My practice is dedicated to Black women; many of which are in professional leadership roles. In providing direct and group services over the years, I've observed that many Black women consistently feel overwhelmed by the unique challenges they face on their leadership journey.
I completely understand why. Too often, Black women are the firsts, few, and onlys at leadership tables. The cost of that is A LOT: They are overburdened with managing others' fragility and anti-blackness, exhausted from constantly experiencing micro-aggressions, and called upon to fix systems that weren’t created to help them thrive.
On top of that, Black women are taught to navigate the challenges of these complex systems by leaning into white dominant values that require them to show up to the office as only a fraction of themselves.
Some common Ways of Being in which Black women are taught to show up include:
Code-switching-Subtly and reflexively change the way you express yourself in majority white and non-Black spaces. Or slowly but surely silencing different aspects of your cultural identity that you believe isn’t acceptable to the white gaze.
Self-Silencing-Feeling like you’re constantly having to bite your tongue, so you won’t be perceived as angry. Also, not sharing your true opinions and critiques or when you’re offended.
Turning down cultural expression- Minimizing cultural expressions (e.g., wearing your hair straight instead of kinky because you feel you have to and not because it’s your preference, or not wearing clothes that reflect your cultural identity). Trying to be the “right kind of Black woman” by presenting the aspects of Blackness white and non-Black people are comfortable with, approve of, and value.
Policing your tone-Working hard to keep your tone of speech “soft and gentle.”
Representing the Community- Believing the narrative “if I mess this up, drop the ball, or say the wrong thing then I am going to confirm everyone’s preconceived notions about Black people” and feeling stressed and anxious due to the ongoing pressure
Managing up/Exerting Emotional Labor- Engaging in the emotional labor of educating others about racism, sexism, and other forms of oppression, their growth edges, and ways in which your cultural group is impacted by systemic oppression when it is not a part of your job description. Subsequently, managing their reactions to it.
Managing other's fragility-Going the extra mile to dis-alarm your supervisor’s/colleagues/team’s defensiveness about their growth edges related to diversity, equity, and inclusion matters.
Managing white discomfort- Being hypervigilant about the aspects of your identity that make others perceive you as a “threat” and going out of your way to dis-alarm others.
The cumulative impact of showing up in these ways have negative mental and physical health outcomes. This ain't what I heard, this is what I KNOW!
If you identify with one or all of the Ways of Being, you are not alone. I have found that many Black women show up as a fraction of themselves. and identify 5 common reasons:
Fear: Black women fear what will go wrong if they were not to engage in the ways in which they have learned to navigate challenging work environments. And as you can probably relate to, their mind goes to an unhealthy thinking style we refer to as All or Nothing Thinking. This means, the story Black women are telling themselves when facing challenges are, "I will have to engage this way all the time, or I will get fired" or, "If I don't show up this way, I will miss out on professional opportunities.", or "If I speak up about the micro-aggressions I experience, I will ruin my professional reputation." And the list goes on. Fear keeps us stuck, y'all.
Isolation. As the first, fews, and onlys, Black women often feel isolated. As a collectivist culture, we NEED community. When you are in isolation, you have no one to challenge the narratives you may be telling yourself, or to model a different Way of Being in response to workplace stressors.
Because It's what you know. Our elders and ancestors passed down their approach to navigating workplace stressors. The problem with that is we face a new set of challenges. What worked for them won't work for us. We are navigating a completely different sociopolitical climate and a different work force. Although it may be challenging to sit with, their approach wasn't always the healthiest, and their way addressed their challenges. It won't help us to address ours.
You're in survival mode. Survival mode keeps us from being present and being authentic. It makes us approach work with the mindset "how can I survive here" as opposed to "how can I show up as my authentic self and make an impact here."
You need new tools to navigate a challenging work environment. With limited tools, all you can draw from to drive your behavior is what you fear and what you know. And that may be very limiting, keeping you stuck in a vicious cycle of anxiety, depression, psychological burnout, and vulnerable to experiencing more trauma.
You can overcome this sis! If you're showing up as a fraction of yourself and identify with any of the reasons listed, please consider joining a cohort of Black Women Leaders: https://www.drlawandahill.com/service
I have curated a space to eliminate isolation by providing a community for Black women leaders across industry within the U.S. In this sacred space, you have the choice to trade in these Ways of Being for new skills and support needed to overcome those challenges.