When a Black Woman and Everybody Else Values Her AND Her Work

An Uncomfortable Commentary

In the movie Monster-In-Law, Viola (Jane Fonda) and Ruby (Wanda Sykes) have the following exchange that is hands down, the best part of the movie.

Viola (JF): Ruby, what’s wrong?

Ruby (WS): I am sick! I am sick, sick, sick of your shit! And when I’m not sick, I’m tired! I am sick and tired!

Viola (JF): What are you trying to say?

Ruby is sick and tired of Viola undervaluing and devaluing her, not to mention, she is exhausted from being dragged into Viola’s craziness while being expected to clean up the mess that is sure to follow.

That exchange between Viola and Ruby captures EXACTLY how so many black women have told me they have felt. Truth be known, I have felt it too.

As co-founder of a 15 year-old company, I have been the visionary, the leader, the strategist, the rainmaker, the brand ambassador, the innovator, the advisor, the director, the subject matter expert — I don’t just regurgitate the work and ideas of others, I connect ideas and words differently, I create. I have paid my dues in the midst of buying parts, building the plane, flying it, and deciding if it’s going to be a jet or a helicopter. I developed my expertise in the realest ways possible — by doing hard work, often in uncharted territory — in the midst of people who often see me as a threat.

While on that journey, I have listened to black woman and here is what I’ve heard.

I am sick and tired of people from every part of my professional universe failing to value my contributions as they value the contributions of men and women of other races. In fact, regularly, people will select my white and/or male counterparts to do work for which they are under-qualified and then expect me to bat clean-up. I’m supposed to throw on my cape and fix their mess with limited time and pay — because it’s “the right thing to do.”

I am sick and tired of people who believe I should just give away my best ideas, not to mention my time, as an act of self-flagellation to prove I am truly committed and down for the cause.

I am sick and tired of having my work and words misappropriated. Too many times I have listened to black women tell me about the repeated theft of their intellectual capital and property. It is what happens when someone else (who isn’t a black woman) says the words they have been saying for years and then magically, “the powers that be” CHOOSE to call that person the “expert” while failing to acknowledge that the ideas and concepts came from a black woman. Adding insult to injury, black women often taught that “expert” what they know.

I am sick and tired of people in power positioning brilliant black women to be highly-visible and highly-paid “overseers” — with the sole purpose of maintaining the status quo. These black women assume ALL of the risk without having any real power; sacrifice their health and their relationships with other black people; and take bullets for institutions they can’t control and companies they’ll never own or lead — without a flak jacket or a long-term return on their investment.

I am sick and tired of being asked to be the unpaid advisor who should just be happy to have my travel costs paid. Then, when I ask for compensation commensurate with the value I bring, the response is that others aren’t being paid. Those “others” have always gotten paid more than black women and can usually afford to show up for free. Even if they can’t, that’s their choice, not mine. Why do you think a black woman should be a financial martyr? Doing good and doing well are not mutually exclusive although the world wants to convince black women they are — especially when it applies to us. BLACK WOMEN: Read on to see one thing you really should do when you negotiate.

I am sick and tired of people wanting to negotiate my compensation based on minutes and hours. America has resisted fully compensating black women for the minutes and hours we labored in fields, homes, factories, and at front desks (where many of us have paid our dues) — so while all women are underpaid, black and brown women are disproportionately underpaid. My compensation shouldn’t be based on my time. Respect my time but pay me based on my value. If you don’t know what that is — I am happy to explain.

· My value is every experience and speck of wisdom that I bring to analysis and strategy.

· My value is in my creative problem-solving ability, not taught by a teacher from a management school curriculum but instead, learned from the experiences of building programs and organizations from the ground up while navigating to survive relentless attacks on my credibility and my right to even try.

· My value comes from the existence of a network that couldn’t be accessed without my relationships that have been cultivated and earned over years and sometimes decades.

· My value comes from insights that I have because I have lived that life, in that community, in that family.

· My value comes from every challenge I have faced and overcome and every failure I have survived and from which I have recovered.

· My value is that I have compassion and empathy in the very marrow of my bones and that’s how I will show up — — when people deserve it.

· My value is in my bravery, the kind that means I will take intelligent and strategic risks, even if those risks are to my person, my reputation, or my livelihood.

· My value is that when I am compelled (and I don’t need to be, but I deserve to be compelled), I can out-work, out-think, and out-imagine, just about anyone.

