Black Women Can’t Bridge the Gender Gap Alone: raceAhead

August 22, 2019, 8:07 PM UTC

About twelve years ago, my sister needed to be hospitalized, stat. I was there to help her checkin, a fraught exchange of questions and answers in a rapid-fire call and response: Symptoms? Insurance? Known allergies? Oh, and who is this woman who brought you?

We get that last one a lot. While we share one white parent, we have different fathers. She’s all white and I’m not. As a result, we look nothing alike.

“This is my sister, Ellen,” she explained. “This is Sister Ellen,” the intake nurse intoned back. “No, this is my sister, Ellen,” she said wearily. The nurse looked up and blinked at me. “Right, this is Sister Ellen,” she said, and then wrote something down and twirled away as a thousand no-no-no-noes tumbled out of my mouth.

And that was how I temporarily became a nun. 

Much later, she came into the waiting room. “Oh, Sister!” She was looking at me. An elderly patient was a bit sad and lonely. Was I busy? Did I mind?

White cultures routinely serve up moments like these for people of color, inconvenient blindspots that lead to awkward assumptions, like the black and brown women scientists who are routinely mistaken for custodial staff, or the black moms of mixedrace kids who are assumed to be the nanny. Maybe it’s just the chirpy individual contributor who can’t possibly imagine you, a black woman, is their new boss! 

When it happens, as it does regularly, it inevitably leads to an exhausting internal debate, a decision tree filled with pros, cons, and doubts. Am I reading this situation correctly? Is this person a problem? Do I explain it to them? Is it worth potentially alienating a person that I need to be on my team, as in this case, to take excellent care of my sister?

“I’ll go look in on her,” I said, too tired to finish the danger algorithm. 

I was reminded of this cringey bit of business during another more recent urgent hospital visit. My mother slipped and shattered her hip last month. I sat beside her day after day as she recovered, equally shattered, but in a totally different way.

Like most of the patients at the lovely rehab facility where she got excellent care, she is white. Like most of the aides, caregivers, and administrative assistants, I am black. The occasional misidentification from patients who were in pain or without their glasses never bothered me much. Being ordered around or, worse, looked at in a certain tone of voice by their executiveclass family members or men in white lab coats, well and surely did.

Today is Black Women’s Equal Pay Day, and I’m thinking about those wonderful women who took care of my mom and me at the worst possible time, when she was in pain and I was beside myself with worry. (And dozens of other patients and family members, too.) They were amused by the occasional errand I ran for other patients, or the necessary stink eyes I delivered on their behalf.  (The algorithm was easy to run since I wasn’t a hostage to the system.) They let me orbit their squad and I was comforted by their welcome. They even gave me a spot in the employee parking lot when I was really pressed, and occasionally let me sit in their break room when I wrote to you.  

But like my brief promotion to Sister Ellen, I was just a temp.

Most of these women, who can expect a lifetime working longer and for less pay than non-Hispanic white men, are also currently juggling two and three jobs, often to afford more training so they can get slightly better positions in a field that still regards them as the help. Many are immigrants, now uncertain of their future in their country of choice. 

They may be too busy, too tired, or too afraid to fight for equal pay. That’s why we have to.

My mother is home now and on the mend. But just so you know, when I visited that elderly patient many years ago, I made it clear that no absolution was coming from me. “Trust me, I’m not a nun,” I told her. “I get it,” she said in a slightly smirky way. “I washed out of that whole Catholic thing years ago, too.”  

And that’s how I became a failed temp nun. 

Waddaya gonna do? We ended up having a lovely chat that probably meant more to me than it did to her. Sometimes being a frightened human is really the only shared identity that matters.

The rest of the time, you have to keep up the work.

On Point

Know hope on Black Women’s Equal Pay Day My wonderfully intersectional colleagues, Kristen Bellstrom and Emma Hinchliffe, broke down the math of the gender gap through the lens of black working women in today’s Broadsheet. "Over the course of a 40-year career, the typical lost wages totaling $946,120—yes, nearly a million bucks, according to the National Women’s Law Center. Even more demoralizing: The gap is incredibly stubborn, narrowing just 18 cents in the past 50 years.” But they do make the point that black women are addressing inequity by building equity, touting Arian Simone and Keshia Knight Pulliam’s new The Fearless Fund, an investment scheme that will invest in “women of color-led businesses seeking pre-seed, seed level, or series A funding.” Please subscribe to the Broadsheet here. Fortune

