When I was in high school, I had a secretarial job at a fuel company in a small town in New Hampshire. I had the usual duties—answering the phone, taking messages, filing receipts. The company was owned by a local family. One day, one of the sons, a grubby high-school dropout, trudged past me, walked into the bathroom, then came out and ordered me to clean it. When I said that wasn’t in my job description, he replied, his voice low and rotten, “You know, we give you people a chance to work.” Then he turned and mumbled, “But you’re all just lazy niggers.”
I recalled this experience when watching the season premiere of Mad Men, in which a slew of black women line up at Don Draper’s ad agency, responding to a classified ad. Flustered at the lobby full of black people, the ad men discuss how best to handle the situation. Maybe one of the women could be a secretary, they decide, but then conclude that they simply couldn’t put “one of them”—meaning a black woman—out front at the reception desk.
The times have changed since the Mad Men era, but for black women in corporate America, there are plenty of sad and shocking remnants.
For starters, black women make up only one percent of U.S. corporate officers, according to a 2011 survey conducted by the League of Black Women. This is despite the fact that 75 percent of corporate executives believe that having minorities in senior-level positions enables innovation and better serves a diverse customer base, the same survey found.
We are a different kind of one-percenter. We are the one percent who work hard and put in the overtime without getting promoted. We are the one percent that is the other—the unseen.
In Fortune 500 companies, black women don’t fare much better, holding 1.9 percent of board seats, compared with 12.7 percent for white women, according to a study called Missing Pieces: Women and Minorities on Fortune 500 Boards, conducted by by the Alliance for Board Diversity, a collaboration of five organizations including Catalyst and others.
Indeed, the reality in corporate America, says Erica Kennedy, a black social-media strategist and bestselling author of the novel Bling, is that the challenges for black women come down to business. “If having that person of color is not going to add to that corporation’s bottom line,” she says, “why should the white powers-that-be bother to find or promote execs who are often outside their normal networking circle?”
Despite the oft-perceived magical fix-all of having a black president and an extremely fly black first lady in the White House, succeeding in the white-male-dominated corporate system is still an uphill battle for black women. And even Michelle Obama gets her fair share of jabs—last December, a charming Republican congressman from Wisconsin criticized her for promoting a campaign to fight obesity when “she has a large posterior herself.”
Often black women deal with the notion that they need to look more “white” to appear professionally acceptable. And no wonder: a few years ago, a Glamour magazine editor described natural black hair as a corporate fashion “don’t” at a presentation to women lawyers on what to wear to work. She showed a slide of a black woman with an Afro, saying, “Just say no to the ’fro.” The lawyers thought that was uncool, and an article about the incident popped up in American Lawyer magazine. Glamour apologized, launching a series of panels and accompanying articles on race. The first was titled: “Do You Have Friends of Other Races?” Oof.
People often don’t stop to think about what it’s like to be the only black woman in a sea of pale faces. For example, at a recent Newsweek roundtable discussion with Oscar nominees, actress Charlize Theron interrupted Viola Davis midsentence, as Davis was trying to explain the difficult reality of what it feels like to be unseen in Hollywood.
“I’m a 46-year-old black woman who really doesn’t look like Halle Berry, and Halle Berry is having a hard time,” Davis said.
Theron interjected, “You have to stop saying that, because you’re hot as shit.”
Whoops. She totally missed the point. Daily Beast writer Allison Samuels later wrote, “What difference does it make if Davis stops speaking a truth, if the reality remains?”
While it’s lovely that Theron thinks black women are hot, there are people out there—medically trained doctors, no less—who maintain that black women are, in fact, not hot. Last year, Psychology Today posted an article by Japanese psychologist Satoshi Kanazawa positing that black women are less attractive than other women. The article was swiftly removed from the site after a firestorm of criticism.
Kendall Reid, a black producer for HBO, says that when she started out as a field producer, she often went on the road for sports events, where she fielded an array of racist comments. She cites one incident in which a cameraman randomly thought she would be interested to know that he once saw a black man spitting watermelon seeds. “He said to me, ‘I saw Sugar Ray Leonard one day spitting watermelon seeds all over the place.’” She adds, “I always encountered some crazy racist.” Her colleagues, she says, were so incredulous when they heard the stories back at headquarters, they thought she was making them up.
Former Random House editor and author Carol Taylor recalls being at a swank cocktail party on Central Park West and chatting with a white publishing executive. The two women quickly hit it off, finding they had a lot in common. Taylor recalls, “Things are going along swimmingly as I tell her about a recent trip to Amsterdam and a book I’ve just acquired. She smiles and shakes her head and says, as though she can hardly believe it, ‘You’re so articulate and sophisticated.’ Why on earth would she think I would not be able to have an intelligent conversation? Oh, it’s because I’m black. Comments like that make me feel like the equivalent of a monkey in a suit.”
Sometimes, the problem is just the opposite, says one magazine editor. White women will often tread so carefully when talking to a black woman, it’s as if they assume “I will transform from the person they go on coffee breaks with into the Mad Black Woman who thinks every word out of their mouth is racist,” she says.
I’m a former managing editor at The AOL Huffington Post Media Group. Last year, I was tasked with relaunching an all-black news and opinion section for the site. I had been running GlobalBlack, the joint venture launched by Arianna Huffington and former BET cofounder Sheila Johnson; after The Huffington Post merged with AOL, the decision was made to replace GlobalBlack with a relaunch of a similar AOL web page, called Black Voices.
The goal was to assemble a team of black writers and editors who would write, research, and edit stories about things that interested them as individuals. I was excited about the mission. Others weren’t. Shortly after I’d been hired, I asked a white supervisor how to respond to reader inquiries about GlobalBlack. She said: “Ignore them! No one cares!”
It came to sum up my experience to a large extent. Although we did assemble a great team of black writers and editors, the more I tried to guide the mission forward—proposing thought-provoking stories and headlines that countered stereotypes and truly represented black voices—the more clear it became that this was bad for business. An in-depth multimedia profile of Anita Hill to mark the 20th anniversary of the landmark case was deemed not buzzy enough. A provocative black media figure I suggested as a regular contributor was dismissed as “gross.” My idea of ignoring Black History Month, which many black Americans feel has become nothing more than a diluted and packaged ritual, was deemed unacceptable, given the advertising dollars it generates.
I’m not saying this is racist—a business needs to stay in business. As Erica Kennedy points out, “A corporation exists to make money, not to salve societal ills.” But still.
In the days leading up to the relaunch of Black Voices, an executive decision was made to have white journalists at The Huffington Post write most of the stories featured on the first day. The voices were white. Mine is not.