Black women in power at predominately White spaces typically have two options: the institution’s way, or the highway.
Claudine Gay, the former president of Harvard University and the first Black woman to hold the position, was faced with these same options and was forced out of her position in less than one year.
“Forced out” is no exaggeration, either. Ms. Gay was targeted by a coordinated conservative smear effort, and the mastermind of that plan has gloated about doing just that. The entire goal was to get this Black woman out of America’s most powerful position in academia.
Ms. Gay’s experience at Harvard teaches us that the spaces that often appear to be progressive or turning the tide on their legacy of White supremacy culture will often still allow that same culture to rear its ugly head. While it may also be true that Black leaders who ascend to these posts of power likely have to uphold its oppressive values in some way, at the end of the day, White supremacy culture will always choose to protect itself.
Nearly every Black woman I know who has worked in academia, corporate, and especially nonprofit and philanthropy, has experienced something similar to Ms. Gay. We may not have been the highly visible target of a specific right-wing campaign, but we do know what it’s like to be scrutinized during an interview process and put under a microscope the moment we step into a new leadership position.
If you work in DEI, you have likely seen an instance like this play out in your place of work. While the confetti still falls from the new year, you may be setting up new goals for your company’s DEI efforts — but I would encourage you to take a beat, and have an honest reflection on the state of equity in your workplace.
Ms. Gay’s experience provides us with a few critical questions to consider for your own efforts to dismantle anti-Blackness in the workplace:
Are we exercising moral courage?
When I first heard the news of Ms. Gay’s resignation, one of the first questions on my mind was where were her supporters? While allyship in progressive space is often a myth, I still wondered where said allies were when their power and influence was most needed?
If you are a professional who works alongside DEI practitioners, consider how your efforts are or are not supporting the dismantling of anti-Blackness in the workplace.
It can often feel difficult to make decisions that break tradition or precedent, but remember that said precedents come at the expense of the Black and Brown people on your team. When faced with a decision to stick with more of the same or move forward, how will you show up?
What characteristics of White supremacy culture is your company still upholding through its policies and procedures?
It took allegations of plagiarism to ultimately be the deciding factor in Ms. Gay’s tenure. The pettiness it took to scan through Ms. Gay’s prior academic work for instances of plagiarism is something that frequently happens to Black women in the workplace. Their work is evaluated through the same lens that intentionally looks for error, and prioritizes perfection.
We can be mindful of this in the workplace by making feedback attributed to a specific assignment, and not one’s personal, intellectual, or moral ability.
Ms. Gay’s resignation is a disheartening and cautionary tale of the abuse that Black women in power are too often subjected to. Creating workplaces where they can thrive is key to healing from such painful experiences, and ending anti-Black racism in the workplace.