White Women: How to Show Up as Allies at Work
We can all agree 2020 has been a disaster that has particularly harmed women. But relatively few white women recognize interracial sisterhood is the only way out. Women need our collective power to take on the patriarchy and transform politics, work, home, and society so we can all thrive.
For women to unite, white women must demonstrate over a sustained period of time that we can be trusted. Right now, Black women and women of color have every reason not to trust us, a distrust that originated in slavery. Stephanie Jones-Taylor documents that 40% of slaveowners were white women who showed no mercy in They Were Her Property: White Women as Slaveowners in the American South.
Long past emancipation, Black women implored white women to see their suffering and unite with them, but we turned our privileged eyes away, considered ourselves superior, and ignored them, often inflicting harm ourselves, as Angela Y. Davis wrote in her history of feminism in the United States, Women, Race, and Class. The photo below is of Sojourner Truth who commanded white women to look at her and see she was a woman, too.
We all come into the contemporary workplace bearing baggage: intergenerational “White-body supremacy trauma” in the words of Resmaa Menakem: “a trauma that we all — including white identified individuals, communities and systems — integrate into our bodies and structures. We need to address this trauma directly in our bodies — not just in our minds.”
Because on the whole, white women have not faced our past, taken accountability for the harm we have caused and actually transformed, strong friendships between Black and white women are a relative rarity, and “There’s a Divide in Even the Closest Interracial Friendships, Including Ours,” as Aminatou Sow and Ann Friedman reveal in their powerful new book. I live in the Bay Area, a majority people of color region in a majority people of color state, yet nine times out of 10, if a white woman invites me to a social event, almost everyone there is white, and if a Black woman invites me to a social event, I am one of maybe two white women who are there. We don’t know each other and we don’t know each other’s stories.
Most white women- 81%- consider ourselves allies to women of color, according to a June 2020 survey by Lean In and Survey Monkey. Yet only 45% of Black women and 55% of Latinas report having strong allies at work, according to the same survey.
In fact, 45% of Black women report that work is the place where they most often experience racism, according to a 2020 Essence survey. Black women make .62 for each dollar a white man makes 233 years after they were valued as 3/5ths human in the US Constitution. Today, August 13, 2020 is Black Women’s Equal Pay Day, meaning how far into 2020 Black women on average had to work to earn what non-Latinx white men on average earned in 2019. In 2019, women of color represented 18% of entry-level corporate workers, yet only 4% of C-suite executives (Lean In & McKinsey, Women in the Workplace 2019). The emotional challenges of being “the Only” in the workplace are well-documented: The Memo: What Women of Color Need to Know to Secure a Seat at the Table by Minda Harts, Eloquent Rage by Dr. Brittney Cooper, and This is Major by Shayla Lawson all explain this pain in excruciating detail.
Like many white women, I grew up in a virtually all white community and did not really meet many women of color until college. Unlike many white women, throughout my career I have worked for diverse organizations leading diverse teams, largely reporting to women of color, who were excellent mentors and role models. Emulating them, I learned how to relate across difference as equals and build relationships based in trust. I experienced sexual harassment, wage gap, and glass ceiling from white men in the workplace, but the most harmful workplace behavior came from white women who viewed me as a threat to their proximity to white men in power. I dedicated ten years of my career to mentoring young adults of color as they began careers. Building relationships with them forced me to confront my racism.
In 2014, I was fixated on the Ferguson uprising. Mike Brown could have easily been one of the young men I mentored, and I was devastated when Darren Wilson wasn’t indicted for killing him. A few weeks later, my friends and mentees Keren Atalor and Dom Jones, Black women launching careers in tech, and I met for brunch in Oakland- that’s a photo of us below. Listening to them describe the toxic comments white women told them at work inspired me to stop preparing young adults of color for the workplace and start preparing the workplace for young adults of color. I founded Racy Conversations and become a workplace antiracism workshop facilitator.
