She's Not Your Secretary: An overdue note to Men of Color to face their sexist behaviors.
The biggest contradiction I’ve experienced as a woman of color in spaces that are explicitly committed to racial equity has been the continued subjugation of women of color, not by white men or white women, but by our brothers of color.
Yes, I’m talking about men of color that get up on their stages and preach on race and social justice, meanwhile casting a shadow on the women of color sharing space. This article is going to cause some friction, I’m sure, and I’ve reached my limit of men making women that are bad-ass bosses their notetakers, planners, organizers, and PowerPoint designers. In other words, taking advantage of their skills while taking the role of the star actor and putting them in the supportive actress role.
To my brothers of color, you can get upset with me, but the real invitation is to reflect on how you show up for women of color and their leadership. I do not mean to lead underneath your leadership, but to truly lift their successes over your own. Be willing to learn how you can put yourself in the supportive role and let her shine. Also to my sisters of color, this is an invitation to notice if you also support the subjugation of other women of color by promoting your own biases towards male leadership. It obviously is complex for all of us as to why we carry forward these behaviors that promote sexism even though we share similar experiences of racism. I will not be going into those complexities in this article, but please know that I’m aware and do not pretend to know and understand it all. However, I choose to at least name the ways that it shows up so some can begin to consider different ways of being if they care about the co-liberation of their sisters of color.
I also want to acknowledge that it is for each person to identify if there is an internal hierarchy given to women based on their race. For example, the possibility of putting Asian women over or below Black women in their capabilities or roles based on stereotypes or biases. Again, there are such complexities over why this happens. I think the worse would be to deny the possibility. For women of color, we can work together to break the intersectionality of race and sexism in support of one another by disrupting when it occurs.
Before I go down some very hard truths, I’ll share a little story of a moment that I will never forget. A team of ours, 3 women of color, and 2 men of color, just completed a powerful learning seminar at a large conference. It was a phenomenal session and people were connected, engaged, and inspired by the time we were done. The unexpected ways people showed up moved us as facilitators. I was in tears. I personally was walking on a cloud afterward because it was just that amazing. We worked hard to prepare for it and each brought our own gifts to it. It truly was a collaborative effort and it showed in our delivery. We complemented each other and shared the stage well.
After, I was waiting in the foyer for mealtime and standing next to my male colleague. Multiple women came by that were obviously in our session. They were praising him with wide eyes fully locked on him, big smiles, and laughter. Think of it like the fan frenzy after a concert. That’s at least how it felt to me. They were telling him how great he was. Meanwhile, your girl was standing right next to him, apparently invisible to them. There was no eye contact, no greeting, and no acknowledgment of my existence. The cloud I was on dissolved beneath me. Although their behavior was not his fault, I was disappointed he did not acknowledge my presence or contribution. It’s kind of like that weird new boyfriend move where he doesn’t introduce you when he’s brought you to a party and is talking to a bunch of friends while you awkwardly wait for a way to interject yourself into the conversation. You just feel like a pile of poop afterward.
My little girl self was screaming inside “see me, I’m important too” while waving her hands in the air for some attention.
You may think this is just Tracy’s issue or that I’m reading too deep in between the lines. This scenario has played over and over in different spaces, with different male colleagues of color, and at different times in my life. I have also witnessed it happen repeatedly with other women of color whose male colleagues swoop in and take credit for her brilliance and work, giving her no recognition. This is simply one of the many ways this form of sexism and racism manifests in today’s world. In our past it was clear the man’s world we lived in and the roles women were forced into. Today, there are performing feminists that are actually misogynists, and both white women and women of color are holding them up on their pedestals.
Let me immediately address some major fallacies with some quick ways of addressing them:
Just because the woman may be better at it, doesn’t mean she wants to do it. She is also really good at leading. Support her by getting better at doing the things you expect women to do.
