When White Male Leaders Ask “What’s the Problem?”, Here’s One Black Woman’s Answer

 

Recently, I found myself in a discussion about my personal experiences, as a black woman, working with white men in corporate America. (Loaded, I know!) I found myself trying to describe my experiences. How things were for a 19-year-old young black woman working in Kirkland, Washington as an office administrator, being paid $5 less an hour than my white, female, gothic, 26-year-old predecessor.

I recalled moments when my supervisor, a white male in his late 40’s, would rub his pen down my arm as he talked to me. How one of the sales reps who was a white male called me while he was intoxicated late one Friday night and begged to come to my house and do things I won’t mention in this blog. How the one white male in the office who did not participate in the sexual and drug related jokes about me sat and said nothing. I took a stroll down Lake Washington Blvd for lunch one day, and a man more than twice my age pulled to the side of the road in a drop top BMW, so over-tanned he could put a penny to shame, and tried to “give me a ride”.

 

the one white male in the office who did not participate in the sexual and drug related jokes about me sat and said nothing.

 

By now you may be imagining what I must have looked like—perhaps I was inviting these advances? But I was a wool-pencil-skirt-to-my-shin-wearing kind of girl—the kind of skirt you get from the Dress Barn. My friends called me “granny” when we went out. I was the one to get all the girls home safe and without company at night. I’m not oblivious when it comes to sexiness and I’m not claiming that I’m a nun, but I have enough sense to know the difference between professional and provocative. I was laid off that gig in Kirkland (perhaps as a result of my intended ignorance to my manager’s advances) and found myself another position in Kent, Washington. A team of 30 women… and I was the only black one. There was a lot of dumb shit said to me by white women, as well, but we’ll focus on my experience with white males, as this was the scope of the conversation. My most vivid memory – and one that changed the course of my life – happened one day while I was chatting away with my coworkers about my new car. Somehow, I proudly announced my interest rate of roughly 14% and jaws dropped, faces sunk in, folks became sick immediately.

But one good thing came from my jabber. The retired CEO, an older white man, just happened to be at work that day. He called me into his office and put a newspaper in front of me. There was a pie chart; a visual representation that advised readers not to use more than 30% of their revolving credit. I don’t remember much about that conversation, but I took away the concept that good credit was important. That one moment afforded me a much more comfortable life in the present day, and I couldn’t thank him enough for that.

 

 
  Image Credit: Pexels.com

Image Credit: Pexels.com

 

Fast forward a few years. I’m a college graduate with a Bachelor of Applied Science in Information Technology and Administrative Management. I have a specialization in cyber security, and I’m a certified Microsoft Technology associate in Software Development Fundamentals. I was told by a white male Senior Developer that once I became Microsoft certified I’d be a guaranteed hire with the company that he worked for. When I passed the exam for the certification 6 weeks later, I was tossed around briefly, until I was finally given a “great job, you’re making my job harder because now I have to fulfill my promise” speech from the white male CEO of the company. Once again, I did not get the job. However, a white male who did not pass the exam received a paid internship.

I may not be the most decorated gal, but I have enough proven skill that I should be able to get a job interview for an IT help desk position, right? I’m currently working as a housing navigator for a non-profit.

When I think and talk about my experiences with white men, most often I feel the temptation to sugar-coat my story. I fill the dialogue with jokes and laughter. But not in this recent conversation. My truth is this: I’ve had many traumatic, life-changing professional experiences with white males, which have shaped in me a deep reservation about them.

So here’s why I have trepidation around white men in the corporate world:

  • They’ve withheld opportunities from me
  • They’ve been surprised by my skill and competency
  • They’ve judged me and assumed that because I was black I was “cool” and into drugs and sex (specifically with them)

 

When I think and talk about my experiences with white men, most often I feel the temptation to sugar-coat my story.

 

Every blue moon I’ll come across an old-good-hearted-white-male-who-gets-it, but I don’t come across those fellas much in my circles. My viewpoint isn’t formed by your everyday-coming-across-a-smiling-face-in-a-grocery-store. These views specifically tie to my experiences trying to pursue opportunity, attempting to exist in circles that I should have an equal opportunity to.

These traits seem to show face in the presence of power, and are deeply established in environments that nurture the negative behaviors.

And now, as a 31-year-old black woman I find myself writing this blog with tears in my eyes, because though I’ve been beating on the door of the technology industry, I’m scared to death of someone letting me in. I weaken at the thought of entering a field of work which I know I’d love, but that would be riddled with white men who have historically mistreated, misjudged and at times outright hated me; a field that has reportedly been toxic for women like me.

