That was how my high school principal greeted me at my freshman orientation. As a 13-year-old, I was barely cognizant of the judgment in his tone, the implications of his facial expressions. But I did recognize the indignation on my mother’s face.
It would be a few years before she unpacked that moment for me. But as we walked back to the car later that evening, the excitement with which we entered the school building had dissipated, replaced with frustration on my mother’s part and confusion on mine.
I soon came to understand the special language of the backhanded compliment reserved for the young, gifted and Black. My principal was not impressed — he was surprised. He communicated not only that I deviated from his norm, but that this was suspect.
That he would encounter a Black girl with high ambitions and greet her with both surprise and disdain should have been a clear harbinger of what would come during the two years I attended that high school: They were not rooting for me. From the frequent threats of suspension for comically minor infractions (my favorite: wearing mismatching socks) to the principal publicly scolding me for sitting outside my classroom with a bottle of water (my sly attempt to smuggle in hard liquor before 8:00 a.m. geometry, allegedly), they were operating in bad faith.
Mercifully, I transferred to a markedly better high school. My mom has since transformed that affront into a source of amusement, lauding each new accomplishment of mine — graduating from Harvard Business School with second-year honors, successes in my current job as a consultant — by recalling that first meeting and delivering praise in the principal’s manner (“Hmm, impressive!”), each time more bombastic than the last.
Beyond this shared joke between my mother and me, however, the motif persists, linking that past interaction to my present-day reality: being viewed and treated as an aberration in the mostly (if not entirely) white spaces I occupy.
Roughly 8% of people in management positions identify as Black, compared to the 13% of the American population who do. An even greater dearth exists in corporate leadership positions and boards: Only five Black CEOs run a Fortune 500 company, and only one Black woman (Ursula Burns) has ever held that position.
This disparity is hardly surprising, given that average enrollment numbers for Black students stand at 8% across U.S. business schools, which are a perennial source tapped by reputable organizations to fill their talent and leadership pipelines.
My own alma mater has matriculated a low number of Black students in the last three decades — a paltry 50 each year, which in a cohort of about 950 students translates to just 5% of its student body. On paper, I recognized this might be challenging, but I didn’t quite grasp how taxing the reality would be until I found myself sitting with 90-odd classmates, often as the only Black female voice in the room.
It is a strange existence, navigating these spaces as a Black woman. It means being reminded at any given moment that your presence is dubious — an abnormality. It is the chance that, among the small victories and major milestones, someone will go out of their way to discount or minimize your success, cutting you down and tempering whatever delight and self-regard that follow hard-earned triumphs.
It means being told “you must have filled a quota” when you earn a coveted honor. It means taking steps to ensure your appearance is not “too” anything, lest you invite more scrutiny. It means being deemed “too risky,” even with impeccable credentials. It means being labeled “too vocal” when you call attention to any of these microaggressions. It sounds like “you must be lost” when you enter a business meeting, and “it must have been a misunderstanding” if you bother to relay the incident.
It is constant.
As a child, I could expect protection, validation and swift resolution from my mother, and I relished watching her dole out just deserts to anyone who dared disrupt my peace. With replies like, “You can send her to class barefoot for all I care, she’d better not miss another second” and “If you interfere with her education again, the next time you see me will be with a lawyer,” she vigilantly defended me from real and imminent harm.
As an adult, I refrain from sharing these incidents with her because I’ve seen how it amplifies the already heightened concerns she has for me, as well as the grief it causes when she realizes things haven’t improved.
The country has spent much of this year reeling from open displays of racial persecution and gross injustice. Each time – from the more extreme cases of George Floyd, Ahmaud Arbery and Breonna Taylor, to the more coded but equally chilling Amy Cooper — I have heard the same chorus of non-Black Americans expressing shock and horror of what lies before them.
But how can anyone be surprised? How frequently do they jump to make justifications for others’ problematic behavior, stating some variant of “but they’re a good person,” as if that absolves them of any racism (intended or otherwise)? How tightly do they remain wedded, even now, to the misperception that “real” racism is reserved for the intentionally evil — not for devoted parents, good siblings or proud citizens?
Back when I lived out of a suitcase, I had to travel for work all the time as a consultant. How many passengers bore witness to my recurring humiliations afflicted by cabin staff and passengers alike — from those Monday morning flights out of Ronald Reagan Washington National Airport (“Ma’am, that seat is for business class passengers only”) to trips back home on Thursday evenings (“You’re in the wrong line, miss”) — and simply averted their eyes? When I was a student, how often did my classmates elect not to intervene, deeming it “none of their business,” when I was disparaged in front of an audience?
How often do my friends shy away from having uncomfortable conversations, rather than proactively unpacking transgressions, recognizing barriers and tackling challenges head-on?
I was once quite adept at compartmentalizing the effects of these microaggressions and (for the most part) suppressing any bouts of imposter syndrome that they might trigger. But in light of this year’s events, I find them leaking into my demeanor and fueling my anxieties.
I didn’t get any work done the afternoon I heard George Floyd referred to as a “career criminal.” I joined my team’s check-in late the morning after Breonna Taylor’s verdict was announced, and kept my video off so no one noticed my puffy eyes. (I didn’t want to be the Debbie Downer who derailed the team’s light conversation on breakfast and the weather.)
I avoid settings where people might feel at liberty to share their views on “politics,” knowing full well that I may sacrifice great opportunities for networking or personal development in doing so.
While I’m fortunate that my firm gave us “COVID days” for time off, I’ve already exhausted them and worry about the message it might send to ask for more time.
On any given day, I often find myself ready to abandon all hope of any progress. On other days, I’m optimistic that my friends and colleagues are listening — really listening — and advocating in a way I’ve never seen before.
I oscillate between elation that Black voices are finally being heard and anger for having to revisit and retell painful memories to legitimize Black experiences. I’m exhausted from having to package my words in a way that is both accessible (allowing room and grace for growth) and powerful, pushing the listener to honestly examine the ways they may have caused (and continue to cause) harm.
More than anything, I’m just tired.
It doesn’t take much to fall back into despair. I wake up bracing for some new atrocity that might assault my senses when I check my phone in the morning, and I’ve spent much of this year grieving loss of life while forcing a smile on Zoom calls.
I shared this with a friend and mentor who phoned to check in on me last week. She shared that, as a senior leader, rather than try to take on the world and risk feeling overwhelmed, she focuses on improving her “corner.”
So while I’m not impermeable, I’ve been able to reconcile my place in these spaces, my corner, by role-modeling vulnerability so that others can be vulnerable too — knowing full well that they may not get it right, but recognizing that most want to.
I don’t shy away from asking the difficult questions (“Why did you ask that?” “Would you mind explaining your logic?” “Is that political or politicized?”), hoping that it prompts reflection on their part and saves someone else the trouble later on. I am energized by my more cautious, small-c conservative comrades who are finding their voices, unshrinking in their yen to effect change and push for equity, even in their circles.
There is a place for bold actions in the fight for racial equity and inclusion. But we must not lose sight of the quieter, more frequent and often unchallenged indignities that disrupt the peace of Black people. It is the presence or absence of these moments that grant — or deny — much-needed reprieve.
This piece reflects the author’s own perspective. She is not speaking on behalf of any past or present employer.