Being your authentic self does not equal not doing your share of the work. Understand that your desire to just show up, unprepared, also puts the burden on the woman to prepare for you. We are definitely not going to allow ourselves to look like fools, because we don’t have that luxury. Unless that is a clearly communicated agreement, then as someone who believes in equity - you should be preparing your own pieces of work. Don’t make excuses for why you didn’t, own it and follow through with delivering it. Not doing so is an indicator that you value your time over hers.
You are not absolved from whiteness. You should check your own seductions with whiteness and how you may be projecting it, especially your ego. If you are continuously centering yourself, making yourself the most important person in the room, then you’re only looking out for yourself. This doesn’t mean you aren’t important or shouldn’t speak your own brilliance - just notice if you’re swallowing up all the space leaving women of color to be invisible for their brilliance.
Our emotions are not our weakness, but our strength. I have heard too many men of color refer to women of color being “too” emotional as though it is not a leadership quality or unprofessional. I’ve heard women of color described as “dramatic”, “insecure”, “angry”, and “too much”. This belief that being emotional is weak has hurt us all. When you make room for your emotions to show up, you alleviate the stigma for women too and we can all show up more human.
Being a “strong woman” does not mean we do not need to be cared for or supported by you. I’ve noticed as an entrepreneur, how many men of color are networked to ensure each other are not short in supply of work which equals money and stability, even though men are more likely to get paid more (often valuing their work at a higher price point). I’m flabbergasted by the discrepancy between women of color and men of color in securing work and the shortage of men of color sharing the work with their sisters of color. There are other ways I’ve seen men of color fall short of understanding how to support women of color and their goals, leadership, and dreams. My suggestion, ask her, “How can I be here for you?” This also takes away an assumption that we need to be saved. We’re great at communicating what we need if given the opportunity and if we trust it actually will be honored.
We may be service-centered, but that doesn’t mean we should always be serving others. It makes many women of color happy to be leaders in serving our communities. It can be a core value to many of us. It can be what we are taught to do and it may come very naturally. It can also be a leading cause of burnout and poor health because we fail to place enough importance on our own well-being. So when you notice a woman of color cleaning up the tables after a meeting, volunteering to take on additional responsibilities, or offering her ideas for free; remind her of her choices and option to say no. I think an even better approach would be to take it a step further and name the gender inequity and request that she takes care of her own needs. Many women do this for one another. You’ll hear us arguing at the family gathering, telling one another to sit down - I got this. Well, what I don’t hear enough, is the men telling women to sit down - I got this.
As always, to ensure to keep those of you at bay that must let me know this isn’t you or the men in your life -- here is the disclaimer: I do not speak on behalf of all women of color. I am not generalizing that all men of color show up in these ways. We are all beautifully unique in our lived experiences AND social constructs have us all swimming in the waters of racism and sexism. If nothing that I share resonates with you -- then I’m happy for you. It is still an invitation into the perspective of someone else’s life and experience. It is still an invitation to reflect on your experience and why it may be different. Maybe there’s a lesson there.
Let's be inspired and come closer to the vision of bell hooks, in her book Feminism is for Everybody: Passionate Politics, "Imagine living in a world where there is no domination, where females and males are not alike or even always equal, but where a vision of mutuality is the ethos shaping our interaction. Imagine living in a world where we can all be who we are, a world of peace and possibility. Feminist revolution alone will not create such a world; we need to end racism, class elitism, imperialism. But it will make it possible for us to be fully self-actualized females and males able to create beloved community, to live together, realizing our dreams of freedom and justice, living the truth that we are all “created equal.” Come closer. See how feminism can touch and change your life and all our lives. Come closer and know firsthand what feminist movement is all about. Come closer and you will see: feminism is for everybody.”
I’ll end by saying this, men of color and women of color both face racism. Women of color face both racism and sexism. For both men and women of color to share liberation - we must actively be trying to disrupt both racism and sexism where they intersect. Men of color should not be demanding racial equity without women of color having a say in it.