Distrust between Black and white women grew on November 9, 2016, when 47% of white women voted for a proud pussygrabber over one of our own, while 98+% of Black women voted for a white woman. According to USC professor Jane Junn, there have only been two Presidential elections since 1952 when a majority of white women have voted for a Democratic candidate:
If white women show up on November 3, 2020, the date of the Presidential general election, the way we did in 2016 we can FORGET about ever earning the trust of Black women and women of color.
To get womxn and GNC folx talking with each other across age, race, class, and sexual orientation, Laura Haykel and I began hosting Inclusive Conversations throughout the United States in 2017. The photo below is of the January 2020 Inclusive Conversation at the Betti Ono gallery in Oakland.
I wish more white women would have engaged in these conversations, been moved, and actually changed.
Since the 2020 Black Lives Matter uprising initiated by 17 year old Black girl Darnella Frazier recording George Floyd’s murder by Minneapolis PD, white women executives from several companies have resigned under pressure for allowing racism to flourish, including: Yael Aflalo, founder of women’s clothing brand Reformation, Audrey Gelman, co-founder of female co-working space The Wing, and Christine Barbarich, co-founder of women’s lifestyle publication Refinery29. Amy Cooper, a Vice President at Franklin Templeton, was fired in June 2020 for calling the cops and falsely reporting being attacked by Christian Cooper, a Black man. Adidas’ head of global human resources Karen Parkin retired due to Black employees’ complaints of lack of diversity. Nancy Lublin, CEO of Crisis Text Line, was fired after staff revolted on Twitter. Talk show host Ellen Degeneres is being held to account for allegedly creating a toxic work environment by former and current team members.
Staff of color are holding leaders of feminist organizations accountable for their racism.
Like writer Ashley Reese and the former Wing employees she interviewed for her article How the Wing’s Empire Was Built on Trauma, Racism, and Neglect, I am fearful that these ousted white women executives will not engage in an accountability process and actually transform but will disappear for a while, emerge later as leaders of other organizations, and cause more harm.
This has been white women’s playbook since the 1970s: “Lean In,” please the patriarchy, focus on our individual career advancement as highly educated professionals, and prepare and connect our kids to do the same.
We must learn to relate across difference as equals
In 1980, Black feminist lesbian mother revolutionary poet Audre Lorde gave a speech, Age, Race, Class, and Sex: Women Redefining Difference explaining why women failed to secure the Equal Rights Amendment to the US Constitution. Lorde said “we have no patterns of relating across our human differences as equals,” and therefore whenever we try to unite and create social change, we harm each other and make little progress. To achieve our collective liberation, she told us we needed to create new ways of relating, where we acknowledge our differences yet do not view any of us superior or inferior in any way. The picture below is Megan Rapinoe, Captain of the US Women’s Soccer Team, playing in a jersey acknowledging Lorde as her shero in 2019. Beneath her are the North Carolina Courage and Portland Thorns soccer teams kneeling side by side before a game in July 2020.
Here are some practices white women can adopt today to relate across difference as equals, earn the trust of Black women and other women of color, and work together to create workplaces and communities where everyone thrives.
Put our best foot forward
Because white women have such a long legacy of harm, we have to initiate relationships and demonstrate through our behavior that we can be trusted before Black women and other women of color will believe in us.
- Learn how to pronounce her name correctly. Don’t say “That’s so exotic!”
- Err on the side of formality- don’t use slang you would not ordinarily say in order to appear cool
- Listen more, talk less
- Be humble
- Understand the history and the context (at the end of this post I suggest books)
- Don’t make assumptions — ask open-ended questions
- Don’t interrogate
- Don’t pretend to be “colorblind”
- Treat women of color as individuals, not as representatives of their entire group
- Don’t come empty handed. Bring a gift, pay for lunch, send cash for selfcare
- Convey respect with eye contact, choice of words, and tone
- Don’t ask if you can touch her hair
- If she tells you a story about something she has experienced, believe her
- Don’t tell her she’s exaggerating or misinterpreting her own experience
- Don’t compare anything you have been through to what she is going through
- Connect her to folks in your network who can be helpful to her
- Whatever you offer to do to help her, keep your commitment
- Maintain confidentiality
Take consistent, intentional antiracist action
Earning the trust of Black women requires we do much more than initiate relationships.