Unpacking the latest Trump move to end the Flores Agreement The Flores Agreement, a rule that placed a limit of 20 days for detaining children, has been canceled by the Trump Administration. That means families can now, together, be held indefinitely. And WBUR has a roundup for you, with some thoughts from guests Molly O’Toole, an immigration and security reporter for the Los Angeles Times, Sen. Jeff Merkley (D-Ore.), and Mike Howell, a former Department of Homeland Security oversight counsel. As a preview, here’s a line from Sen. Merkley’s book America is Better Than This: Trump’s War Against Migrant Families: “President Trump has taken America to a dark place.” WBUR

Twitter stepping in after Manchester United player racially abused on the platform The racist online pile-on happened after Paul Pogba, a French mid-fielder on Manchester United, missed a penalty kick. Several of his teammates were vocal in his defense, and the manager for the English women’s team called for a boycott. "We have to take drastic measures now as a football community. I've had it with my players on social media, the Premier League and the Championship have had it," said Phil Neville.  Twitter issued a statement saying they plan to meet with the team and all stakeholders to address the "proactive work" they’ve been doing. "We have always maintained an open and healthy dialogue with our partners in this space, but we know we need to do more to protect our users,” it said. "To this end, we look forward to working more closely with our partners to develop shared solutions to this issue." BBC 

Uighur Muslims use TikTok to remind of ‘Beijing’s mass-internment campaign’ While most TikTok users are posting short, largely inconsequential, videos set to music, Uighur Muslims are posting silent clips of themselves crying in front of photos of missing family members. At least one million Uighurs, a minority from the Xinjiang region of China, have been held in detention camps since 2017—and family members are "memorializ[ing]" those taken. It’s mostly happening on Douyin, the Chinese version of the app, and government censors have already begun to crack down on the app. But these clips, incredibly dangerous moves for these families, are further poking holes in the Chinese government’s narrative that these people have simply voluntary joined "vocational schools." Wall Street Journal

On Background

Who shares your view on race? Pew Social Trends asked 6,637 U.S. adults about their views on race relations, racial inequality, and the newly reinterpreted history. You will not be surprised to learn that Americans are divided along racial lines on key issues like how to address inclusion. More white people than black or Hispanic say that we should focus on what different groups have in common, rather than on what makes us different, for example. But while the majority of people surveyed that race relations are generally bad, there is a huge divide over whether or not the legacy of slavery affects people today. Click through for the brief 11-question survey to see where you fit into the mix. Pew Social Trends

Ms. Dori Sanders has some peaches to sell you You will want to imagine the cobbler you could make from Ms. Sanders’ peaches, which she still grows herself at age 85, on land that’s been in her South Carolina family since 1915. Her story is deeply intertwined in the story of this country. Her grandfather, a freed slave, didn’t own any land. But her father, Marion, was determined to end the legacy of sharecropping in his family. Through the help of a loan from white landowners, he was able to buy the land where his daughter, the eighth of 10,  still works a tractor and greets people at the farm's roadside stand. She’s one of the few black farm owners left. “Why would we sell it? We want to hold on to this land for as long as we can. It is my hope that the generations after I’m gone will be land conscious and hold on to it too. Because, the truth is, no more land will be made.” Zora on Medium

Not everyone is ready to go back to school Three professor/researchers have published new research that shows how a lack of access to reliable, basic tech disadvantages low-income students in higher education. “Laptops and cell phones might seem ubiquitous on college campuses, but Amy Gonzales, @teresa_lynch, and I find that low-income students and students of color rely on older, problem-prone devices and that those tech problems are associated with lower GPAs,” tweeted Jessica McCrory Calarco. The problem is compounded by a lack of access to the internet at home, and a lack of resources to find fixes. As a result, students rely heavily on libraries and computer labs to download work, finish assignments, and collaborate with other students. Click through for some policy suggestions that might help. Sage Journals

Tamara El-Waylly helps write and produce raceAhead.

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“Domestic workers live in poor neighborhoods, and then they go to work in very wealthy ones. They cross cultures and generations and borders and boundaries, and their job, no matter what, is to show up and care—to nurture, to feed, to clothe, to bathe, to listen, to encourage, to ensure safety, to support dignity... to care no matter what.”

Ai-jen Poo, director of the National Domestic Workers Alliance,  co-director of Caring Across Generations, and co-founder of Supermajority. 

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