· My value is that I can stretch a resource and make something out of nothing because I’ve done it most of my life.

That’s the short list.

I am sick and tired of being judged and excluded for being too smart, too educated, or over-qualified. Black women collect degrees for a reason. We are the most highly educated “minority.” People mistakenly think I want those degrees to help me compete when in fact there is much more to the story. They are a professional flak jacket in a world that won’t value our contributions without them. They provide life-saving protection against assassination attempts coming our way throughout our careers.

I am sick and tired of black men taking my support and solidarity for granted. I’m here for you and that means that when I “look out,” give you intel, serve as your unpaid consultant — you don’t owe me anything except to show up and come through. Do the high-quality, on-time work I know you can do. Don’t resent me when I out-work, out-hustle, or outperform you. Don’t resent or blame me for having relationships and networks that work for me but may not work for you. And don’t you dare claim my idea (explicitly or implicitly) was yours, especially when I get the opportunity you wanted. When I have your back — I expect you to have mine.

I am sick and tired of being labeled a threat because I won’t conform intellectually. I won’t make my hair conform. I won’t make my body conform. I won’t make my words conform. I won’t make my experience conform. I won’t make my tone conform. I won’t make my opinions conform. Stop expecting that I will.

I am sick and tired of having my disagreement or difference of opinion weaponized against me when it is repeatedly and intentionally mischaracterized as “anger.” Thinking differently is just that — thinking, not feeling. It’s not about my feelings or your feelings. If I want you to know how I’m feeling, I’ll let you know. Also, you don’t get to reclassify my facts as feelings. You just don’t.

I am sick and tired of being asked and expected to speak on behalf of or represent every black woman, black person, black community, or black experience. I may have an opinion, but it is just that, my opinion — not the gospel. I am not now, nor will I ever be the ambassador of all things black. I won’t be the check that you get to put in that box.

Lastly, I am sick of people pitting other black women against me and going so far as to try to use us against one another by cultivating unhealthy competition. I’m not for that life — not now — not ever. For those black women that fall for the okie doke and decide to be that tool, you might catch me flat for a minute but to be clear, I have steel in my spine and a sister circle of fire. Most of us do.

For those of you who have engaged in the aforementioned behaviors, take note:

What you NOT gon’ do is mistake our commitment for weakness.

What you NOT gon’ do is undervalue, undercompensate, or use us.

What you NOT gon’ do is steal our ideas.

What you NOT gon’ do is pressure us to be someone we’re not.

What you NOT gon’ do is pit us against other black women or men.

That is the short list.

Recently, someone asked me to provide an estimate for a scope of work and I asked her about her budget. She responded, “You tell me the real cost. This is the year for black women to get paid.”

I’m taking that a step further. This is the time for black women to stand on the value of our contributions, innovation, resilience, wisdom, skills, intellect, education, experience, and relationships.

To do that, I believe we need to demand full compensation for our full value and acknowledgment of our intellectual property. When one black woman does the work for less, that sets a low bar for the next black woman who negotiates. We need to commit to set the bar where it belongs.

ONE THING TO DO WHEN YOU NEGOTIATE: Especially for mature black women, even if you are willing to discount your compensation, you have a responsibility to say what the full cost is so that the dollar value is clear. By doing this, you are helping to set a market expectation for the value of your work and establishing the expectation for how other black women should be compensated in the future. If you merely quote the discounted price, you will devalue your work and undermine the negotiations of other black women in the future — negatively affecting equity in pay.

So, if you are a young black women, early in your career, don’t let anyone deter you from accurately monetizing your value. This applies if you are working in the non-profit or for-profit sector; working for yourself or someone else. If you enter your career low-balling yourself, you will spend a lifetime trying to recoup what you have lost. This requires risk assessment and bravery when you are negotiating. Seek counsel from a mentor if you are unsure of how to value your work.

It took me months to get brave enough to release this commentary into the world because I knew it would generate anger, angst, and discomfort but on this 2019 Equal Pay Day, I know this is the time to say what needs to be said because as Fannie Lou Hamer said, “I am sick and tired of being sick and tired.”

THE END

For more on women, leadership, and equity:

#GetUncomfortable. A full-bodied embrace of all that I am and full-throated expression of all that I think. I opine strongly but judge rarely.

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