I am not competing with you. Actually, I barely know you. We cross paths in the hallways to and from the ladies’ room and have mumbled the obligatory, less-than-heartfelt “hello”. We have attended the same meetings and conference calls, representing our very different departments, and though we have been quite vocal and involved in those meetings, we rarely address each other directly. You have been here much longer than I have. I suspect you feel like a “dual citizen” as well, but that is a mere speculation because we have never had a real conversation. Actually, strike that. I stopped by your office within my first week to introduce myself. You were the only other Black female face I had seen around, and we looked to be somewhat close in age. I didn’t expect we would be best friends. I know how annoying it can be when White folks expect us to be joined at the hip simply because we share the same skin color. But I did think we would at least have more than “hello” to say to each other.
Our first encounter was so…cold. You were unfriendly, though polite and professional. Standoffishly, you did not welcome me into your office, ask where I was from or if I needed help navigating the area. I did catch you do the double take when you glanced at my short twist out. The same look I recall getting from my White colleagues as described here, although it struck a nerve when it came from you. Perhaps you think my kinky curls are less professional that your perfectly straightened, side-part look. You told me you had worked here for 12 years and enumerated the prominent posts you had held within the company during that time. Your final words, (a not-so-subtle hint to end the conversation) were “Ok. Nice meeting you. Thanks for stopping by.” I had never met you before so it couldn’t have been anything I said or did. I thought perhaps you were swamped at that moment and it was just a bad time, but you made no future attempts to reach out afterwards. It almost seemed as if you were going out of your way to distance yourself from me.
Honestly, I haven’t given you much thought since then. Although we have continued our polite hellos, I have been buried in my work. Trying to prove myself. Trying to be good enough. Maybe you too?
More recently though, you crossed my mind. I thought to myself how helpful it would have been to draw on your expertise. To share my experiences with you and learn from yours. It has been tough here. I have been passed over for promotions I have not only earned but have been promised. I have watched others, less qualified, promoted in my place. Have you ever dealt with this? Yours is an equally White, male – dominated department, much like mine. How have you lasted so long? How do you continue to motivate yourself when borderline sexist, racist comments and behaviors are flung around so casually? While I have friends and family who may try to sympathize, they are not here. They do not know the specific nuances and context. You are and do.
I am not your competition. Yes, there are more and more of us Black women graduating college and choosing a path in Corporate America. And yes, we are being conditioned to believe that there is not enough room for all of us at the top. The unwritten message is that we can all be interns, analysts and first year associates, but within the same company there will be a total of 0 -1 Black female partners, SVPs or C-level executives. Yes, you may have been the “token” for so long. The one who had to define what being a Black woman meant to everyone. You may have embraced this role, maybe even relished it, thinking it solidified your position and value here.
Do not feel threatened by me. I am not here to steal your thunder. We may never be friends, but we can coexist. We could empower each other and become allies, even though our corporate culture does not make this easy on us. We could buck the trend that says we both cannot be successful.
Professional Black women, we are not tokens. There can be more than one. You do not have to distance yourself from other Black women to be successful. You are unique and bring something new to the table that no one else can. Do not be fooled into believing that your value only comes from your skin color. When you attend a conference and see a group of other Black professionals networking together, do not instantly gravitate to the other end of the room to be “seen”. Once, a Professor at my HBCU advised us to “avoid the congregating with other Black folks thereby creating a ‘Dark spot’ in the room.” How sad!
Empower and embolden each other. I am not against healthy competition. But do not compete with another woman professionally or personally, solely because she is Black. Do not gossip about her, maligning her character. This attitude sets us back several decades. When you see her, encourage her. Welcome her to the table. There is always room.