I was talking to a good friend the other day when she asked me something that really threw me for a loop. I guess I thought, having achieved the level of success she has in her corporate career, she was immune to this trend. Maybe I thought because she wasn’t in TV, these issues didn’t pertain to her. But it was clear to me how wrong I was when Tracy took a deep breath and asked me, “Why don’t black women support each other?” Oh dear.
Tracy is thin, attractive, whip smart and graduated from a big name school near the top of her class. Warm, inviting, generous to a fault, she never met someone she wasn’t willing to give a fair shake to. But the pain in her voice was evident when she detailed how most of the relationships she’s experienced with other African American women in the working world, had been adversarial. And, as much as I hate to admit it, I understand. I really, REALLY do.
I remember early in my career, coming into a TV station where there was a well established, older, African American woman on staff. I had heard so much about her and was very much looking forward to learning from her. She, however, wanted noting to do with me. The benign neglect would have been one thing; the truly heartbreaking aspect was when I’d catch her with a scowl on her face as she was looking in my direction or the times she gave cub reporters, mostly men and some white women, detailed instruction on how to get better but could only manage remarks to me through her clenched teeth. I finally gave up but never forgot that experience, which is why I go overboard to share what I know with anyone who asks.
When I told my work hubby, Richard about Tracy’s experiences and my own, he was aghast. As a gay man, working in media, he’s constantly telling me about the “Gay Mafia” who look out for each other, alerting each other of upcoming projects and in general supporting one another. And it’s not just gay men; it’s common with other ethnic groups as well. Even African American men support each other more or, at the very least, are not actively undermining those they work with.
Knowing the “what” doesn’t make the “why” any clearer, but if I had to guess the cause of this trend I would think it’s rooted in two things. The first is the “only room for one” phenomenon, the idea that whatever the field, it’s a zero sum game and another woman of color is competition.
The other factor, and I HATE to admit this, is that women are catty. I’m not perfect and have to say I’ve been guilty of this bad habit myself at times. It’s far easier to tear another woman down, leaving you the last one standing, than to link arms with her and work together to make a real difference.
But the big issue I have with this alarming trend is that it targets the wrong people for blame. Shouldn’t we as black women be working together to make sure someone who looks like us, in gender and hue, gets the corner office? Wouldn’t that help the effort to get more representation among the people who do the hiring? And wouldn’t it be great if we learned to celebrate each other’s successes, confident that what we give, we get and at some point someone would be doing the same for us?
Alas, based on information I found out recently, I’m not sure how close we are to actually achieving that utopia. In the meantime, I’ll continue to do what I always have, offer support to those who ask, unconcerned with the false thinking that it weakens my position. Because the truth is, working together strengthens us as a whole. United we can move mountains.
Okay so I’m curious, if you are a black woman, what’s been your experience with other black female co-workers? Do you feel in constant competition? Do you think this is a phenomenon that other women in the workplace experience? Why do you think that is? Fire away!