The Spotlight is Shining. Stand in It!

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If you know anything about growing up in an African, ultra-Christian home, then you know a bit about how I was raised.  I, like most of you, was brought up by family members who believed humility and gratitude were the most extolled virtues. It’s hard to disagree when you think of how many chapters in the Bible are dedicated to this ideology.

“Blessed are the meek…”

“In all things, give thanks…”

Where religion leaves off, conventional African wisdom picks up with sayings like…

“Pride goes before a fall…”

“The fool speaks, the wise man listens…”

“Pride is the mother of arrogance…”, etc again teaching us, from a very young age how far we can get in life simply by being humble and meek.

So it suffices to say that I grew up with these values ‘beaten’ (literally, albeit lovingly) into my subconscious.

As a young adult entering into the Corporate American landscape, I struggled with balancing these values long inculcated in me, with the new Corporate values of self promotion, i.e., speaking highly of one’s self and achievements.  I had a difficult time talking about or taking credit for good work I had done.

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“Come. Sit. There is Room For One More.”

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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.

Obama May Be President, But You May Never Be CEO

A couple of years ago I decided to start volunteering as a mentor to high school women in my neighborhood.  Many of them were minorities, from poor, often dysfunctional families.  These young women although very smart, had been done a great disservice by the horrendous school system they were subjected to. The goal was to get them not only interested in college, but through the application and acceptance  process and help them launch a successful college career.  This mission is near and dear to my heart.  Many of these young women had no other positive influences in their lives. Many had no role models, no one they knew who had gone to college and “made it”.

The purpose of the program,  or at least my personal goal,  was to convince these women that they could make it. That if they worked hard, paid their dues, they, too, could be successful. That no one could stand in their way if they put their mind to something.

Usually, I have no issue delivering this message. I do my best to encourage each young woman that comes my way. I am normally filled with upbeat optimism and passion.

Today, on this particular day,  I feel differently. Here is my message to the intelligent,  talented lovely lady who told me she wanted to be CEO of a multi billion dollar corporation so she could “call the shots” (lol).

You can work hard and still not get it. Your success is not guaranteed. We often hear the message of many artists, singers, athletes, models, etc who never make it. For every successful one, there are thousands who no one ever hears of. Well, Corporate America is no different. It is just as cutthroat, imbalanced and corrupt.

Here, you will also see racism, sexism, nepotism, ageism and other isms in full display. You will come across people who do not achieve any results and watch their careers overtake yours.  You will wonder why.

Am I not smart enough? Visible enough?
Did I make any mistakes in that presentation?
Did I not network enough, go to enough company parties?
Do I just not have what it takes to succeed?

And the reality is that it is none of these things. You are awesome just as you are! You made it thus far so you clearly have what it takes. You made it here even against the odds.

But it will get even harder as you progress and the odds will be even less in your favor.  You will be passed over for a promotion you deserve because, the ‘Black woman quota’ has been reached and the diversity numbers met. You will be given more and more to do, because “we know you are capable and can handle it”, but you will watch your pay fall farther and farther behind from your White male colleagues. With all of this happening, you will still be expected to keep giving 150% with a smile on your face because anything short of this will reinforce their unfounded belief that Black women are emotional and unprofessional.

When this inevitably happens, my dear…
Keep your face up, but your soul tucked away! Like a boxer during a match, guard your essence. Do not let them destroy the inner you, the you that matters. It’s ok if you cry in that office bathroom stall when you hear news of the VP’s incompetent son getting the job you worked tirelessly for and earned. Get used to that sick-to-your-stomach, hot/cold feeling because you will experience it time and time again.  Stock up on tissues because,  you may need to stick them under your arms for a few minutes to absorb the sweat (if you sweat like I do).  But do not measure your worth based on how fairly they treat you. Do not start seeing yourself from their eyes, letting self-doubt creep in. Keep the mask on and do not bare your spirit to them or they will trample it. It is difficult I know,  but you must try. Because if you dont, then they win. And you my fellow dual citizen,  cannot afford that!

And through it all years from now, when you need any support or just the listening, empathetic ear of a forerunner, a survivor, I will still be here for you.