Dear Maria: First Black Woman

I’m the first Black woman to work at my firm founded by white women.

Maria!!!! Hi girl! I am so happy you are back doing your column, congrats! I’ve been following you for years and ironically I could really use some of your advice right now. So this summer I secured a bomb job with this company in NYC. I moved back home to Michigan during the pandemic. We’re fully remote, so I only met the VPs and associates via Zoom. Besides me, the company hired like five other people around the same time. Out of this new group, four of us are Black, but I’m the only Black woman. The original existing team is all white.

Now I don’t wanna be THAT girl but it does make me raise my eyebrows to know that this company has been around almost 10 years and this is the first year they are hiring Black creators on their team. I also feel like I’m challenged more by the white women on the team. Now hear me out – they are the VPs so it’s their job to challenge all of us, but I kid you not—one of my male peers could say the same thing I’m saying and suddenly they understand and get the idea. I expressed once that my idea was shared first and I got a response like “Oh check out [redacted] gettin’ all feisty, we love it.” I texted a few of my other Black colleagues and they kinda see it too. I’ve only been here a few months, but how do I nip this in the bud so this doesn’t happen for a whole year? Because other than this, I like the job. What would you do!? 

– Fist Black Woman

Hi First Black Woman!! I’m loving this energy and appreciate you so much. I am excited to be back, and if you’re comfortable, please feel free to write to me directly so I can know who this is. Let me start off by congratulating you on the new job. Good for you, we know it’s a bit hard finding the “right” work these days. 

With the huge response to race-related issues these last few years, your situation sounds like a common one that I personally hear often, and I even experienced a similar situation myself. We are all aware that companies are scrambling to “check boxes” in order to diversify their workplace. These companies are reacting to the drastic change in consumers seeking goods and services from companies that support true diversity and inclusion. However, it can be unfair to group ALL companies together. They aren’t all making these hiring decisions solely based on box checking. In some ways, the political climate is also getting us the changes we desire as non-white POC (slowly, but progress is progress). We are now finally in the rooms we haven’t been in before and have the opportunity to make change. 

You mentioned this company has been around 10 years with no Black people on the team, which I agree, no shade, is an eyebrow raise. I’m curious if this company has ever been diverse in any other way over the years. Are there LGBT+ employees or any other POC past or present? This doesn’t negate the fact that the new hire group you are a part of are the first Black hires, but it draws a line around how closed minded they were before or not and may answer the “ why now?” question.

In my opinion, when I see the negative connotation behind ‘diversity hires’ I find that it can also actually put Black, POC & LGBT+ people in a position to infiltrate these spaces and make doors and windows for others like us. You stated that other than being challenged in a targeted way as a Black woman, you still enjoy the job overall. That leads me to believe that this team isn’t inherently racist because you sound like the type to never accept that – but this company has “work to do,”  in the words of the great Vanessa Williams! Although it is not your job to be that teacher for these people, you can very much end up being that vessel of change this company needs and set a great new standard for the Black women coming up behind you. Do you get where I’m coming from?  

Now as far as the white women who are challenging you, this is a bit hard because you stated they are the VPs, sooooo they’re your bosses. YIKES! I think there are two ways to handle this, both directly and indirectly. Email them directly (for paper trail purposes) and state that you want to have a discussion with them about best practices surrounding feedback. When the conversation happens, state the obvious, that you are new here, and that you feel you have a viewpoint different from anyone else on the team because you are the ONLY Black woman. If they are as progressive as they are hoping to appear,  they will receive that. State that in your experience you have felt shut down by them. The best thing about taking this route is that it’s all honest and on the table. 

If you prefer to take the indirect route, then maybe partner up with your Black male colleagues and see if one of them would feel comfortable bringing up the topic or conversation whenever you all do exchange feedback, etc. When the opens the floor to discuss it, that could be the perfect chance to share your experience and this time it isn’t so formal and no one feels targeted. The decision is yours, and I feel that either way you will handle yourself well without coming off as “feisty.” Let’s get that word swapped out for passionate as soon as you can, lol. 

Let me know how this turns out, I’m curious. Here’s to a great new year!

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