Why diversity at work still matters for Black women, especially in international education.
It’s 5 am, Wednesday morning, and I am exhausted.
I’ve been awake since about 3 am, replaying conversations from the day before, a week before, the year before. My past and present running dialogues through my head as I still contemplate God’s place for me in this world or the next.
It will forever be exhausting to be a black woman.
My black girl magic has taken its hits. I have very little glitter to spin my happiness in.
My mental and physical edges more strained with every pull and tug.
I turn to my phone and pull up my podcasts. It’s been a while since I caught up with Revisionist History, Malcolm Gladwell’s podcast on different perspectives on moments in time. The episode, “The Hug Heard Round the World,” focused on Sammy Davis, Jr., his house negro status among the black community for his embrace and support of Richard Nixon and in turn supporting Nixon’s policies that attempted to roll back the gains made in the civil rights movement. All with the power of a hug.
But this thought, this piece for me was not about that.
It’s about Gladwell’s B story- a research study focusing on the well being of twenty women entering into a mostly male salesforce in the 1970s. Rosabeth Moss Kanter, a Harvard social scientist, interviewed these women who were well educated, from stable homes, who were struggling for success in this male-dominated field. Her study, “Some Effects of Proportions on Group Life: Skewed Sex Ratios and Responses to Token Women,” published in 1977, concluded that the reason why these women were not successful, is that simply you did not hire enough women. To summarize Gladwell’s reference, it is simply hard to be successful when you are the only one. Kanter stated, “Are you alone or are their many of you like you?”
Kanter’s article states that “Being the only one of your kind, being a token, creates a special set of problems for both sides, for the majority and the token.” While the women noticed an exaggeration of behaviors held by the majority when they entered the workspace, the women also felt their own behavior change, seen not as individual people, but members of their category.
Gladwell continues to reference Kanter’s article, and this is the part that really caught my attention: the four roles token women are pushed into in these situations are the mother, the pet, the seductress, and the iron maiden. But when there are others that are like her, she has this ability to truly herself. It resonated with me, the fact that at the end of the day when you are the only or one of a few, do you truly have the ability to be yourself? And if you are being yourself, what is your label?
Juxtapose listening to this podcast, with the social media celebration of Miss Universe being a black woman from South Africa. That in 2019, for the first time in history Miss USA, Miss Teen USA, Miss America, and Miss Universe are black. It makes me wonder, why has this taken so long?
Which one in their circles will be labeled the mother, the pet, the seductress, and the iron maiden? Or my opinion of the modern-day equivalent of the token roles of black women in majority spaces: the best friend, the comedian, the seductress, or the angry black woman?
It’s the narrative of the constant realization of the many roles that black women find themselves in, and the constant shifting that we have to do to simply be ourselves and who we are every single day. No black woman is immune to this struggle. For every Oprah and Michelle who can manage to be everyone’s best friend, you have the Gabrielle Union’s and Jenifer Lewis’ of the world who are a little too much and aggressive. Your star and proximity determine how varied the narrative majority spaces allow you to be.
Which is the narrative in my humble opinion in working in international education spaces. The higher the tier of respect of the international school, the more likely those spaces still consist of a majority population in administration and staff, and the black woman who manages to find her way and find her space slowly erodes to the token version placed on them because she can be a little too much. She is not allowed to have and own her narrative at the end of the day.
Instead of hyper-masculinity in the 1970’s workspace, explored by Kanter’s study, spaces of hyper-political correct behaviors are its modern-day replacement. The shadow and fear of not having the hard conversation because one cannot either handle the directness of the pushback or the ability to allow for vulnerability to want the kind of feedback to grow. If you’re not seen as the comedian and best friend, you can quickly devolve to aloof. Eventually, you become an angry black woman. At least that feels like my story currently.
Although I have not dived into a deep study of this, talking with other Black women and women of color, the higher the tier of the school, the lower the number of people who look like you. And the roles and how we identify are just as hard for majorities to comprehend, just as the wonderings of how we change up our hair when we want to.
And knowing that all skin folk aren’t kinfolk, there is a need to find some connection because you at least have one thing in common.
The struggle is real, and yet it is not new.
My first school abroad, which wasn’t a large player in the international world and worked with mostly local students, was a workspace that was highly diverse, where I wasn’t a token. Where I felt free to be my introverted, highly motivated, diverse version of myself. Embraced by my friends who spanned the globe, my immediate workspace contained one other black female, my division had three other black women. We weren’t best friends, but the token status melts away in the face of the true diversity of culture and thought. But the drawback was the limits of professional growth that I needed to continue to seek.
The evolution of who I have become in a higher tiered school has been a struggle. Well respected on the world stage, I still stand as the only person who looks like me within my division after four years. Over that time, I watched how my token best friend status evolved to the angry black woman status. How my choices are criticized and actions questioned and not trusted. Where the tough conversations that happen about me are done without me for fear of pissing me off. Or when asked to be more forthright and using I statements to express a feeling and to not offend, those things are questioned or compared to, although when the same happens on the other side when my actions are not trusted, the expectation is for me to take it in and be thoughtful.
On the other side, the professional opportunities that I have been exposed to because of my place and space have been exponential. And although the adults don’t exactly reflect the world today, the student body does. That is something that can only happen in places like this. The sacrifices to work in these spaces are difficult at best.
This is where I can relate to Sammy Davis, Jr. The house negro at the beginning of this blog.
Sammy Davis’ story, according to Gladwell, had to take several steps to survive in this world because he knew that his success was only to happen the way he wanted, in those spaces, with THOSE people. It was that side of him that overshadowed the black side of him, where he dedicated his time and money to moving civil rights. In the landscape of black folk, he was a sellout, in the Hollywood spaces he was the token. At least that was the perception.
Paraphrasing Kanter, the price of being the token and success is occasionally turning against your own.
The scary thing and the sad thing is that sometimes it feels that way the longer you stay abroad. Scary because it's true and sad because it's real.
And as I proceed on in this world and realm, I find myself asking the same questions that a lot of my students are looking for in their next level of education: is the school diverse? Will there be people who look like me? Is staff progressive?
Or will I continue on playing a role in a space where I grow exponentially as a professional, but lose a piece of myself and decide on which token role I am going to play today.