Black Women and Social Good
Women of color have historically suffered the exploitation of their labor, and the social justice sector is no exception. Organizations addressing social good thrive less as a meritocracy and more through old, inherited wealth and power networks. This puts new arrivals, women, and persons of color at a distinct disadvantage. When social justice organizations are unable or unwilling to advance conversations about racial equity, both internally and externally, everyone loses: the community served, the staff working to serve them, and the donor base supporting their work.
This industry-based imbalance between funding and front line is showcased through HBO’s Insecure, a show that uses comedy to highlight the racial dynamics of nonprofit spaces. The lead character remarks in the show, the leadership founded the organization to help children “from the hood” but failed to actually hire anyone from the demographic they sought to reach. As a result, the only Black employee, is reduced to being a clumsy gateway into what the social good organization is desperately trying to achieve. Though a fictional character, this “invisible” woman is a character that represents more the norm than the minority.
Women of color often feel invisible at work, and justifiably so. Research has shown black women’s statements were remembered less quickly and less accurately than those of their white female and male peers. Leadership has a responsibility to identify and train in defiance of this unconscious bias and openly call out instances where efficient and contributing work is being under-appreciated or ignored. They must also highlight the contributions of achieving women through formal and informal communication channels, so the praise is “on the record."
Unconscious bias often makes dealing transparently with race and work relationships difficult. Robin DiAngelo, bestselling author of White Fragility: Why It’s So Hard for White People to Talk About Racism explains well-intentioned white people doing anti-racist and social justice work, the first meaningful step is to recognize their fragility around racial issues. DiAngelo has been helping to lead workplace seminars since the nineties, and she has encountered some resistance. “When we try to talk openly and honestly about race,” she writes, “we are so often met with silence, defensiveness, argumentation, certitude, and other forms of pushback.” To explain this phenomenon, she coined the phrase white fragility. This fragility makes authentic conversation regarding race, mentorship and sponsorship, and promotion difficult when it comes to the contributions of women of color.
Many people consider for profits more capable of operating under morally bankrupt leadership and as ethically corruptible than organizations that purpose to provide a social good. This means conversations surrounding the lack of diversity tend toward for profits such as giant technology companies and away from not for profit and purpose-driven organizations.
So how can leadership move past racial fragility, past unconscious bias, and past overt racism to help women of color make meaningful contributions that honor their experience and expertise to the social good?
- Give yourself a break and own your bias. Having unconscious biases doesn’t make you a bad person. After all, they were formed in an unconscious process based on external information starting way back in early childhood. The strategy of categorization that gives rise to unconscious bias is a normal aspect of human cognition. Understanding this important concept can help individuals approach their own biases in a more informed and open way.
- Look for issues through assessments. Survey your team to find out what’s going on in the workplace. Talk with employees, particularly women and minorities, to ask them what biases they have witnessed in the organization and the effects these have had on their careers. Confront the conversation. Ask women of color if they feel their gender and ethnicity negatively affects their ability to make meaningful contributions and connections.
- Present diversity to challenge internal bias. One of the biggest barriers toward a thriving, diverse community is stereotype threat; the unconscious tendency to fulfill the “prophecy” of stereotypes held against them. Leaders can challenge this self-fulfilling prophesy in their front lines by demonstrating inspirational individuals and role models of diverse identities. Encourage a diverse range of leaders to speak at company events, and ensure that visual representations of successful individuals are broadly representative. In the Journal of Experimental Social Psychology a study indicated women performed better in public speaking and evaluated themselves more positively when they were primed with images Hillary Clinton and Angela Merkel than when they saw Bill Clinton or weren't shown images at all. Seeing is believing.
Social good requires impact that enhances the life of a cause or agenda. Ensuring women of color - and every other identity group - are represented in the workplace and are able to contribute to the social good at their highest capacity is a good all people should embrace.