Local & State Voices

The invisible tightrope for women of color

City Council member LaWana Mayfield was removed from the NC Human Relations Commission for a controversial tweet on police.
City Council member LaWana Mayfield was removed from the NC Human Relations Commission for a controversial tweet on police. jsiner@charlotteobserver.com

Nine months ago, when Stephon Clark was gunned down in his grandmother’s Sacramento backyard holding nothing but a phone, LaWana Mayfield tweeted, “Being Black in America under #45 (Donald Trump) has created homegrown terrorist [sic] wearing blue uniforms. #AReckoningIsComing.” Nearly 9 months later, Mayfield was appointed to a Human Relations Committee under Gov. Roy Cooper. One article, one letter from NC Senate GOP members later—none of whom are people of color—and the appointment was rescinded.

And before we dismiss her use of “homegrown terrorist” as false and inflammatory, let’s note she made clear days later that she was not defining all police officers, but instead speaking to the kind of brutality that even Martin Luther King Jr denounced. Furthermore, in 2006 the US FBI Counterterrorism Division stated directly in a bulletin that there was a problem with “white supremacists infiltrating local and state law enforcement,” with no subsequent action. In other words, Mayfield’s use of “homegrown terrorist” was consistent with the descriptions of infiltrators identified in 2006. While the words may have been uncomfortable to hear for many white Americans, it didn’t make them any less accurate.

Mayfield’s entrance/exit experience in this situation was not unique, but a microcosm of the experiences of many women of color (WOC) in leadership. Where we often cite being direct as a leadership quality, all directness is not handled the same. As a man who has had many female supervisors, I acknowledge that the assertive/aggressive window is much smaller for women then for men. As a black man, I learned early that this window was smaller for me than for white male friends. But I’ve learned repeatedly over time that for women of color, with the double tax of race and gender, the assertive/aggressive window is the smallest.

This phenomenon is so prevalent that there is a meme that shows the progression of many WOC entering a space (often, but not exclusively nonprofit) of significant white leadership that goes through the stages of: Honeymoon; uncomfortable reality offered by WOC; denial response by leadership; and retaliation with the woman of color eventually exiting.

In Charlotte, we are fortunate to have many bright and talented WOC in our midst. Unfortunately, we also muffle many of them, squander their talents and sometimes lose them to other communities when they don’t feel supported to bring their authentic experiences and perspectives. As Jack Nicholson might say: We can’t handle the truth. As a nation, we struggle with truth and reconciliation on race; we struggle with truth and reconciliation on gender. When they are packaged together as one, we’re often overwhelmed. We have WOC on boards or even as organizational leaders who walk on egg shells over bringing their full selves, fearing being treated as a problem, frozen or pushed out. This often creates tokenism and status quo maintenance versus the real sustained change that we say we’re pursuing.

If after reading this, your instinct is to go ask your organization’s WOC if they feel this way or assume “not here,” please don’t. Assume things can improve and explore what can be done. None of us are immune. This is not one woman’s cry, but a cultural epidemic. Our community meals not only need WOC at the table, but the full assortment of ingredients that they bring. Much like my grandmother’s collard greens, some may initially shock the pallet. But in time, you’ll crave them and realize that your meals without them had long been incomplete.

Email: justinperry.observer@gmail.com