This Conversation Made Me Check My White Privilege (Again)

This article was originally published by Forbes.

My friend Joyell Arvella, recently told me about the time she asked her previous boss, who we’ll call Susan.

When Joyell and her colleagues built up the courage to ask for raises to reflect their considerable workloads, Susan balked.

Susan said, “We’re not here for the money. We’re here to do good work for the community.”

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In my head, my immediate reaction was, “Oh my goodness, I so relate to this. It’s terrible, this nonprofit (or any kind of professional) martyrdom – the narrative that if the money matters to you, it’s a sign that you don’t care about the work. Women, who are socialized to be concerned about others and often do service-oriented work, are particularly vulnerable to this. It’s infuriating.”

Fortunately, rather than replying out loud, I kept listening.

Joyell, who identifies as a Black woman, went on to share that this conversation with Susan aligned with the experience she and other women of color had had working for their boss. Joyell and her colleagues saw the ways that Susan expected Black women to be maternal figures of emotional support and work hard while she simultaneously undervalued their contributions.

As a racial and gender justice strategist for the last eight years, Joyell describes this pattern as an expectation that Black women take on the “mammy” role based on the caricature created during and after enslavement that defined Black women as nurturers and caretakers to everyone but themselves.

Susan hiring Black women seemed to the outside, and perhaps to Susan herself, to be egalitarian and providing opportunities for women of color. To the women of color who worked for her, hiring Black women was a way of saying, “See, I’m not racist. I’m one of the good white people because I have all these Black women on staff, and I’m part of the Black community by proxy.”

In practice, Susan expected significant emotional labor of Black women that was not expected of other people on staff. Furthermore, Black women on staff were bearing the brunt of the workload but getting paid significantly less than their colleagues.

But when they approached Susan for a raise, her response was undermining, manipulative, and paternalistic. She implied that they didn’t care about the work because they were asking about money, all while Susan made double the salaries of women of color and worked less.

Contrary to my initial internal monologue at the beginning of the conversation about nonprofit martyrdom, this was in fact not something close to what I had experienced.

For white women like me, the instinct when we hear stories like this can sometimes be to relate and connect – I was tempted to immediately strive to empathize with Joyell’s experience. Instead, I fought that urge and slowed down to listen to her whole experience, attempting to just be present for her rather than connect her story to my own. Just because I didn’t relate to her experience didn’t make it any less valid.

Other times, there’s a temptation to dismiss an experience we haven’t shared, wondering whether perhaps there was something else at play or another dimension of the experience that Joyell and her colleagues missed.

As Joyell said, “Believe in and trust women of color when they share their story. Don’t try to pick it apart or put it in a lens that’s more relatable because it’s more comfortable.”

For Joyell and I, while at first it sounded like we’d shared a similar situation – a boss guilting us into working for the cause instead of money – we actually had entirely different experiences.

Each of us had our own experience of our identity, but I had to get out of my own way to really be able to hear hers.