It’s hard to pinpoint which incident was worse. Bill O’Reilly admitting that he simply tuned out Rep. Maxine Waters (D-CA) because of her “James Brown wig?” Or, Press Secretary Sean Spicer publicly admonishing American Urban Radio Networks reporter April Ryan for “shaking her head” at a recent press briefing?
Many African American women shook their heads in recognition. To them, Waters and Ryan merely were experiencing a typical day on the job. And, a hashtag was born. Black women made visible the myriad ways race and gender converge in their work lives, manifesting in microaggressions to be ignored and endured. From embodying the stereotypically “angry” Black woman:
#BlackWomenAtWork . Stop asking us are we mad because we are not walking around with a goofy grin just to make you feel comfortable.
— ✨✨Esha✨✨ (@yepitsesha) March 29, 2017
to standing in sharp contrast to society’s images of what Black women can do for a living:
Standing in the attorneys’ line in traffic court. White male attorney asked me to go sit with the non attorneys. #BlackWomenAtWork
— Doreen Nanda (@dnandalaw) March 29, 2017
Patient: I need my nurse.
Me: How may I help you?
Pt: Just get the nurse, the blonde lady.
Me: She’s my assistant. #BlackWomenAtWork
— Kandice Webber (@kandice_webber) March 30, 2017
Watching white lawyers wander around, wondering who the prosecutor is, never even considering that it could be me.#BlackWomenAtWork
— khia213 (@khia213) March 29, 2017
I had my own #BlackWomanAtWork incident a few weeks ago. I was teaching a Family Law class of about 20 students on property division upon divorce. Suddenly, a student–not enrolled in the class–opened the door and took a step across the threshold. Aware of 21 pairs of eyes staring at her, the young woman asked, “Is this a class?” I assured her it was and she backed out of the room. We all were thrown by the intrusion but I couldn’t help wondering if this student would have behaved the same way if one of my white male colleagues had been standing at the lectern.
So what? I admit that’s a tempting response. After all, I know I’m a professor. Just like the women quoted above know their own accomplishments can’t be diminished by someone’s innocent mistake.
But, the reality of the mistake itself is telling. Why is the default nurse “a blonde lady”? The assumed attorney white? It reminds me of a conversation a friend once overheard at the gym: a little girl looked at the sports page of the Washington Post, pointed to a photo of a Black man, and asked: “Daddy, is he a criminal?”
Racial and gendered assumptions run deep in our society. If we learn anything from Maxine Waters and April Ryan about this ongoing problem, it’s that we must keep calling it out even as we go back to work.
What’s your story?