Black women do not enjoy the luxury of assumed competence. They are in-fact considered incompetent until they can prove that they are. I know many senior women who had at least one instance where they we assumed to be a junior employee.
In my experience in working with white people I was often fascinated by how I was introduced together with my qualifications. It would always be this is Busi, she holds this position and she holds an MBA. It was almost as if they are answering a question that they think that person must be asking, that what is a black women in this position, it’s because she has an MBA. Of course it might be an unconscious bias but it is there all the same.
Black women still hold the least senior positions in many organisations and are often ‘the only black women there’. This often results in the attitude in those black women that they cannot make mistakes because they will be proving the stereotypes to be true. It also means that they have to be careful with the expression of their anger because they might be fulfilling the stereotype of being emotional or of being the angry black woman. This results in the need to prove their worth and we their right to be in those positions.
This is emotionally unhealthy and may feel like waiting to exhale. It might also lead to a need to focus on minor details to avoid making mistakes. Working too long hours and not taking or having time to create networks. It can also open us up to being overworked because we are afraid to say no and have a need to prove that we can handle any type of workload. That we are not lazy and incompetent. This is not sustainable and can lead to burnout.
I remember watching Viola Davis’s character on the series ‘How to get away with murder’ and struggling with whether to like or dislike her character. One minute I was rooting for her and another I disapproved of her. I realised that my struggle was the need for people to be good or bad, to fall neatly into the two opposites. I could not accept her as she is, with both her flaws, great qualities and intrinsic worth as a human being.
I was having the same internal battles, the struggle to accept my flawed self. I had to be perfect, never make mistakes. As a result I avoided staying in companies or positions for too long, I needed to leave while they were still impressed with me. I knew I could not sustain perfection for too long and I couldn’t bear making a mistake and suffering their dis-approval. It was a trap and I believe that it delayed the trajectory of my career because I had a better chance to grow in to senior positions quicker once I built that trust. The fear of making a mistake can also lead us to not take risks and put ourselves up for positions where we cannot guarantee that we will not make mistakes. We might wait until we are overqualified before we apply for more senior roles, thereby slowing down our financial and career growth.
Author: Busisiwe Hlatswayo