Our new study uncovered a fifth pattern of bias that seems to apply mainly to black and Latina women. On our survey, 42% of black women agreed that “I feel that socially engaging with my colleagues may negatively affect perceptions of my competence,” only slightly more than with as compared with Latinas (38%), Asian-American women (37%), and white women (32%) – but in our interviews, black women mostly mentioned this pattern.
“A lot of times,” said a microbiologist, “There are things that people exclude me from because they say, ‘Oh, she’s going to be the only black person there… just don’t invite her, she won’t feel comfortable.’”
“You don’t know who you can trust,” said a biologist. “This has been a very lonely life.”
In some cases, the women intentionally kept their personal lives hidden in order to maintain their authority. One scientist said she avoided socializing with her colleagues because “to me, that lessens your authority.”
“I do not discuss personal things with people,” said another microbiologist. “Judge me for me, not my personal life.” She said she kept her personal life separate because “I don’t want anything in my family life to be used against me.”
My mother always advised me to keep my personal life close to the chest and not to get too friendly with colleagues for exactly these reasons. The unstated assumption was that (white) folks would use anything they could against you, so best not to offer them any ammunition. Plus, there’s the issue that Tressie McMillan Cottom wrote about so well: how black women’s emotions are often read differently (and more negatively) than white women’s.
However, being extra buttoned up seems, to me, to go against a whole array of literature advising people to be authentic and build a personal brand in order to climb the career ladder. So reconciling that advice with the above can be a real minefield.
So yesterday, I caught wind of all the uproar regarding Adria Richards at PyCon. (Recap here.) There have been several low points regarding women in tech and minorities in tech, at which I have shaken my head and sighed, but for some reason, this incident has particularly troubled me.
At first, I agreed wholeheartedly with this cogent take by Amanda Blum, in which she argues that the whole sequence of events is a total loss not only for the participants but also the tech community as a whole. But then I read theserebuttals, which made me rethink my position.
I believe that I, personally, would have sought to address the jokes directly with the men first. But then, I don’t work in the tech industry (although I do talk to a fair number of people who do, by nature of my job). I’m not exposed to the particular set of microaggressions—seemingly minor slants that over time compound themselves into a giant wound—that Richards, apparently, has been subjected to. I can, however, relate to the dilemma of how to respond when certain microaggressions simply become too much—and the inevitable backlash that comes from those who proclaim that you’re simply turning a mountain into a molehill.
Toward the end of my junior year at Yale, our campus tabloid (yes, we had such a thing) published an article entitled “Me Love You Long Time,” which supposedly sought to explore—and lampoon—how women of Asian descent are fetishized. But all it did was reinforce stereotypes of Asian women as sexually submissive (“they’re easy”), and it even included a crass reference to Hurricane Katrina as its kicker. I’ll never forget that line: “Asian girls are like New Orleans levees: they only stay tight for so long.”
The article, rightly, outraged a significant group of students. Especially problematic was that it was published and distributed on the same week that high schoolers who had been admitted to Yale were visiting campus. The article had also come on the heels of others, albeit in different publications, that reinforced stereotypes of Asians and Asian-Americans. (For instance, one newspaper comic expressed incredulousness that an Asian-American student would run for student council—don’t they spend all their time in the library, it asked.) So in response, Yale’s Asian-American Student Association (AASA) organized a protest, in which students would wear black clothing and gags and be silent for the day, even in class. Some participants, like me, chose to participate in class discussions but wore black in solidarity.
The day of the protest, the university also held a forum for students and faculty to address the article and the reactions it had garnered. And what comments did we hear? That we needed to lighten up—it was only a joke. That the truly bad thing was the pushback the members of the tabloid’s staff had gotten—not the ugly stereotypes their story had reinforced or the impact that might have on women of Asian descent on campus. But of course, all these are par for the course when pointing out incidences of racism, sexism, homophobia, etc. What really stuck with me happened months later. That summer, I went to London as part of a university-sponsored internship program. I stayed in a flat with three roommates. One day, three of us were having a conversation, and the AASA protest came up (I don’t remember how). One of my roommates said something to the effect of, “What they did should be reserved for actual political protest.” In other words, the response was too extreme.
I remember countering that we were in a damned-if-you-do, damned-if-you-don’t situation: no one paid attention when people had written letters to the editor in response to past articles that reinforced stereotypes. (I remember it even being suggested that the tabloid in question had a history of publicly mocking criticism from others, so a simple letter might even backfire.) It was only when we went nuclear—for lack of a better term—that the issue came to the forefront in a serious manner.
So I sympathize with Adria Richards on the call she made. I may have made a different one, but that in no way excuses the subsequent retaliation she has faced.
That said, the question remains: why am I so worked up over this particular situation? Maybe it’s because as a black woman, I have a keen understanding of how intersectionality (in this case, race and gender) can play out in instances such as this. But I think it’s mainly because as a business reporter, I play some role in exalting companies and individuals that too often uphold the culture that produces sexist and racist debacles such as this. It makes me uneasy.
Last words: some insightful (and less rambling) posts on the situation: