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Forget the ‘isms,’ embrace yourself

Friday, November 1, 2013  
Posted by: Barbara Francella
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By Ancella Bickley Livers

As I sat down to begin to write this blog, I prepared to put my "mad” on.

You know, "mad,” the frame of mind that helps you rail against the "isms,” like racism and sexism, that affect us. That’s one of the difficulties of being outside of what is defined as the norm. Because of these "isms,” you are often viewed in terms of the problems you must manage and the challenges you may present.

The "ism” mentality pushes you to focus on what you’re not, rather than who you are. The mindset is insidious because it allows other people to define you under the guise of sympathy, understanding or well-meaning critique. Thanks, but no thanks. I’d rather define myself.

So today, I decided to discuss why it’s wonderful to be a woman of color. I know about being a woman of color because I am one and I know many others. So I know that being a woman of color is not a "problem” or an "ism,” but a deeply textured and nuanced experience, one that often has intricately balanced connections. It is home.

When you are a woman of color, you often enjoy the luxury of having a different experience of womanhood. That divergent experience creates an understanding that helps all women. It gives us new concepts — other models or ideas of how we can see ourselves or behave. Some aspects of these new concepts of womanhood we’ll embrace fully, others we’ll reject totally. Yet, having an enlarged perspective of how women can be, gives us some of the most precious gifts imaginable. Among the gifts is a wonderful selection of behaviors on which to model ourselves. These gifts expand our choice.

Strength is a characteristic of many women of color. It not only allows us to survive, but to flourish in a society in which benign neglect is sometimes a hallmark. At times, strength finds its form through tears of release, expectations of excellence or simple endurance. Further, strength is often something that others cannot see. It frequently comes in the form of invisible sovereignty over one’s own thoughts, thus allowing us to overcome cultural assumptions of inadequacy. We learn that, in fact, we are people of substance, intellect and integrity. Once gained, this lesson is one we lovingly pass down to our children — those born to us and those who cross our paths. Strength is what allows us to hold our communities together.

A cultural bond

Another joy for women of color is reveling in our own heritages. There are moments of pure delight when we are with others with whom we share a cultural bond. Perhaps the connection is evident in a turn of phrase, a way of doing a task or a look that harkens to a unique experience truly understood only by the group. That instance of appreciation is one to be savored — a perfect moment that you can recall again and again. These occasions connect you to the present and also to the generations that have come before. They situate you in a tradition that can help you soar.

Yet even as we revel in our own traditions, many women of color have become adept at navigating the larger culture. We have learned to cross boundaries without losing ourselves. We’ve learned to share our own perspective while incorporating the perspectives of others. We are skilled at bridging chasms created by vastly different viewpoints and at helping those from all sides to cross the bridges we have created. In so doing, we’ve become interpreters and connectors of people. By broadening our understanding without losing ourselves, women of color help others to more effectively navigate an increasingly diverse country and world.

There are many joys of being a woman of color that get lost in the bombardment of messages that suggest that only problems are our lot in life. Certainly, complications exist — in abundance — but because we are much more than our troubles, we cannot allow these difficulties, or other people, to define us.

As senior faculty for the Center for Creative Leadership, Ancella Bickley Livers works with Fortune 500 companies, government agencies and nonprofit organizations to design and deliver leadership solutions. She has interacted with thousands of managers and executives over the past 18 years, fine-tuning her expertise on diversity issues, particularly those focusing on African Americans and women.

Views expressed in signed blogs and user comments are those of the authors and do not necessarily reflect the opinions of the Network of Executive Women or its Officers, Board members and sponsors.

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