10 minute read

Striving For Workplace Equality

My parents, who are college-educated, stressed to me at a young age that because of my darker skin complexion, I would have to work twice as hard and be exceptional just to be in the talent pool of considerations.

“Get as much education as you can,” said my dad during one of his many advice sessions. “If you get a college degree, no matter what field you go into, you have to be paid your worth.” From birth, many black women are taught that higher education is the key ingredient needed to secure not just a good job, but the power to negotiate a salary comparable to one’s “professional” worth.

Now that I’m 33 years old with about five years of professional work experience, and hold a BA in English, an MA in journalism and am working on another MA in global communications, I know first-hand that higher education doesn’t necessarily lead to a prominent job that will reflect your worth in salary terms.

According to the Economic Policy Institute, on average, black women workers are paid 67 cents on the dollar compared to white non-Hispanic men. And although 29.4 percent of black women hold a bachelor’s degree or higher, they are still paid less than white men at every level of education. Mediocrity is not in the formula for a successful black woman, but we all know mediocre people who produced subpar work and will get paid exceptionally well due to white privilege. Couple that with corporate America’s beloved “culture fit,” which makes being the only or one of few African-American people in a workplace challenging. Why? Many are faced with the “working while black” factor, where professionals of color are policing themselves to not be categorized to fit any stereotype that’s associated with black people in the work place.

“The internship that I have now is completely new, in a totally new area, and if I make a mistake, I feel like my mistake is going to be attributed to me being black, not because I’m still learning about this subject,” said Amanda Taylor, a 25-year-old student at the American University of Paris (AUP). “It puts pressure on me because I feel like if I [mess] up in this role, this is going to potentially mess up the opportunity for any other black person that comes afterwards. For us, our mistakes are attributed to our race, not us as individuals. It’s not going to be, ‘Amanda hasn’t learned X Y Z because of whatever reason,’ it’s going to be, ‘See, this is why we don’t need to be hiring black people because this is what’s going to happen.’”

On top of this, the media is also guilty of portraying black women as loud, difficult and demanding, said Taylor, who’s in the graduate global communications (MAGC) program.

“For me it’s crazy because I identify with all of those negative traits, and I aspire to be this soft delicate woman,” said Taylor. “I also don’t think that this should be looked at as a negative thing, but as an aspect of us. I think it’s a matter of showing more of the soft side of us.”

Negative typecasts have been placed on black women throughout American history. Like countless black men, enslaved black women were either desexualized or hypersexualized, but always dehumanized. They were stereotyped as ugly, barbaric, loud and sexually promiscuous. These allotted descriptors were used

as justifications for the mistreatment of black women. Sadly, these stereotypes followed black women through slavery, emancipation, the civil rights movement and into the 21st century.

In 2018, the same economic, political and social struggles African-American women faced more than five decades ago are still prevalent in today’s “progressive” modern society, not to mention the effects that slavery had within the black community that produced another ugly “ism,” colorism.

First-semester MAGC graduate student Michelah Brown, 23, knows the negative effects colorism can have on multi-racial women of color trying to figure out their identity in society. Brown’s maternal grandmother is Powhatan, Celtic and black, while her maternal grandfather is part Cherokee and black.

“I went to schools that were majority black,” Brown said. “I didn’t fit in either. I just felt neglected; alone because of skin tone. My personality has grown to be a strong independent person because it’s formed around how I look.”

Brown, who comes from a prominent family in Virginia, said she didn’t really experience a lot of racism growing up. Things slightly changed when she transferred high schools and started attending Duke Ellington School of the Arts in Washington D.C. Although she didn’t experience racism in high school, she felt a different isolation, one that questioned her “blackness.”

“When I went to Duke Ellington, I realized I was a different level of black,” she said. “I was told I wasn’t really black because of me being multi-racial. I felt like I got the ‘you’re not that black’ or ‘you’re not as black as us’ or ‘you don’t know what being black is’.”

She ended up graduating second in her class and went on to attend Manhattan College in New York City. While she loved life off campus in the Big Apple, her experience at the predominantly white Catholic university introduced her to a form of racism that she says is worse than societal racism.

