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Speaking Up At Work As A Black Woman

A common assumption and misconception follow us into the workplace every day. Here's how to rise above it.

Workin' Girl

You've heard about this stereotype before. Black women are always "angry", and we come across as unapproachable. We're the ones who are never happy; we always appear to have a bad attitude or an axe to grind. Particularly if we show any emotions or react to situations, we are seen as more aggressive and hostile than our non-Black counterparts, and our demeanor is "intimidating". This perception causes our behavior and actions to be judged differently than our peers, i.e. Serena Williams showing emotion at the 2018 US Open, and being docked a game and subsequently fined, whereas other (non-Black women) players at the highest levels of tennis do not receive such harsh penalties after exhibiting similar behavior.

These assumptions or misconceptions about Black women follow us into the workplace and can hinder us from having our voices heard, limit our opportunities, and prevent us from being our authentic selves at work every day.

But what can we actually do about it?

1.Know that if you are angry, that’s perfectly OK.

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Should you be facing difficult, frustrating situations or mistreatment, know that you have a right to be angry. Just because others in the workplace may draw conclusions about you, that doesn't mean you should hide your feelings. You are entitled to feel. Furthermore, suppressing your emotions will only cause them to manifest later with an adverse effect on your work product, performance, and interactions with your peers. So go ahead, give yourself the green light to be mad!

2.…But Be Willing to “Articulate Your Anger”.

It's not just enough to be upset. Be open to speaking up in a manner that will help others understand the specific reasons for your irritation or rage. You aren't just angry for the sake of it. Highlighting the root causes not only builds immediate awareness, but it can also drive a broader discussion about the problems you have faced and if there are solutions that can eliminate these concerns for not just you, but other Black women coming behind you.

3.Do Your Due Diligence.

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Are there other Black women in your organization? Seek them out to gain some insight into the experiences they have had in facing these stereotypes and the methods they have used to navigate such sensitive situations with management and coworkers. Not all organizations are the same, and therefore learning the specific nuances of your environment provides you a better chance of being successful in getting the right attention on the problems you raise as well as the adequate support you need. "It's not just what you say. It's HOW you say it and WHO you say it to."

4.Make the Effort. 

Before you drag me, hear me out. While you can't control the beliefs or perceptions of others or force them to change, you can control your own actions. And if we are being completely honest, for many of us, once we sense that we are perceived a certain way, we are seemingly less motivated to prove it wrong and are willing to allow others to maintain their inaccurate beliefs. However, if we are committed to driving our own career success, we do have the opportunity to instead show our organizations that we are valuable and positive members of the team.

Don't skip the after-work events with the team, try attending a few.Engage in conversations with colleagues and management and begin building organic relationships. Those relaxed environments allow you to start forming bonds with the team that can then translate to the office.

Also, don't be afraid to offer your expertise. If you have a wealth of knowledge and experience in a particular area, take steps to share it with others on the team.

Develop a solid working relationship with your supervisor.Outside of formal meetings, spend time sharing ideas with them as well as requesting their input and perspective on your work. Given this is the person who is helping to manage your career on your behalf and therefore may be involved in conversations about you (WITHOUT you), helping to shape their perception of you can go a long way in setting the organization's opinion of you.

Making the effort in these areas helps you to build rapport with your workgroup, shows the value that you bring, and can give a glimpse into your personality. When people have a chance to get to know you, they are far less likely to assume the worst or view your initial reactions to situations negatively.

Now will you completely eliminate the "Angry Black Woman" stereotype from your workplace if you follow these steps? No. But you can give yourself a better opportunity to have your voice heard and still thrive even in spite of it.

For more information about Julia Rock, check out Rock Career Development or follow her on Instagram.

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You may not know her by Elisabeth Ovesen – writer and host of the love, sex and relationships advice podcast Asking for a Friend. But you definitely know her other alter ego, Karrine Steffans, the New York Times best-selling author who lit up the literary and entertainment world when she released what she called a “tell some” memoir, Confessions of a Video Vixen.

Her 2005 barn-burning book gave an inside look at the seemingly glamorous world of being a video vixen in the ‘90s and early 2000s, and exposed the industry’s culture of abuse, intimidation, and misogyny years before the Me Too Movement hit the mainstream. Her follow-up books, The Vixen Diaries (2007) and The Vixen Manual: How To Find, Seduce And Keep The Man You Want (2009) all topped the New York Times best-seller list. After a long social media break, she's back. xoNecole caught up with Ovesen about the impact of her groundbreaking book, what life is like for her now, and why she was never “before her time”– everyone else was just late to the revolution.

xoNecole: Tell me about your new podcast Asking for a Friend with Elisabeth Ovesen and how that came about.

Elisabeth Ovesen: I have a friend who is over [at Blavity] and he just asked me if I wanted to do something with him. And that's just kinda how it happened. It wasn't like some big master plan. Somebody over there was like, “Hey, we need content. We want to do this podcast. Can you do it?” And I was like, “Sure.” And that's that. That was around the holidays and so we started working on it.

xoNecole: Your life and work seem incredibly different from when you first broke out on the scene. Can you talk a bit about the change in your career and how your life is now?

EO: Not that different. I mean my life is very different, of course, but my work isn't really that different. My life is different, of course, because I'm 43. My career started when I was in my 20s, so we're looking at almost 20 years since the beginning of my career. So, naturally life has changed a lot since then.

