"Are white women and women of color really allies?” "What are the differences in the issues that each face in the workplace?” "How can we forge greater collaboration between white women and women of color?”
That was the description for the "Bold Conversations” session I attended at The Forum on Workplace Inclusion earlier this year. Before the session, I felt some apprehension but knew I had to attend. I want to support, in any way I can, the power of all women.
This session was held in a curtained off area in the large exhibit hall of the Minneapolis Convention Center. It was not a quiet space. Two facilitators had arranged folding chairs in a circle. I was one of the first to arrive, and took a seat. I felt tense and awkward. Perhaps others felt the same way.
Another 14 women trickled in. They were aged early 20s to late 50s and represented all races. There was one man, an African American in his late 20s. I was one of the three white women there. Because it was hard to hear in the space, the facilitators asked that we pull our chairs closer together, to the point where are our knees were almost touching. This was definitely going to be an intimate conversion.
The facilitators asked us to begin by introducing ourselves and stating why we selected this session. The reasons for attending ranged from wanting to improve relationships with women at work to wanting to learn how to advance careers. One African American women spoke of being frustrated with her white female boss always wanted to be "nice” — rather than being real and getting to the heart of the issues in their department. When she tried to push her boss to go deeper, she was told she was being disrespectful and aggressive. She felt she was being labeled that way due to her race.
Most of the women of color in the group — Asian, Hispanic and African American— spoke of being the only person or woman of color in her department. Several spoke of feeling invisible at work.
One young woman of Indian descent spoke, with tears in her eyes, of being ignored in meetings and wanting to be invited to the table. My gut reaction kicked in and I blurted out, "You can’t wait to be invited because you never may be invited, you just have to take your seat at the table!” The African American woman in her late 50s seated right next to me said, "No, no, no. You are so far off with your thinking. That was not how I was raised. When I started working, my father told me to keep my skirt down, don’t mess with the white man’s money and be a good girl.” There was an awkward silence as we looked at each other and around the circle. I felt embarrassed and could feel my face turn red. Had I just offended most of the women in the circle?
Another African American woman and an Asian woman spoke about feeling uncomfortable speaking up at work. One African American woman said, "That has not been my experience. I was raised to believe I could be whatever I wanted to be. That I have every right to have a seat at the table and a voice in the conversation.” She then turned to the Indian woman and gave her ideas on how to improve her confidence so that she would feel strong enough to speak up.
One of the facilitators then turned the discussion back to me and the woman next to me to see if we were okay. We turned to each other and I said I was glad this happened because I had a "light bulb moment” where I realized that not every woman’s childhood messages and experiences where the same as mine.
She agreed and said she got more insight into how a Caucasian woman may be thinking. I said I felt like we were getting to the real issues and reasons why white women and women of color are not as united as we hope.
As the session ended, we went around the circle again and each said what we hoped for the future. I said I hoped for more bold conversations like this one where we can learn from one another. We can all hope and work toward more learning and growth, for every woman.