“In school, I didn’t feel like I had a good learning environment, because I felt like all the pressure was on me just being black,” said Brown. “I was there because I worked really hard and I was smart. I just feel like, they had never experienced someone like that. I’ve never experienced that level of racism until I went there. It would be considered institutional racism, not societal racism, but that to me was worse.”

During her undergraduate years at Manhattan College, the Black Lives Matter movement was beginning to gain traction with the deaths of Trayvon Martin and Eric Garner. In 2012, 17-year-old Martin was fatally shot by George Zimmerman, a neighborhood watch volunteer in Florida. Zimmerman, who was acquitted of Martin’s death, said he feared for his life although the teen was unarmed.

In 2014, Garner, 43, died on a sidewalk in Staten Island, New York City, after being placed in a chokehold by an officer of the New York Police Department.

“My personality has grown to be a strong independent person because it’s formed around how I look.”

Officers were attempting to arrest him for selling untaxed loose cigarettes. Garner’s death sparked outrage across the country and many protests, in which Brown participated, took place.

“I did a ‘die-in’ for Eric Garner at Penn station; within those three hours, people tried to stop me,” she said. “Off-duty cops were yelling at us. I definitely thought that it was going to be more peaceful… but there I did find the community that I was looking for. I found people who wanted to do things that I wanted to do.”

Brown had been struggling to find a community where she belonged and found that kinship in her local Black Lives Matter group. In addition to community, she also gained clarity on her identity, purpose and self-empowerment.

“I became secure within myself,” Brown said. “As I was soul-searching, I found my blackness and how I defined who I was. I had to figure out who I was away from race to 100 percent accept myself within my race. I think a lot ofpeople want to define themselves based on their culture, which I think is very important, but I think it’s figuring out the way God made you and accepting that first, and then figuring out how being black defines who you are.”

So how do you find normalcy in society where you’re discriminated against twice? For 28-year-old Imani Barbarin, who was diagnosed from the waist down with spastic diplegia cerebral palsy at the age of two, that normalcy never really happens.

“I was always trying to get to normal regardless of what situation I was in,” she said. “Being someone with a disability, there’s no such thing as normal, but you’re always striving towards it. You’re always trying to gear yourself towards the type of room you’re in. You’re always pivoting to make sure that you don’t stick out in any one situation.”

The second-year MAGC student said creating her own lane has helped her deal with the challenges she faces daily but credits her mom for her fearless attitude. Barbarin wanted to be a ballerina, but no class would take her because of her disability. For a year, her mom went to their local dance school until a class was created for other children with disabilities, Barbarin said.

“Literally for a year, she went to this dance studio and asked every single day, ‘Are you going to create a class for disabled kids?’ It took her a year, but she got [the classes] started at that dance studio for me and a couple of friends. That’s the type of woman my mom is,” said Barbarin.

Described in her Twitter profile as a macaroon made of black girl magic, disabled pride and feminism, Barbarin runs the no holds barred blog Crutches and Spice, which focuses on her thoughts about the world around her and the life she and others live daily from the perspective of a black woman with cerebral palsy.

“I’ve been getting in a lot of trouble for things I say online,” she said. “I literally get calls from my dad saying, ‘Please take down what you just wrote.’”

As the laughter fades, Barbarin reveals that she’s not too optimistic about future employment opportunities in the United States, and doubts that she’ll ever be paid her worth. Hence the importance of creating her own opportunities via Crutches and Spice, in addition to looking for other professional avenues in Paris.

“In a capitalist society that judges value based on productivity, disabled people will always be devalued, so I just feel like those opportunities are hard to find,” she said. “There are opportunities for innovation, but we have to get over our individual prejudices for people to be put in the right positions, but I don’t see that happening on the scale that it needs to.”

Alexandra Julien moved to Paris from Boston in search of better career opportunities, and to provide a safer life for her two youngest children who are 15 and 13 years old. After the death of Trayvon Martin, Julien felt her son would have a better chance of avoiding police brutality, racism and other prejudices growing up in Paris.

