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Why Jane Campion’s dismissal of Venus and Serena Williams is a teachable moment for allies

March 15, 2022, 7:24 PM UTC

Director Jane Campion had many options available to her when she took to the microphone to accept the best director award for The Power of the Dog at Sunday night’s Critics Choice Awards. She could have thanked the critics, cast, and fans. She could have told an inspiring story about dreaming big. Hey, she could have told some children it was time to go to bed.

Instead, she turned to address Venus and Serena Williams, seated in the audience and said: “Venus and Serena, you’re such marvels. However, you don’t play against the guys, like I have to.”

Uh oh.

The backlash to her comments and delivery was swift—and necessary.

“We should be paying close attention to Jane Campion’s comments,” Mita Mallick, Head of Inclusion, Equity and Impact for Carta tells raceAhead. “Because the easy thing to do is to dismiss her comments or even to dismiss her. The harder thing to do is acknowledge and embrace this as a teachable moment.”

Let’s start with what she said.

When a beaming Campion waved away Venus and Serena and declared herself the true winner of some invisible equity challenge, she erased the lived experiences of two very public, very accomplished Black women, whose experiences with racism and misogyny in their chosen profession has been well-documented.

“Campion clearly hasn’t either seen or understood any of the countless racist experiences Serena and Venus Williams have encountered in their careers,” says Mallick. The list is long: Mistaken for each other. Body-shamed. Categorized as “angry.” And people have been saying the quiet parts out loud since they were teen athletes. “Serena Williams was depicted in a racist cartoon, has suffered racist jeers on the court, has been underpaid and undervalued,” Mallick says.

If Campion can unconsciously diminish the experience of two extraordinary Black women everyone knows, imagine what’s happening behind the scenes at companies across the world.

“We can look at this as a textbook example of ‘white woman privilege,’ coupled with an unnecessary put down of Venus and Serena,” says Daisy Auger-Domínguez, Chief People Officer at Vice Media and author of the newly released book, Inclusion Revolution. While it was clearly obtuse, it’s also dangerous. “Well-educated, well-intentioned, and even open-minded people often move along their lives severely underestimating the impact of their racialized actions and privilege.”

And it plays out in the lives of Black professional women.

Black women experience a persistent pay gap that contributes to an intractable wealth gap. Their time to promotion lags that of their white female counterparts (and mostly everyone else.) They are underrepresented in leadership roles. And, according to The State of Black Women In Corporate America, a groundbreaking report from Lean In and McKinsey, they are more likely to have their successes attributed to affirmative action, luck, or— and this is me editorializing here —some other form of “magic.” (I’ll get to Campion’s “marvel” comment in a moment.)

This has all been happening on the watch of all sorts of well-educated, well-intentioned, and open-minded people. Now what?

“This is a moment for white women who are on a journey to be an ally to Black women to really pay attention,” says Mallick.  Auger-Domínguez agrees. “I define allyship as sacrificing my comfort for the comfort of others,” she says. “In this case, Jane inadvertently added to the exclusion and hurt that comes from not being welcomed into mostly white and male social and business networks.”

While Campion has issued an apology, it’s time to walk through the opening she inadvertently created.

“Women who hold multiple marginalized identities experience many more challenges and obstacles to progress,” says Auger-Domínguez. White women who want to become allies can build—or rebuild—relationships with Black female colleagues by asking better questions, she says. “Seek to understand: ‘When have you felt safe, comfortable, and respected?’ ‘What have been the biggest barriers to your success and wellbeing?’ ‘How can I help you overcome these? and ‘How can we do this together?’”

Oh, and while we’re on the subject, stop calling us things like “magic” or “marvels.” Black women are overlooked for their hard work every day. Acknowledge that you understand the dedication that goes into our excellence, and then we’ll talk.

Let’s get intersectional. Black, Latina, Asian/AAPI women: What, in your view, needs to happen for white women to become better allies? How can we be allies to each other? What do leaders need to know about inclusion, LGBTQ, non-binary women, disabled women? White women: What are you doing that’s working? Write me back, subject line: Campion

Ellen McGirt

This edition of raceAhead was edited by Wandy Felicita Ortiz.

