I strolled into the boardroom looking like Olivia Pope’s baby sister. Hair laid. Makeup just left of perfect. I had low, polite heels that Coretta Scott King herself would have worn proudly. The room was spacious, the atmosphere, frigid but polite. In the middle of the conversation, I realized that I was the only black person there, one of the only women present, the youngest by far, and–due to a conversation we had–the one with the most education.
Bars from Kanye West’s “Mama I Made it” played in my head while they made polite chit chat. It was the last moment of the meeting where I felt *that* good, however. In a short period of time, I fielded racist and sexist comments and gestures.
The climb up to the top of the mountain was always steep for me. You all know the tale: working class turned upper middle class, scholarship kid, hard work and miracles opening up doors my Daddy’s pocketbook couldn’t. And suddenly, I stumbled out of a PhD program, a little wrinkled, a little tired, but not much worse for wear.
I’m sure that older women told me that, regardless of if I was in a boardroom or classroom, I would find a viper’s nest of isms. Racism. Classism. Sexism. And yes, even pesky Ageism. I knew it. I studied it. Didn’t I dedicate my life to black women’s experiences as expressed through literature and popular culture?
But I never, ever, truly experienced the bile that rises when one hears something bitterly racist, presented as absolute fact.
Nor had I experienced hearing a racist statement, while facing the ridiculousness of being silenced–a sexist move–at the same dang time.
Nor was I ever forced to maintain a polite look of agreement to ideas that were egregious.
Nor was I ever asked to present racist, neoliberal ideas as my own.
It felt as though a noose around my neck was tightening. I am used to academic freedom. I am used to working with people who respect my beliefs as a Christian, and a black feminist. I am used to people being silent when I speak, and respectfully and thoughtfully responding to my ideas.
I am not used to being silenced. I am not used to feeling powerless in my own skin. I am not used to stopping myself from visibly recoiling from the advances of a man in a professional setting. I am not used to jealous, passive aggressive comments made about my PhD.
If you’re a fan of any of the shows I mentioned two weeks ago, such as How to Get Away with Murder, Empire, Scandal, or Being Mary Jane, you know that the black female leads all are facing trials (both literal and figurative) of their own. Annalise Keating was on trial for the murder of her husband.
Cookie has to fight for everything in her profession or in love.
Ms. Pope, the character that wields the most political power, was sold on the black market.
And Mary Jane keeps wetting the bed.
They are all financially well off and good looking. Yet, each one of them is in highly dysfunctional relationships with coworkers, family members and lovers. The creators of these shows have a responsibility to create drama we respond to, of course; however, there is also a nugget of truth to these narratives.
From where I sit, with all the other PhDs, MDs, Directors, Managers, and the rest of impossibly important positions, I know that black women on top are remarkably privileged. Most of us have money and nice homes. However, we also occupy contentious spaces. We are the only black people/ the only women (or the only black women) in the boardrooms, hospitals, and in college classrooms (THERE ARE ONLY 17 BLACK PROFESSORS IN THE U.K. 17.)
We are often asked, quite problematically, to be representatives of an entire race and gender of people–thus negating millions of individual experiences. We are forced into silence, or dealing with the circumstances of speaking out, when coworkers make racist or sexist jokes.
Because of our presence in a company, misguided people think that the company is diverse, or that “black people made it” or “women made it,” when there is still so much work to be done.
Some of us have healthy romantic relationships, but there are still some whose relationships with family members, friends, and romantic partners have been severely compromised due to the struggle to stay on top.
The problem with being on top of the mountain is that the air is thinner. There is less support. Shoot, some women, regardless of race, would throw you off the mountain themselves so they can continue to maintain trophy status. I’m painfully aware that some of the men grinning in my face are doing so because they think I’m attractive, not because they’re excited about the quality of my work.
Maybe the best part of being on top is having the option of leaving a situation that doesn’t suit you. After that meeting, I smiled, shook everyone’s hand, and walked out the door to a much better opportunity.