White women, we must ACT, continuously, to dismantle racism.
Learn to recognize racism:
“the belief in the inherent superiority of one race above all others, and thereby the right to dominance” -Audre Lorde
Become an antiracist: “one who is supporting an antiracist policy through their actions or expressing an antiracist idea”
-Ibram X. Kendi
- Radically disavow yourself of your superiority. Study your family’s history to find the origin of your privilege. Practice self care so you can metabolize your grief, guilt, and shame, and show up present, calm, and ready. DO NOT ask Black women to assuage you of your guilt or tell you you’re not racist.
- With each decision, intentionally create opportunities across difference.
- Dwell in discomfort and make others uncomfortable. Hold the powerful to account.
- Sacrifice and take risks.
- Be clear, unapologetic, the same in public and private, consistent in word and deed, and persistent over time.
- Be present, notice when harm is occurring, and intervene.
- When people point out to you you are causing harm, receive the feedback with grace, thank them, and apologize.
- Take accountability, strive to learn, stay current, and continuously improve.
- Pay reparations.
- Vote, protest, testify, and hold public officials accountable for antiracist policy change.
When you see something, say something
Like many white women, I was raised to avoid conflict. But now I have come to embrace it, it’s how change happens, how new ways of doing things emerge. As Frederick Douglass taught us, “power concedes nothing without a demand.”
I still talk myself out of saying something at times, although in reality the risk is minimal, as Dana Brownlee explores in her article 5 Disturbing Signs That You Might Not Be an Antiracist After All.
Different contexts call for different interventions, here’s four:
That’s racist! Effective, easy to remember, to the point, for when you want to say something but are struggling with exactly what to say.
That’s racist to claim that Mary was only hired because of affirmative action!
I couldn’t help but notice X, could we Y? This is for real time intervention requiring finesse, for example in a meeting when you see your colleague getting talked over, or someone taking credit for her idea.
“I couldn’t help but notice Mary wants to add to our conversation,
could we listen to her?”
I used to think….. then I learned…….. now I think ……. For when your in-laws or someone else with whom you have a long-term relationship says something racist. You may never convince them to change their beliefs, but if you say nothing, your other relatives will believe you think what they said is ok.
I used to think “All Lives Matter,” then I learned how currently people discriminate against Black people in every aspect of their lives, harming them and holding them back, and now I think when people stop discriminating against Black people and they have the same outcomes in every aspect of their lives as non-Black people, when we treat Black people as if their lives matter equally to all other lives,
all lives will matter.
I noticed you just did x/said y. What were you thinking when you did that? This was your impact. Take accountability for the impact. For a colleague as an afterwards intervention. Often a good idea to check in with the party you perceive as being harmed first.
I noticed you just were disrespectful of Mary. What were you thinking when you said that? You may have thought that was funny, but it made Mary feel like she does not belong. Go to her and apologize.
When you are held to account, receive feedback with grace
This is so important, if you want to get better, you have to learn how to receive feedback in a way that will encourage people to offer it.
- Say thank you
- Don’t make it about you
- Try not to repeat
- Work on overcoming bias
Questions to ask yourself every day
- How can I intentionally create opportunities today? Business decisions, stretch assignments, mentorship, sponsorship, promotion, preparation, connection, feedback, investment, benefit of doubt, risk-taking, intervention, etc.
- How many diverse perspectives went into making this decision?
- When hiring for this position did I consider anyone outside of my network? Did I wait to make a hire until we had a diverse slate, or rush to hire someone I knew?
