May 17, 2020

As I neared the end of my Masters degree program it was time to prepare for next steps. I was unsure about whether I would look for a full-time job or pursue doctoral studies, but I knew the Career Development office could help. I couldn’t just go to anybody though.

Mrs. Billye is the quintessential auntie, a Black woman from the corporate world turned higher ed career services professional, southern belle, and fashionista. She loves deeply and speaks frankly. Everybody needs a Mrs. Billye in their lives.

In the same way that college has a hidden curriculum that holds historically marginalized student groups to implicit expectations, so does the workplace for people historically isolated from professional settings. There are rules that don’t show up in a handbook and won’t be covered in orientation, but you better believe that you will be expected to adhere to (un)said expectations. When we apply for the job, people of color are expected to fulfill two different sets of criteria- one of which is unwritten:

  • Candidate must be willing and able to assimilate five days a week and any evening or weekend work hours
  • Candidate must be willing and able to code switch
  • Candidate must adhere to social expectations that keep White people comfortable and simultaneously peak their curiosity including, but not limited to, your language, ethnic cuisine, or hair being the topic of conversation
  • Complete other duties as assigned, which mostly includes service on diversity committees with the other five people of color who are also the sole BIPOC in their departments to help the organization feel like it has representation even if we’re not going to take your recommendations (even though we will use your ideas later and credit them to someone else)
  • And then work twice as hard to prove that you are worthy and capable despite your already stellar credentials.

Ever seen a job description like that?

The mantra that Black people have to be twice as good to get half of the respect is founded. Years after I finished my M.A., a White woman who I’d never met before inquired about my role at the university where we met. When I answered her question she told me that she was sure that I “deserved” my job. I told her I was too. We know that we’re expected to be exceptional just to be considered qualified. Because of that, I couldn’t schedule my appointment with the first available counselor. I needed Mrs. Billye.

I sat beside her as she began to read my resume over the brim of her glasses nodding, jotting down notes, and murmuring. Suddenly, she flipped my entire resume over, took a deep breath, turned to me, and said, "This reads like, ‘I'm a helper. I can help,’ but what you are is a leader and your resume needs to say that". Her words confronted me with a glaring gap between my leadership experiences and my sense of self.

There’s a growing body of research that says people of color are overlooked in workplace advancement opportunities due to a lack of coaching, mentoring, and formative feedback. Supervisors may avoid offering feedback about ways to grow for fear that they will be accused of racism, sexism, or both. Meanwhile, we’re either being gaslit- led to believe our good work isn’t good enough or left to flail, making the same mistakes while White folks get the kind of feedback that leads to promotion.

Mrs. Billye’s words marked a pivotal point in my professional development. I was headed into a role where people would attempt to tell me who I was and try to put me in what they thought was my place. I needed to find my voice and own it before it was time to use it. Our conversation was the runaway to launch me into the next stage of my career.

Many Black women have been taught not to take up too much space. From the time we’re little girls, we’re told that we are too loud, too sassy, too mature, too smart, too talkative, too bossy, too much in every way possible. That’s why being a ‘helper’ felt like a more comfortable way to frame my resume. I believe, wholeheartedly, in the power of service, ministry, and working in the background. My foremothers were obliged to work as helpers. They were teachers, secretaries, nurse aids, church cooks who ran kitchens, matriarchs who ran their own households, and made out to be mammies who ran White people’s households. They were bridge leaders (Hogan, 2013) and micro-influencers (Crawford, 2013) in the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee (commonly known as SNCC, pronounced ‘SNICK’). The work of my foremothers and the work of Black and Brown women who continue to do this work was and is honorable. They leveraged influence in ways that many leaders could never fathom. There is much to be learned from the ways that these foremothers helped; however, I do not believe that those are our only options for leveraging influence- not anymore.

There are other people, mostly women, whose lives have intersected with mine at times when I needed to hear other transformative truths that reminded me who I am (and as my mother would say- “WHOSE I am”). The truth isn’t always warm and fuzzy. Sometimes it’s a loving reprimand to use my voice, redirect my energy or help to decode the hidden curriculum.

Coronavirus has brought to light what happens when women own our right to lead, but let’s be honest, mainstream feminism has never honored the voices, leadership, or experiences of Black women. We’ve had to do that for ourselves and for one another. I’m not suggesting that we should always take the lead. There’s a place for followership. What I am saying is that we have to find our voices and the people in our choruses who will cheer us on so we can own our leadership spaces without apology.