As a relatively new Houstonian, health writer/journalist, assistant professor of communication studies and fabulous Black female (or at least I’d like to think so), I was thrilled when my colleague sent me an invitation to join her this evening at “Young, Fabulous & Female,” a conversation focusing on Black women’s success sponsored by The Root and Toyota. The theme was “Crossing the Line,” and panelists were to share tips and wisdom for Black women pursuing successful professional journeys.
I shot straight across my new city after a long day of work with heart and mind open to receive some fabulous words of wisdom and empowerment from a panel of accomplished women in areas inclusive of ministry, medicine, and media… in other words, ALL of my faves.
A few minutes into the panel, I felt my enthusiasm begin to wane. While there were gems dispersed throughout the evening that received a head nod or two, I couldn’t help but feel deflated. I listened as comments were made that circumvented and overlooked critical issues Black women face despite, and within, all of our authentic fabulousness.
Issues such as missing the mark with work/life balance, our disproportionate experiences with adverse health outcomes, and navigating through structures that uphold white male supremacy. I sat back and listened as one panelist boldly proclaimed that, as Black women, “most of the time” we limit ourselves, while others shared accomplishments of being the first this, first that and first other. Absolutely, women do suffer from a tendency to sell ourselves short. However, there wasn’t an in-depth discussion of the very real barriers and limiting structures that Black women encounter on a day-to-day basis (the systemic, structural and historical reasons why we are still getting our first Black female this, that and the others in 2015).
[NOTE: I won’t be attributing quotes to the women on the panel because my goal is not to personally attack their perspectives, but rather to highlight what I believe was noticeably absent from the conversation].
We were encouraged to suppress our emotions, remember that we are minorities, and do whatever it takes to strive for excellence. As the testimonies continued to roll out, it was clear that these women have worked – extremely hard – to get where they are. But at what cost?
One panelist discussed being pregnant and working 12-hour days until the moment she delivered via c-section. Reeling from my recent work with the United Way of Greater Atlanta’s Babies Born Healthy project, I’m keenly aware of the fact that Black women disproportionately deliver low birth-weight and premature babies, as well as deliver via c-section. An observation that holds constant across socioeconomic status and education levels. Why? Because Black women often focus on saving face, countering negative stigma (which someone explicitly stated on the panel), and proving that they, too, can do what others do that being pregnant often becomes a barrier or an inconvenience. And it harms our babies and our bodies.
Issues of infertility, prenatal/perinatal and maternal health in the Black community was missing from the conversation.
Another panelist grazed over how the stress from her six-figure salary position landed her in the hospital with symptoms mimicking a heart attack and instead focused on how she quit said position and months later found herself working an hourly wage gig and getting back to her happy. That is a wonderful, uplifting story, but how long did it take to come to that realization? And, how detrimental was the impact?
The importance of finding our happy, or the necessity of prioritizing our physical, mental, and emotional health and wellness, before we work ourselves into an oblivion or hospital bed was also missing from the conversation.
The emphasis on holding our heads high and maintaining excellence along the way undermines the very real fact that Black women are often on unequal footing. Our excellence, education, respectability, grace, and even our fabulousness cannot save us from that reality. In my opinion, avoiding those limiting structures and promoting a “self-made” ideology contributes to those superwoman ideals that far too many Black women cling to, working at a pace that outweighs our male and white female counterparts to accomplish our #YoungFabFemale status, while secretly blaming ourselves or our situations for not stacking achievements at a comparable rate.
The ability to distinguish between discomfort while grinding (a recurring theme in the young professional’s life) and distress was also absent from the conversation.
The truth is this: often times the odds are against Black women. However, we can be – and still are – fabulous. But we shouldn’t achieve our successes by merely being excellent; working twice as hard and twice as long; putting babies, sex, and love on the back burner; and reaching for the stars. Our fabulousness must consist of a radical commitment to practicing self-care, finding strength in our relationships with other women, being brutally honest with ourselves concerning our abilities and limitations, striving for excellence while yet acknowledging (and hopefully working to dismantle) the systems of oppression that place us at a disadvantage in the first place, and not avoiding critical truths of Black womanhood when we come together to talk about living our best fabulous lives.
My dear Felicia,
What you have outlined here is beyond imaginable for a lot of us. We as black people never want to have the brutally honest gut-wrenching conversations with ourselves or each other. I have those conversations with my core persons and how I think our so called “conversations” with others lack what you have touched upon here. Well said Felicia, well said.
Hello, Professor Harris. I’m a 72-year old, never married, white woman, who is originally from the Finger Lakes region of Upstate New York, and who has lived in Rochester, Ann Arbor, and Chicago after growing up in a village of 300 people. I’ve been back in the countryside for the past 25 years. I offer this information only as a reference point. I sought out your blog after reading your article about your experience with Mrs. Obama. I was curious, not only because you’re a good, passionate writer, but because there’s a huge gap between my Boomer age group and your age group – although after reading your blog, perhaps not so much. I find it sad that there is still pressure for women to be super women. It usually can’t be done; and if a woman succeeds, she pays a high price. I’m so glad that you’re advising your fellow professionals to focus on defining who they are and what success means to them, while at the same time pointing out what the real issues are that need to be addressed. These issues are not going to be solved by big government, especially by the current administration, which cares nothing for human life. My time has pretty much passed, although I continue to do what I can on a local level, so it’s up to your generation to slog through the current wreckage and enact change wherever you can. I hope you keep up the good fight and don’t get too discouraged. Best wishes to you, Ruth Lewis