But alas, I’m fueled for change and there’s been no better time for it. If I can be, what my husband likes to call, a “speck in the deck”, then perhaps I can change those ideas and images of what technology professionals look like. Perhaps I could be one to help push that percentage of black women in technology north, so that we aren’t so underrepresented. Perhaps the next coding black girl won’t feel so intimidated after she sees my smiling face occupying a software developers job title.

 

 
  Image Credit: WOCinTechChat.com

Image Credit: WOCinTechChat.com

 

A Q&A with Anonymous and Chuck Shelton, CEO, Greatheart Consulting.


Chuck: When I read about your experiences, I was amazed at your honesty, and I was appalled that you have been treated these ways by white men. I felt the familiar shame about people who look like me mistreating people who look like you.Given these experiences, why are you even willing to talk with me? How do you explain your courage and hope?

 

Anonymous: I am willing to have this conversation, as uncomfortable as it is, because if we as black people just keep saying about white people, “Well, you have privilege”, then there is often a reaction, and we are all no further along. This is a unique opportunity – I have to be part of the solution. I need to do this. I have a level of trust in talking to you – you drove some distance to meet me here, other people said good things about you, and our conversation via email made me think that you want to listen. And you haven’t done anything to make me doubt having this conversation with you. (Laughter)

 

Chuck: In your blog, you identify so many behaviors and attitudes that white men (and everyone) should stop doing, never do, and stop other people doing. What do you want white male leaders to start doing?

 

Anonymous: I’d really like white people to stop saying “I don’t see color.” I need you to start seeing who I am, which includes my color and my gender.

Acknowledge reality—yes, it can be awkward—but have the insight to see people for who they are. And recognize that something is going on when almost all the people of color are in lower-level positions.

I also want men to simply behave with respect and speak up when people are being mistreated. As I got older and had children and thought of my children in biased workplaces, I realized that it is so painful when the guy who sees what is happening and knows it is wrong stays silent. I expect more from the person who knows better. I was just trying to get through every day in a tough environment, and his silence hurt me as much as the people saying stupid things and doing stupid stuff.
Another thing: don’t be afraid to “call the black girl in” to have an honest, useful conversation. I appreciate feedback, and when white male leaders give feedback for improvement only to other white people, people of color miss out on showing how we, too, can get better at what we do. This isn’t about “helping out the black people” – it’s about me being seen for who I am (i.e. a human, a person, who yes, is also a black woman). It’s not giving black people extra things – it’s about a leader doing their job with every team member.

We need to make sure that leaders are not part of the problem, so examine yourself. Interrupt hurtful jokes inside and outside the office. So much good comes when you build a diverse leadership team: everyone feels like they have a voice in the meetings, more people learn about upcoming opportunities. If I don’t see anyone who looks like me, it seems that racial bias is already operating. Seek out diverse candidates – keep looking until you find them. Take bias and favoritism out of promotion decisions, and tell the truth about actual qualifications and the way decisions are made about opportunities.

Grace and laughter can also come with being part of diverse, healthy team, and having real conversations like this helps a lot. We’re not judging one another – we see our differences, and the beauty of it is that we can actually get to the work we are here to do, together.

 

Chuck: You mention your worry at taking a tech job where so many white men would work. What needs to happen in the workplace to help you feel welcome and safe?

 

Anonymous: It matters that the leadership team is aware of how diversity works, including a commitment to equality and no tolerance for bias. Are the leaders willing to listen and to become allies?

I would also feel safer if the workforce was diverse, where’s a healthy mix of people. There’s so much stress going into a white workplace every day, and worrying that opportunity won’t come my way is demotivating. I need the environment to be okay with me being me, bringing the energy I have. I feel welcome when I don’t feel like an outsider – when I can be comfortable in my own skin – without being seen as the representative of a group.

 

Chuck: You close with such a positive motivation to be a model to black girls who code. What would you like to say to them right now, that will help them be even stronger and more confident women twenty years from now?

 

Anonymous: I’d tell them to not be afraid, to continue to pursue their dreams even if they don’t fit some image, to keep building their skill set, to work hard. I’d tell them that they are amazing, because they probably haven’t heard it enough. And I’d tell them that they will get there.

 

Chuck: You are very inspiring – thank you for your courage with this blog and this conversation.

 

Anonymous: Thank you for including me. It was unexpected.