I don’t think my career has changed a whole lot – not as far as my writing is concerned, and my stream of consciousness with my writing, and my concerns and the subject matter hasn’t changed much. I've always written about interpersonal relationships, sexual shame, male ego fragility, respectability politics – things like that. I always put myself in the center of that to make those points, which I think were greatly missed when I first started writing. I think that society has changed quite a bit. People are more aware. People tell me a lot that I have always been “before my time.” I was writing about things before other people were talking about that; I was concerned about things before my generation seemed to be concerned about things. I wasn't “before my time.” I think it just seems that way to people who are late to the revolution, you know what I mean?

I retired from publishing in 2015, which was always the plan to do 10 years and retire. I was retired from my pen name and just from the business in general in 2015, I could focus on my business, my education and other things, my family. I came back to writing in 2020 over at Medium. The same friend that got me into the podcast, actually as the vice president of content over at Medium and was like, “Hey, we need some content.” I guess I’m his go-to content creator.

xoNecole: Can you expound on why you went back to your birth name versus your stage name?

EO: No, it was nothing to expound upon. I mean, writers have pen names. That’s like asking Diddy, why did he go by Sean? I didn't go back. I've always used that. Nobody was paying attention. I've never not been myself. Karrine Steffans wrote a certain kind of book for a certain kind of audience. She was invented for the urban audience, particularly. She was never meant to live more than 10 years. I have other pen names as well. I write under several names. So, the other ones are just nobody's business right now. Different pen names write different things. And Elisabeth isn’t my real name either. So you'll never know who I really am and you’ll never know what my real name is, because part of being a writer is, for me at least, keeping some sort of anonymity. Anything I do in entertainment is going to amass quite a bit because who I am as a person in my private life isn't the same a lot of times as who I am publicly.

xoNecole: I want to go back to when you published Confessions of a Video Vixen. We are now in this time where people are reevaluating how the media mistreated women in the spotlight in the 2000s, namely women like Britney Spears. So I’d be interested to hear how you feel about that period of your life and how you were treated by the media?

EO: What I said earlier. I think that much of society has evolved quite a bit. When you look back at that time, it was actually shocking how old-fashioned the thinking still was. How women were still treated and how they're still treated now. I mean, it hasn't changed completely. I think that especially for the audience, I think it was shocking for them to see a woman – a woman of color – not be sexually ashamed.

I hate being like other people. I don't want to do what anyone else is doing. I can't conform. I will not conform. I think in 2005 when Confessions was published, that attitude, especially about sex, was very upsetting. Number one, it was upsetting to the men, especially within urban and hip-hop culture, which is built on misogyny and thrives off of it to this day. And the women who protect these men, I think, you know, addressing a demographic that is rooted in trauma that is rooted in sexual shame, trauma, slavery of all kinds, including slavery of the mind – I think it triggered a lot of people to see a Black woman be free in this way.

I think it said a lot about the people who were upset by it. And then there were some in “crossover media,” a lot of white folks were upset too, not gonna lie. But to see it from Black women – Tyra Banks was really upset [when she interviewed me about Confessions in 2005]. Oprah wasn't mad [when she interviewed me]. As long as Oprah wasn’t mad, I was good. I didn't care what anybody else had to say. Oprah was amazing. So, watching Black women defend men, and Black women who had a platform, defend the sexual blackmailing of men: “If you don't do this with me, you won't get this job”; “If you don't do this in my trailer, you're going to have to leave the set”– these are things that I dealt with.

I just happened to be the kind of woman who, because I was a single mother raising my child all by myself and never got any help at all – which I still don't. Like, I'm 24 in college – not a cheap college either – one of the best colleges in the country, and I'm still taking care of him all by myself as a 21-year-old, 20-year-old, young, single mother with no family and no support – I wasn’t about to say no to something that could help me feed my son for a month or two or three.

xoNecole: We are in this post-Me Too climate where women in Hollywood have come forward to talk about the powerful men who have abused them. In the music industry in particular, it seems nearly impossible for any substantive change or movement to take place within music. It's only now after three decades of allegations that R. Kelly has finally been convicted and other men like Russell Simmons continue to roam free despite the multiple allegations against him. Why do you think it's hard for the music industry to face its reckoning?

EO: That's not the music industry, that's urban music. That’s just Black folks who make music and nobody cares about that. That's the thing; nobody cares...Nobody cares. It's not the music industry. It's just an "urban" thing. And when I say "urban," I say that in quotations. Literally, it’s a Black thing, where nobody gives a shit what Black people do to Black people. And Russell didn't go on unchecked, he just had enough money to keep it quiet. But you know, anytime you're dealing with Black women being disrespected, especially by Black men, nobody gives a shit.

And Black people don't police themselves so it doesn't matter. Why should anybody care? And Black women don't care. They'll buy an R. Kelly album right now. They’ll stream that shit right now. They don’t care. So, nobody cares. Nobody cares. And if you're not going to police yourself, then nobody's ever going to care.

xoNecole: Do you have any regrets about anything you wrote or perhaps something you may have omitted?

EO: Absolutely not. No. There's nothing that I wish I would've gone back and said to myself, no. I don’t think at 20-something years old, I'm supposed to understand every little thing. I don't think the 20-something-year-old woman is supposed to understand the world and know exactly what she's doing. I think that one of my biggest regrets, which isn't my regret, but a regret, is that I didn't have better parents. Because a 20-something only knows what she knows based on what she’s seen and what she’s been taught and what she’s told. I had shitty parents and a horrible family. Just terrible. These people had no business having children. None of them. And a lot of our families are like that. And we may pass down those familial curses.

*This interview has been edited and condensed

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Feature image courtesy of Elisabeth Ovesen

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