Has your boss ever said:
“You oversold yourself during the interview.”
“You are not meeting expectations.”
“You don’t know your place.”
“You go by that name at work?”
“Or my favorite, “You seem angry.”
If not, imagine hearing statements like these over and over again from the person to whom you report.
Now, imagine being a Black woman and hearing these statements from white bosses.
I’ve heard them all, and more.
For a long time, I thought I was the only one. The same cycle of experiences from one job to the next. I work harder, tow the political line, and change my name to get ahead. None of that worked.
Three years ago, I got a wakeup call.
First, I realized that my friends, professional colleagues, and myself—all Black women—were hearing the same criticisms across various industries. We would get together and whisper about our work situations in dark restaurant corners over happy hour and discuss which alternative doctor we were seeing or what new vitamin or herbal formula we were trying. Every conversation focused on managing work-related stress.
After six months of watching talented women with multiple degrees transition out of organizations due to handily-crafted funding cuts, reorganization, and poor job performance reviews, I declared, “I should be neither ashamed nor quiet; these stories of modern-day oppression must be told for our healing and our progress.” This freedom song is the result.
Dear Sirs, I realize that I don’t look like success to you.
From Jim Crow to current, unwritten rules and cultural norms practiced by individuals within institutions maintain an American underclass. Some of these customs exist to ensure that Black women do not persist in their education nor advance in their careers.
I am a Black woman. I am a professional. I reside in the San Francisco Bay Area. I am free. My name is Precious.
The people that I work with are not masterful. Their stale strategies are tried and true. Some tactics left me questioning my professional ability and seeing myself only through the disapproving eyes of my superiors. One scenario prompted my career coach to later ask, “How exactly did you lose your confidence so quickly?”
The acts by senior team members are not personal. Rather, they are learned behaviors that reside in workplaces like fatal viruses. Slowly killing the ambition, promotability, and confidence of women, people of color, and other marginalized populations while maintaining the status quo.
To all of this, my body responded vehemently.
I began to suffer migraine headaches, develop a skin rash, and experience weight gain. I know that many Black women lose their hair and develop auto-immune diseases from stress; it was clear that would be my future if I did not make an immediate change.
After regaining my health, I vowed that I would do everything in my power to help prepare the girls who are coming behind me.
In 2014, I began documenting examples of how structural racism and sexism manifest in the workplace, and I started conversations with family and friends about race and gender equity in professional settings. I realized that by studying how Black women have survived in this post-affirmative action era, we can empower the next generation to thrive.
The BlackFemaleProject was born.
The BlackFemaleProject is a transmedia storytelling effort that aims to prepare girls and young women for the realities of the work world by introducing stories of triumph and perseverance. Real women with satisfying careers discuss what it takes to maintain professional leadership. Early into the story collection, two contributors asked for a space to collaborate and share with others in real time.
Many Black women struggle to make sense of their workplace experiences and yearn for a place to be in conversation with other Black women about professional success.
An unplanned outcome, the Conversation Series is now the most immediately impactful element of the project and it prioritizes creating an emotionally safe space for intergenerational groups of women talk openly about workplace experiences and topics related to the BlackFemaleProject.
The BlackFemaleProject uses various media and techniques to collect stories; promote community healing and conversation in the Bay Area, New York City, and Washington, D.C.; conduct research; and share findings. Although stories are being collected across the U.S., the Conversation Series has become the most immediately impactful and inspirational project component.
What participants are saying:
“When we started the Project I was a little distressed at work and ready to quit my job. Coming to sit with women from different industries let me know that I wasn’t crazy and was extremely empowering. Going through this process and hearing stories from women on the East Coast reenergized my spirit. Now, I go into work with a new mission, new insight and new goals. I’m feeling like a whole lot of Black Girl Magic every day!”
-Ché Abram, Higher Education
“I stepped into this Project with the thought that I would be giving, contributing, and sharing, not realizing how much I’d be receiving. That is a critical point to make because I felt like I was going to counseling whenever I met with my sister-friends. I was able to talk through things that were happening at work and even talk through things that had happened previously that I hadn’t quite processed or talked about yet. For me, that was the ultimate gift that I was not even expecting to receive.”
-Dania W. Frink, Marketing and Visual Arts
“The Project provided an avenue for me to see things through a different lens. Now I go to work and think of it as providing a lesson learned for someone else. I make sure that I take note of things that happen on a daily basis. It totally changed the lens I look through. Also, it is good to be around Black women that are making professional strides; these are things that you don’t always see. Having time to interact with one another and then see people commuting to work and giving them a hug or a head nod—yeah, that’s priceless.”
-Fern A. Stroud, Information Technology
The BlackFemaleProject and accompanying Conversation Series create a space for truth telling affirmation and healing for Black women. When we come together and share, past trauma is released and our lessons learned provide a roadmap for others.
I am committed to my own healing.
It is documented that Black women lack the sponsorship that leads to high profile assignments and promotion. Forty-four percent of professional Black women report feeling stalled according to the 2014 Black Women Ready to Lead report from the Center for Talent Innovation.
“I look at the faces of Black women every day. I see their pain and wonder, what can we collectively contribute to reduce their stress? I hear them say, “I’m good!” But I know they are hurting. I hear them ponder, “Why am I here?” How can they overcome the systems that keep them weighed down so low? Their energy is snatched from them, yet we expect them to thrive. … We must do more to protect the lives of Black women.”
-Rev. Dr. Judith Moore, from Black Women in the United States 2015, The National Coalition on Black Civic Participation’s Black Woman’s Roundtable
*Precious J. Stroud is the founder of BlackFemaleProject and resides in the San Francisco Bay Area where she is lead consultant for PJS Consultants, a marketing communications collective.
A version of this article appeared in Daisy Magazine's March/April 2016 edition. BlackFemaleProject was honored to make a contribution to Daisy, a bimonthly lifestyle and small business publication that focuses on individuals, organizations and companies that make a positive impact in urban, small and middle America. Maria Edwards publishes six issues per year in her mother, Daisy's, memory.