Women of Color, Are you Bending Over Backwards?


Recently, I led a workshop that attracted women of different racial backgrounds.  It was profound as we looked at the ways in which we had incorporated a white frame of reference both as white women and as women of color.

Here's what I learned:

Women of color who work and/or live in predominantly white contexts go overboard when it comes to educating their European American peers about or protecting them from racism. I watched as Black and Latinex women shushed themselves, over-explained and completely forgot their ability to choose whether or not to have a conversation with someone who had a white frame of reference.

I say this not as an outside critic but as a person who does the same thing unless I bring my awareness to a dynamic.

Let me give you some examples from my personal experience.

I co-work at a space owned by a European American woman that serves a predominantly Caucasian group of entrepreneurs.  This space often hosts events for free or low cost to community groups.  The owner and I vote for the same presidential candidates and share progressive, feminist perspectives.  However, in this space I was code-switching to make my Caucasian colleagues and therefore myself more comfortable.  I did not notice my actions until I attended a co-working Happy Hour that just so happened to attract only handful of folks who were all people of color.  With only one European American present, my tone and content and energy changed drastically but I did not notice this until a Puerto Rican woman pointed it out to me the following day.  She said something like "I really got to hear your voice last night.  You let us see you."  When I thought about it, it wasn't just how I spoke that changed.  My content changed.  I spoke about my group identity as an African American, as someone who grew up urban explicitly and proudly.  As a group, we talked about self-care and growing our businesses, AND we talked about race.  In predominantly white settings, the norm to NOT talk about race or racial group identities is so strong, that it seems IMPOLITE to do so.  Breaking a norm feels scary and could be met with punishment so many of us unconsciously steer away from ways of speaking and being that underscore racism in predominantly white groups-even when they are predominantly female too.

Here's another example, from years ago.  A Latina spoke in my faith community about racism.  She did so indirectly but Caucasians in my predominantly white faith community were offended and upset.  I spoke in her defense but I did so from the perspective of crossing over to the European Americans.  "She's not trying to make you feel guilty," I remember saying--as if they should not feel guilty.  Their guilty, uncomfortable feelings became something that I took responsibility to un-do.  I bent over backward to make them feel "safe."  The problem is that my posture of explaining, educating and comforting them put me and the other woman on the defensive.  We were doing 90% of the work in the conversation.  She could've said.  There's racism here.  I could've said.  Yes, there's racism here and instead of defending against it please do something about dismantling it.  Instead we labored or as my therapist would say, we over-functioned which led to them under-functioning.

I see it in me and I see it in my whispering, code-switching sisters.  Is it no wonder then, that so many of us are exhausted, aggrieved and frustrated?  

To me, the answer is two fold:  One, stop doing other people's work.  Two, make conscious choices about how long and how to be in conversation with people coming from a white frame of reference.  What we have is gold.  Drop a little.  If others pick it up fine.  If not, move on.  Cultivate kindness, self-compassion, creativity and forgiveness inside ourselves.  From our wealth, our abundance we can choose to give.  Whatever we do, it's important that we are balanced and grounded.  From a position of strength, we can choose our actions.  My mentor, Ricardo Levins Morales, famously said "I don't believe in speaking truth to power.  I believe in speaking power to power."  Women of color, we've got to be willing and able to walk away from conversations that will do us no good, and if we participate do so from our strength, our lived experience, and expertise.

Want to hear more?

Please join me at the Black and Indigenous Women of Color Master Class. It's FREE and it's happening right now!  A resource for all women, Sonali writes "we pour our ancestral wisdom and traditional knowledge into you, to help counter the narrative, educate and bring an intersectional lens and a social justice perspective into the online women’s entrepreneurship spaces."  Get the 411 here! (Okay did that date me?)

Peace and love,