Last week, after watching two powerful black women be publicly berated by white men, it occurred to me that many unknowing Americans had just witnessed the slights that black women endure in the workplace daily and often in silence. So I asked other women like me to share their stories of being #BlackWomenAtWork. The stories ended up trending nationally, and while many of our white sisters pulled up a chair to listen and learn, others predictably admonished us, saying that this happens to “all women.”
Yes: Sexual harassment and gender discrimination are a reality for all women — perhaps especially those who’ve worked with Bill O’Reilly. There are things all women go through. And then there are things black women go through. The silencing of the unique grievances of women of color is precisely why many of us felt betrayed by our white sisters on November 8, and decided not to attend the Women’s March. And frankly, the movement toward equal pay has been slow to break this curse.
The most common statistic cited on Equal Pay Day is that women make 80 cents for every man’s dollar. But that’s not true. White women do. Black women make 65 cents. Latina women make 58 cents. And Asian-American, Pacific Islander, and Native women are often not even considered “statistically significant” enough to be calculated. And yet, the fight for equal pay seems most concerned with the women at the top of the pay scale. Every time we perpetuate the myth that all women simply need two more dimes per dollar to win, the message is sent to women of color that we are in the way — and could cause us to lose.
Feminist movements have too often left women of color behind. History has taught us the unrelenting lesson that too often, white women choose whiteness before womanhood. Susan B. Anthony led the chorus: “I will cut off this right arm of mine before I will ever work or demand the ballot for the Negro and not the woman,” she said. I am thankful for her leadership in suffrage, but I don’t have warm fuzzies for the woman who left my great grandmothers to wait another 40 years to vote in the American South.
Just like the “all lives matter” choir, the “but all women” crowd tends to shout women with marginalized identities along the lines of race, sexuality, class, and physical ability back into silence. They were there in suffrage. They overwhelmed the Women’s March despite the planners’ intentions. They repeatedly ignored our pleas on November 8 that Trump was exponentially more dangerous to the rest of us. They love to tweet me platitudes about color-blindness. They insist this is in the name of unity, but it feels awfully like the spirit of supremacy. We will not end supremacy by perpetuating it. You cannot dismantle oppression while you practice it. When I hear “but all women,” I’m reminded that these women are willing to fight for their dollar but not mine. Ignoring labor cries for a livable $15 an hour reminds women of color — who proportionally out-populate white women in labor fields — that they don’t matter to the cause.
As people of color, our earning power is certainly harmed and our gaps increased because a smaller share of our populations are college educated — which is, of course, not an argument against the statistical relevancy of the race question, but rather an argument for the importance of admissions and financial support for students of color. But even college-educated black and Latina women make, on average, 70 percent of what similarly educated white men make — while white women make an average of 80 percent against the same measure. Not “all women” — just us. This disparity is not just a failure of morality — it is a failure of efficacy. And a movement that leaves women of the global majority behind is not an effective movement.
In no other realm would ultimate success be defined by the achievements of a few — except in matters of racial equity. It always seems that we are expected to be happy for the few who reach the ranks of exception — instead of demanding an equitable and inclusive rule.
But I recognize that, two years ago, a black woman educator and activist like me may not have been given column inches in a mainstream publication to even write about this. This signals to me that there is an open door.
Now can be the era when white women decide to be better than their ancestors. Now can be the awakening of privileged people of all stripes to not simply feign equality, but behave equitably. Every time you feel the words “but all women” bubbling up in your spirit, have a come-to–(Sojourner) Truth moment and settle in with the fact that black women have been declaring our right of inclusion from the beginning.
Next time you hear a Maxine or April being chided for her “unprofessional” hair, or her “angry” facial expressions, know this is not just a momentary sting, but a reinforcement of stereotypes that hurt our ultimate earning potential. “Angry black women” don’t get promoted. “Unprofessional black women” don’t get the raise. Educate yourself on and challenge culturally dominant expectations that continually hold women of color far below your 82 cents — and too often out of white-collar work or a living wage at all.
When you lean in and become the boss, create culturally responsive work environments that are inclusive of and provide access to all people — and if you hire a black woman to teach your company how to do it, pay her what she’s worth.
This will be hard to hear — but freedom work has no time for comfort. In this fight for pay equity, stop silencing women of color just because we represent an inconvenient truth. You cannot leave us in the shadows and hide your shame of all the times we’ve been left behind. This work does not need your guilt — it requires your solidarity. You aren’t free until we are, too.