I’ve never been described as a wallflower. An introvert with learned extrovert behaviors, maybe. I am not shy about speaking my mind or telling you how I feel. But, as a Black woman, I’ve learned that society does not expect, or support this behavior from me.
Let me give you an example. I am a journalist and I was once working in a newsroom when a woman who was some years my junior and less experienced professionally, decided that she didn’t like the way I spoke to her. To confront me about this, she followed me into the make-up room and raised her voice aggressively. I’m sure you see the irony.
Concerned that I needed witnesses, I left the door open and when she tried to push it closed, I politely, but firmly instructed her not to. I have learned that, as a Black woman, even with witnesses you’ll likely be blamed for an altercation. With very little evidence, we’re accused of bullying, threatening and being otherwise unreasonable. And if it were to turn into a situation of her word versus mine, I had no hope.
Unfortunately, that’s exactly what happened. Once we’d agreed to disagree, she left the make-up room and sobbed to some of her co-workers, giving them her version of events. She cried in front of my line manager. Others who she’d spoken to also spoke to my manager, despite not having been in the room. But when I tried to speak to my manager, I was told she wasn’t interested in hearing anything about it from me.
Eventually, an HR mediation took place with management and the following few months were extremely challenging. Many of my colleagues sided with the other woman – the one that looked more like them – finding it easy to believe that I had been the aggressor, despite my never having started an argument or raised my voice in all my time there.
Her privilege was that she could choose to raise her voice without repercussion. To loudly say ‘no’ when things weren’t to her liking. I did everything I could to avoid inflaming the situation and I still came out of it worse off. And that is prejudice at play.
You might think, ‘I would never do what that woman did. I am an ally.’ And in turn, I would ask you, ‘would all the Black women who deal with you be certain that you are?’
Maya Angelou once said, ‘Each time a woman stands up for herself, without knowing it possibly, without claiming it, she stands up for all women.’ While this is true, there is another nuance. When a Black woman stands up for herself, she is standing up for other Black women, but she must also be willing to pay the price.
I did everything I could to avoid inflaming the situation and I still came out of it worse off
With the price being heavy – like being totally isolated at work, where you spend so much of your time – many of us learn never to argue, to rock the boat, or to ask for anything other than the minimum. And this modern-day servitude is encouraged by managers and colleagues, even junior ones. Visibly othered already, these are the further, insidious ways of ensuring that Black women keep ‘their place.’
For me, allyship starts with language. And there is language used unthinkingly, by people with good intentions, which further abets the racial divide. The first and clearest example of this is lumping people of different skin colours into single categories. Even the line, ‘And imagine how much worse this is if you are Black or Brown,’ sets my teeth on edge. I understand that it comes from a well-meaning place. It’s people recognising their ‘privilege’, showing they care. But it’s still a sweeping statement which alludes to Black and Brown people as a mass of poverty, disadvantage, and lack of privilege. It places a whole group of people beneath the person speaking, asserting the speaker’s superiority.
These sweeping terms erase the vast, multi-layered, and complex nature of Black experience. Although arguably good intentioned, actually it is part of the same pigeonholing that assumed me to be the antagonist rather than my colleague, because I am a Black woman. The same narrative that paints me as aggressive if I say ‘no,’ even if I am just asserting my right to push back against something I don’t like.
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So, I challenge everyone who sees themselves as an ally to consider: ‘Which Black women are in your life? Do you feel ‘threatened’ when a Black woman challenges you, disagrees or pushes back? Which Black women would you respect as your senior and manager, without balking at their assertions of authority?’ I say this, because I have dozens of stories just like the one I’ve told, in which people who would otherwise consider themselves allies or anti-racist, react unjustifiably to a Black woman telling them what to do.
Posting a black square, sharing stories of injustice and writing ‘ally’ in your social media bios doesn’t make you one. In many cases, this can actually be disempowering and diminishing. If you want to show real allyship, you have to do the work. And that begins with affording a Black woman the right to push back. Seeing her as an individual with a unique story, who has her own reasons for every decision she makes and every utterance from her mouth.
And if you’re willing to do that work, here are a couple of other things to think about too:
- Look at your social activities, who were the last 20 people you hung around with by choice? Who are the friends that feature in your social media posts?
- Do you only have tense or awkward relationships with the Black women in your life? If you’re brave enough and feel safe enough, ask them why. And if you notice yourself immediately trying to shut them down, or tell them why they’re wrong, you need to deal with that tendency.
- Go back over your encounters with Black women and think about the language you use and how you choose to relate them. Are they ‘sassy’ and ‘fierce,’ but never ‘smart’ and ‘emotionally intelligent’?
- Please don’t be surprised when Black women perform well at work or speak articulately, those qualities aren’t exclusive to other races.
This is not meant to provoke a shame spiral. Instead, this is an opportunity to be open to more relationships with different kinds of people that will make your life richer and allow you to be the kind of ally you aspire to be.
And to Black women I say, the price is high but I’ve been willing to pay it, every time. I will not give away my power simply because other people think I shouldn’t have it. If I pay the price for you, and you pay it for me, eventually we will see change.
Still we rise.
Genelle Aldred is the author of Communicate for Change, which is out now, published by SPCK Publishing. You can learn more from her at her Instagram page @genellealdred or her website www.genellealdred.com
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