- Does my work serve and represent all consumers well?
- In my privilege, am I assuming this subject matter is inclusive of everyone?
- What am I doing to intentionally share my social capital across difference?
Most importantly, aim for “accountability, not perfection” in the words of Black Womxn For, a political organization
The harm racism causes is real. Allies must start addressing it immediately, whether or not we believe we are “ready.”
So many would-be white allies are paralyzed with fear of being called out for doing the wrong thing, and want to keep reading books and talking about how terrible racism is with other white allies. I’ve been there myself. It’s really cozy doing that.
Trouble is, it doesn’t do anything to end racism.
Allies take action. We make mistakes.Women of color are not a monolith, and some are going to appreciate how you ally and others will not and hold you to account for it.
Just try, try not to cause harm, and when you do, don’t make it about you, thank the person who pointed it out to you, apologize, reflect and don’t do it again. Often I will write a womxn who held me to account weeks later, thank her again, and share how I have applied her feedback.
And DON’T FORGET TO VOTE BIDEN/HARRIS on November 3, 2020!
Resources for further learning
Law professor and scholar Kimberle Crenshaw originated intersectionality, founded the #SayHerName campaign to draw attention to Black women and girls harmed by police, and founded the African American Policy Forum. There are a lot of great resources on the AAPF website.
Two shorter reads that are excellent: What it Means to be a True Ally to Women of Color by Kharma Kelley Age, Race, Class and Sex: Women Redefining Difference by Audre Lorde. I recommend reading everything by Audre Lorde, including Sister Outsider Zami: A New Spelling of My Name. A great book on how gendered racism impacts Black men in the workplace: No More Invisible Man: Race and Gender in Men’s Work by Adia Harvey Wingfield.
To understand how we got here, I recommend White Rage: The Unspoken Truth of Our Racial Divide by Carol Anderson and Stamped from the Beginning: The Definitive History of Racist Ideas in America by Ibram X. Kendi. To better understand #BlackLivesMatter, I highly recommend When They Call You a Terrorist a memoir by BLM co-founder Patrisse Khan-Cullors & Asha Bandele.
I personally find the Implicit Association Test overwhelming, but many people find it useful to uncover their biases. Biased by Dr. Jennifer Eberhardt shows how unconscious bias drives our behavior and choices.
For non-Black people on the path of personal transformation, Me and White Supremacy by Layla F. Saad is excellent. For all people, My Grandmother’s Hands by Resmaa Menakem has really useful exercises for self discovery and healing, and How to Be an Antiracist by Ibram X. Kendi and So You Want to Talk About Race by Ijeoma Oluo are great resources to get started.
For parents to teach and learn with our kids, This Book is Antiracist by Tiffany Jewell and Stamped: Racism, Antiracism, and You by Jason Reynolds and Ibram X. Kendi. I also love Tim and Moby videos on BrainPop for younger kids, Teen Vogue videos made by young people for young people, and 26 Mini-Films for Exploring Race, Bias and Identity With Students.
Karen Fleshman Esq. she/her is a single soccer mom, mentor, activist, entrepreneur, attorney, author, educator, and proud San Franciscan. She is the founder of Racy Conversations, a workshop facilitation company, with a mission to inspire the antiracist generation. She is seeking a publisher for her first book White Women We Need to Talk: Doing Our Part to End Racism.
This post includes highlights of a conversation Minda Harts, author of The Memo: What Women of Color Need to Know to Secure a Seat at the Table, Stephanie Elam, CNN Correspondent and Karen Fleshman had on “The Other Ceiling: Bridging the Gap Between Black and White Women in the Workplace” for WarnerMedia and She Runs It on August 6, 2020.
Two upcoming opportunities to engage in Racy Conversations:
White Parents, Let’s Talk: Doing Our Part to End Racism August 24, 2020
White Women Dismantling White Supremacy August 27, 2020