What Happens When Black Women Dare in White Spaces

Black women are producers. Put us on a task or a project, and we are going to ensure flawless execution. We believe in excellence in all that we do. This gift and curse is what makes us popular one minute and canceled the next.

A colleague and sister friend shared an article with me six or so months ago. The article was titled, “When Black Women Go From Office Pet to Office Threat.” The article discusses how Black women experience race and gender bias in the workplace. According to the article, Black women are usually hired and loved and then vilified and hated just for doing what they do best — produce and execute the shit out of everything.

When I read that article, I felt vindicated.

In my own experiences and in the stories I have heard from my sister-friends, there is a consistent theme that keeps coming up for us over and over again. We get hired, we deliver, and we execute. We do all this to the pleasure and praise of our colleagues and bosses. And after we feel we have done all the things, we seek advancement, and that’s when things head down the right side of the bell curve.

In my profession, I work with organizations that are predominately managed and operated by white women. In these spaces, I attempt to do racial reckoning work so that organizations can be more inclusive and achieve their “DEI” goals. At least that is the aspiration. I’ve noticed many dynamics when working in these settings, and until I read Erika Stallings’ article, I thought it was me.

We always think we are the problem when people start mistreating us. In many cases, we are either the “only” or “one of the few” women of color working in predominantly white spaces. Because we often do not see others being treated the same as us, we either think we are doing something wrong or being targeted. I have felt the former and latter on many occasions during my professional career. The inconvenient truth of the matter is that it happens to us so often that we know it is us. We are just confused as to why.

As Erika’s article suggests, women of color get treated like threats when they dare to expect access to higher-level positions after doing what they are good at — delivering.

But there is a space between these two opposite ends of the spectrum. It happens when she is no longer a pet and is on her way to official threat status. From my view, the “pet to threat” journey is a bell curve. When you first get hired, you are on the left side of the curve. They treat you well, praise your dedication to the job, and may even say how you work harder than everyone else. You may also get offered opportunities to take on more work or larger projects. Because you execute well, you hit the peak of the bell curve. You are sitting pretty on the mountain top. You like the view, and so you say to yourself, “I earned my position by doing the work, I want to stay here and get the title or visibility.

This is where you start requesting access to opportunities that your fellow non-Black colleagues have. It is at this point you get blocked from prospects, and there are often no tangible reasons why. They can’t point to your performance, they cannot say you aren’t on time or don’t dress the part, because you are timely and you wear some badass stilettos. This empty experience often leaves us confused and angry. We don’t receive any feedback that would justify the denial of access. Or sometimes you get inuendos as to why you are being told no or to wait, and they are rife with biases and other faulty assumptions. And heaven forbid you to dare to express your displeasure, you are now the angry Black woman. Hence, the justification for potential threat status.

At this point, you start to descend down the right side of the bell curve. Before you hit the bottom threat position, you notice how attitudes and behaviors gradually change. You may get “inadvertently” left off an email chain, be the main topic of water-cooler conversations, and begin to see a shift in trust. This shows up as scrutiny of your work, your projects being micro-managed, and being called out in meetings on matters that should be discussed offline.

Now that we have confirmed that it is happening, we have to talk about why it is happening. And the why is much more concerning than the behavior itself.

What is happening is we are often “useful” employees versus “valued” employees, and there is a historical elephant in the middle of all of it; the troubled history of Black Women and labor in this country.

Black women were portals to produce the racialized labor system of slavery, which supported the comfort and wealth of white men. Her body was also “useful” in preserving the piety of white women’s bodies. Black women were forced to breastfeed and rear white women’s children due to their fragility and as house servants — used to ensure their comfortable existence. And as if all of this not enough, her body and soul were taken at the pleasure of slave masters for their sexual pleasure and to produce more Black bodies to amass their wealth. Simply put, Black Women have always been used for the privilege of others.

In spite of all this, today, Black women are the fastest-growing educated group in the United States and represent the largest minority group opening businesses. Furthermore, Black Women can be trusted to do what we always do; take care of ourselves and everyone else also. We take care of communities,poor-performing colleagues, and are the visible evidence of an organization’s commitment to DEI. We become a pet when we see something that needs to be done and do it. We are admired for our ability to jump right in, be organized, be strategic, and our daring and apologetic existence is admired. However, if we dare to expect what we believe we worked hard for, we are quickly reminded that those opportunities are not for us.

The “pet to threat” culture for Black women is real. What is also real is that we are often hired to show that they are living “DEI” principles. When we get hired, bosses and poor-performing colleagues feel completely comfortable using our talents to get shit done, but they want to make sure their mediocrity is not exposed in the process. And should you dare to say anything that calls any of it out, then you are perceived as a threat and treated as such.

So the existential question becomes, do I stay or should I go. At this point in my life, I have decided that those work environments add no value to my life and do not align with my core values. I have chosen to leave spaces in which this behavior becomes toxic and disrupt my Black joy. I do, however, recognize that not everyone has a life that allows them to make a similar choice. To her, I say, I am with you.

The sad truth is there are few places where Black Women can earn a living wage or have a satisfying career due to the “pet to threat” culture. It exists in every profession, and until we can cultivate more spaces for us, owned by us, the struggle will continue.

We need more of us to build spaces for us. So for me, I am not only being selective in the projects I chose, I am working to build a community where Black women can thrive uninhibited in her bold and unapologetic existence. It is absolutely necessary for us to live free.

Unapologetic Black Woman, Policy Professional, Activist, Lover of Politics, Mom of Twins, Doctoral Student, Writer

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