“I came to France and am trying the best I can to stay because I don’t want to go back,” said Julien, who’s a graduate student in the international management program at AUP. “Being black here is also different. I think here, being educated and being black gives you a different status than it does in America for some reason.”

Julien, 42, is a Haitian-American who immigrated to the U.S. when she was 16 years old. Although she came to the U.S. with a high school diploma, Julien realized employment opportunities were limited. The only job she could get was being a nurse’s aide. While grateful to simply have a job, she wasn’t sure if the limited employment options were due to racial discrimination.

“Being an immigrant, it takes you a long time to see and know how you’re viewed because it takes a long time to take the image of where you came from to where you are,” she said. “When I realized I was a black woman in America, was when my daughter started going to school. I had my daughter when I was 19, so like around [the time I was] 24 or 25 [she was in kindergarten], and that’s when I realized what category we were put in.”

In Haiti, people weren’t judged based on color, but on social status. Julien’s parents were of a higher social status, but in Boston, they were seen as just Haitian. Julien started to understand the subtleties of racism with her oldest daughter when she was in public school, so she enrolled her in a private school. Julien relocated to California, where her oldest daughter went to college at 15 years old and graduated with a bachelor’s degree at 19.

By this time, she had her two youngest children and received an associate’s degree. Julien thought she’d be able to find a better paying job in Boston with her degree, but she realized quickly that those opportunities didn’t exist for her.

“I thought that I would be able to find something better in Boston,” she said. “I went back, and I had to the same old jobs again [as a nurse’s aide]. Again, you have the racism thing. In Boston, it’s really categorized.”

Julien decided to go back to school, where she received a bachelor’s degree from the University of Massachusetts (U Mass) and with her oldest daughter in graduate school at Harvard, she decided to move to Paris with her youngest children in hopes of living a more fulfilling life.

“I stress education,” Julien said. “In America, black women are the most educated ones right now (and also the most underpaid). I’ve been there, and I understood that I had to keep going with my education because without it, it’s worse.”

So how long will women of color have to hustle to prove their worth for career opportunities and adequate pay? This is a never-ending fight for black women, according to Brown who graduates in May 2019.

“I don’t think I’ll get paid the same as a white woman with a master’s,” she said. “I think having a master’s will help me get paid more money, but it won’t help get me paid what I’m worth. The master’s give me the leverage and ability to fight for more (money).”

While Taylor remains hopeful about being paid her worth, she’s not naive to the possibility of being “lowballed,” and believes this practice negates the independent woman rhetoric.

“If I’m going to company after company and they’re all low balling me, at that point, I have to do what I gotta do to survive,” she said. “As much as they want to push this ‘you’re independent’ rhetoric you’re still fighting against the whole system. And I think it’s so funny, if that was the case, that this requires me to rely on a man. If I’m not getting paid enough to support myself, now I have to find a partner to help balance it out. You’re going to need that second income and it becomes a need at that point and not necessarily a want. It’s a cycle, it keeps you in a cycle.”

Barbarin knows from previous work experience that employers will use her disability against her when hiring candidates for full-time positions.

“It’s legal in all but three states in the United States to pay disabled people under minimum wage,” she said. “When we talk about employment for insurance, employers will look at me and say she’s not a good fit because they’re going to have to pay insurance for me. So, I know I’m going to have a harder time finding a job in the U.S.”

Julien still believes that the key factor for the empowerment of the black woman is education.

“Education empowers black women period,” she said. “We don’t have the same type of power that a white uneducated woman has. Here [in Paris], I feel like this is a second life for me. It’s like I’m seeing things so differently. Things that were so invisible to me are so clear now about race, about how much I lost from being in my own country and coming here.”

Higher education is non-negotiable for the future success of a black woman. And while a degree is a component of empowerment for women of color, being fearless and creating your own lane proves to be more beneficial when it comes to self and professional worth. Generational wealth and privilege are luxuries many women of color will never live to experience, but one thing is for certain, the black woman is to never be underestimated.