable in a world where not everyone thrives.
And when she tries to offer her ideas and suggestions, she ends up making people uncomfortable. Programming of people has led them to believe this is an “either/or” situation. So they don't align.
White people don't like to be uncomfortable. They rarely have to experience discomfort because society and organization cultures are normalized white supremacist cultures. They think their ideas and opinions are the only way to think. And they fight to stay their comfort zones.
So, she does her best to navigate and manage the discomfort. She doesn’t want to be perceived as difficult. She works on her tone and the way she speaks to her colleagues. She adjusts her presence - many times shrinking herself and keeping silent because she knows what’s up.
The Third R: Retaliation
Retaliation begins. The last step in this cycle is that often, the people around the Brown or Black woman will discredit her behind the scenes.
And it doesn’t stop there. Her credibility is getting poisoned even outside her own organization. The people in power do what they can to discredit Black and Brown people in the broader community.
And we can talk another time about the underlying white nationalism that this conveys, but what happens to this woman is — through no fault of her own — a decreased earning power, less access, and fewer opportunities.
This is what I mean when I discuss institutional racism.
People won’t admit it, but many of them don't like working for Black women. They resist seeing us as leaders or seeing us creating change that they don't want to have to adapt to. They feel white = leadership and black = servants.
This is the life cycle of a Black woman in Corporate America.
I’ve seen it played out time and time again, and it is so often a two-year cycle. By the end of year two, the Black woman is exhausted, mentally, and physically. She has spent time trying to belong instead of fitting in.
She has worked three times as many hours and worked to build relationships. The stroke of a pen or the word of an insecure other person can destroy what she’s built-in one minute.
The honeymoon is over.
She now has to manage the Performance Improvement Process given to her, where she learned:
Her communication style was a problem
Her ability to work well with others has come into question
Her ideas and work are discredited and picked apart, because the ideas she created were created by her, not them
This is a pattern I’ve seen in my three decades in the upper echelons of Corporate America, and it is unacceptable.
Breaking the Cycle
Being the “first” carries a lot of burdens. It’s asking a lot for one woman to not only do excellent work, but to do so while asking leadership to make the changes they said they wanted to make, and working alone without allies.
There are solutions to these problems. But they require courage and different thinking.
Reality. Response. Retaliation. The Life Cycle. My book touches on this and other themes in more depth and provides another three R’s for solutions. You can sign up for the pre-release here: The Color of Courage. Crushing Racism in Corporate America.
We’re going to unpack these issues and talk deeply and authentically about what is necessary to change. Together we can make these things better and we can start to address the systemic issues that are impacting progress for Brown and Black people.
Cindi Bright is a Seattle based speaker and consultant on topics of race, diversity, and social justice. She hosts HeartBeat radio a weekly program discussing the issues impacting brown and black people.She spent over 30 years in corporate America as a human resources leader/executive. She is known for her candor, honesty, and humor. Her work is aimed at personal and business transformation.