On Point

Who gives to Black justice causes? Women Give 2022: Racial Justice, Gender and Generosity is the first study to examine how gender and demographics informed giving to racial justice causes in 2020. Turns out, lots of people expressed support for racial justice movements, like Black Lives Matter—42% of U.S. households supported or were actively involved in racial justice protests that year. But when it came to financing the work, only 14% of U.S. households donated. Who was most likely to donate? Single women of all races, Black-led households, LGBTQ+ households, and younger households.
Indiana University, Lilly Family School of Philanthropy

What’s a toxic culture got to do with it? Researchers from MIT examined employee attrition data to help understand what managers could do to stave off their exposure to the Great Resignation. It’s an issue: Between April and September 2021, more than 24 million American employees left their jobs. Researchers examined some 34 million online employee profiles broken down by industry; they also included wage-earners. Turns out, toxic culture is the top predictor of employee turnover—10 times more important than compensation. “Our analysis found that the leading elements contributing to toxic cultures include failure to promote diversity, equity, and inclusion; workers feeling disrespected; and unethical behavior.” Oh.
MIT Sloan

Women of color lag behind in the workplace This piece from Washington University sociology professor Adia Harvey Wingfield does a terrific job rounding up recent scholarship on the experience of women of color in their professional lives and chronicles how Black, Latina, and AAPI women often face barriers based on stereotyping or distinct forms of sexual harassment. And white executive discomfort often means that women of color are excluded from networks, connections, coaching, and mentoring. “[E]xecutives who rarely, if ever, have Black people in their personal or professional circles may be uncertain or uncomfortable interacting with them as peers. Other times, this lack of mentoring is a consequence of intentional exclusion when leaders make it a point not to include Black women in teams, as mentees, or on important projects.”

On background, according to y'all

Shortly before the world shut down, raceAhead launched According to Y’all, an occasional feature that aimed to crowdsource the collective wisdom of the greatest audience in newsletter history. We were able to publish one glorious piece before COVID hit. In the spirit of more voices, all the time, I’d like to resurrect it now, as we mark the grim, two-year anniversary of the week that the world stood still.

Here is a sampling from your suggestions for a podcast series or episode that offers unique insight into race, history, or that help to explain current events, and that I thought might be helpful given today's essay:

There was one clear winner that nearly everyone recommended with their whole, entire hearts:  The ‘1619’ audio series associated with The 1619 Project. Boom.

A close second was ‘Seeing White’ from Scene On Radio, the Peabody-nominated project from the Center for Documentary Studies at Duke University. It’s also an unabashed raceAhead favorite. Diana Cruz Solash, a vice president of inclusion and diversity, says the series excels at explaining “all the ways in which racial discrimination is baked into our systems and institutions.” She especially recommends the episode on white affirmative action. Ashley Walls, a writer at Microsoft, is also a fan. “As a biracial black woman, I felt like this was a whole new angle into the discussion. Friends who didn't like to talk about race found this a really interesting way to enter the discussion.”

Sharline Chiang is a director of strategic communications and a co-host of Democracy in Color with Steve Phillips" podcast and wrote in to shout out her own work. Good for you Sharline: “Each episode offers insight to how the history of white supremacy in this country has led to the current political conditions we have today,” she says. She also says the demographic revolution in the U.S., if properly invested in, can save us from racist politics and practices in 2020 and beyond. Check out: How To Defeat A Racist, with Tim Wise.

Valerie Myers recommended We Live Here from NPR; any episode from season 1. Also, "The Segregation Myth-Buster" "The Present Day of Public Housing's Past. “Although this podcast is about the City of St. Louis, it also is a fascinating deep dive into how race and economics affect housing in this country,” she says. “Particularly, how the imbalance of power between races and numerous governmental policies specifically designed to segregate have had a profound and far-reaching effect on opportunity, housing, employment, crime and overall quality of life that many people experience.”

Grace, an afterschool educator, recommended See Something, Say Something, with Ahmed Ali Akbar. Specifically: Ghee Something, Say Something, about food appropriation); Where Do We Go, about the 2016 election and the SCOTUS responses to the Muslim travel bans. “It's a great podcast about being Muslim in the US and the many ways that manifests great things and really, really hard things,” she says. She also recommends Tell Them, I Am, for similar reasons. “[It’s] more about using individual stories to illuminate identity and character, and it's delightful.”

Parting words

"White supremacy is the conscious or unconscious belief or the investment in the inherent superiority of some, while others are believed to be innately inferior. And it doesn't demand the individual participation of the singular bigot. It is a machine operating in perpetuity because it doesn't demand that somebody be in place driving."

Michael Eric Dyson​


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