Before I began writing full time, I worked in social services. After a few years at one organization, I started a new job as a supervisor at a group home agency for adults with developmental disabilities. I was really excited about the opportunity to make a difference in the lives of our clients. This new agency was tough, which had more to do with low staff morale than our clients’ needs, but I faced also an unforeseen challenge: rumours about my leadership.
The homes I was assigned to had numerous staff that were notorious for challenging their supervisors, and that is what happened to me. Soon after starting, I caught some of the staff in my charge lying and undermining my authority. One employee filed a grievance against me based on information that was later proven to be completely false. I brought multiple other instances of staff issues to the attention of senior management, but each time, they disregarded my concerns. My manager even attended one of my staff meetings where an employee was openly disrespectful—interrupting me, sighing loudly as I spoke, making snide comments—and still asked me how I was going to change my approach to get along better with my staff. I had watched senior management support my colleagues through other more trivial matters, but I couldn’t get one of them to listen to me. After too many instances of being undermined and unheard, I eventually quit. The day I handed in my resignation, I overheard a senior manager say “I guess she wasn’t the shining star we thought she was. She just couldn’t cut it.”
This experience is emblematic of one of the biggest issues facing Black women today: When we speak, the world refuses to listen.
My Blackness and womanhood are among my strengths, but living in a society that upholds white and male identities is a constant reminder that not everyone recognizes my value. One of the easiest ways to express your contempt for another person’s humanity is to simply ignore them—and this is an obstacle that many Black women face.
After Donald Trump won the U.S. presidential election and it was revealed that 53 percent of white women voters were among his supporters, the hashtag #ListenToBlackWomen grew in popularity on social media. Black women globally have been speaking out about systemic inequalities for decades—in politics, criminal justice, housing, socioeconomics, and more. We’ve also shared our perspectives on what will push society forward to a more equitable future. However, it wasn’t until Trump entered the White House that America—and the world at large— turned a more attentive ear to the words of Black women.
We’ve been telling the world about the nuances of gender pay disparity. We’ve been telling the world about discrepancies in the education system. We’ve been telling the world about what Black trans women need in order to survive and thrive. These have not been new conversations by any means—but it seems that only recently have our experiences been deemed valid enough to be part of the larger conversation.
And why is that? Why is it that now, when the world seems to be speeding to hell in a handbasket, people have just started to heed our words? On one hand, those more privileged than us are starting to feel what it’s like to face adversity, like white women who are quick to protest with pink pussy hats and cheeky signs. Where were they all those times when Black Lives Matter marched for equality? Additionally, signs sporting the dramatic expression of “Black women will save us!” may be meant well, but it’s dangerously reminiscent of the historic practice of using Black women’s labour to benefit others (*cough* mammy caricature, anyone? *cough*).
Beauty vlogger Jackie Aina recently used her popular YouTube channel to call out brands that have long ignored Black women’s needs and buying power. “I’m tired of being ignored and I’m tired of people who look like me getting stepped on,” she said. Some brands, like It Cosmetics, that have been similarly called out on social media for their poor shade offerings, actually heard those complaints and have pledged to do better. Time will tell if more brands actually start to listen, too.
In Hollywood, as in other industries, discussions on gender wage gaps rarely ever touch on the fact that while white women make less than men, Black women and other women of colour make even less. Even though Black women have been talking about this for years, it wasn’t until recently that Tracee Ellis Ross, Mo’Nique, Taraji P. Henson and Octavia Spencer were able to make headlines regarding drastic wage differences in their careers. Actress Jessica Chastain finally got it when Spencer explained the reality of the situation, and she did better than listen—she took action, tying her contract to Spencer’s resulting in a pay rate that was five times more than the initial offer.
We need to be heard in order to thrive
The other side of the coin is the fact that Black women deserve to be listened to, not just to make the world better, but for our own self-preservation. Civil rights activist and author Zora Neale Hurston once said, “If you are silent about your pain, they’ll kill you and say you enjoyed it.” Black women have long been vocal about our pain, our obstacles, our desires, our goals—and ignoring that only diminishes our very valid experiences. Black women have fought to have our experiences with sexual harassment and assault heard and for our abusers to face necessary consequences, most recently with the #MuteRKelly hashtag, which started in response to the expose about the singer’s rampant abuse of women. Independent designer Destiney Bleu was very vocal when she accused Khloe Kardashian of stealing her dbleudazzled designs, tweeting that “Dazzle is my livelihood. I pay 3 rents. 5 employees. I hand-make everything… I’ll always fight for this.”
I’ve found myself in similar battles numerous times. Leaving my previous career in social services didn’t eliminate incidents of being ignored or underestimated. Last year, I pitched a publication with a story idea that had nothing to do with race—but the editor, a white woman, dismissed me because the magazine recently had another Black woman write for them, and they “didn’t want to inundate the audience with too much ‘culture’ stuff.” She proceeded to tell me that as a Black woman, I should aim to write pieces that “aren’t just about Black women,” or I should look to movements like Black Lives Matter for inspiration. I promptly emailed back to challenge her feedback, pointing out all the ways that her response proved she didn’t pay attention to anything I wrote. My usual hesitation to not be seen as an “Angry Black Woman” disappeared, because I was so firm in my convictions that this editor ignored everything I said in my original email. She replied and admitted that she did judge me based on the photo she saw of me in my Gmail account, apologized, and invited me to pitch her again in the future. I never have.
Making space for ourselves
For every prominent Black woman like Octavia Spencer and Jackie Aina who are publicly fighting to be heard, there are millions more of us doing the same in our everyday lives. Whether we’re urging employers to balance the wage gaps like Spencer, or being overlooked or undermined in the workplace like I was, the issue of our words and experiences not being valued needs to be rectified.
As we always do, Black women continue to push the needle forward in efforts to make change and be heard. We’re creating spaces for ourselves when we haven’t been granted a seat at the table, like the Black Moms Connection created by Toronto’s Tanya Hayles or Emily Mills’ CBC-supported HERstory In Black project. Or we’re finding ways to fund the dreams and ambitions of Black women, like the Black Women Being Fund from the Safety Pin Box allyship program. Black women hear each other and act in whatever way we can to support each other. We just need the rest of the world to catch up.
This article was originally published on February 8, 2018.