Serena Williams is Working in Your Company. Can You See Her?

Sep 19, 2018 | All Blogs, Discomfort, Making the Invisible Visible, Psychological Safety, Reconciliation, White Supremacy Culture

More than a Tennis Match

When the story broke about Serena Williams’ US Open loss to Naomi Osaka, I experienced a visceral reaction that I didn’t have words for at the time. After reading the coverage, I was still reaching to understand why Serena’s experience felt so personal to me, why I couldn’t stop thinking about her.

Then, the other morning, my phone exploded with a text conversation among a group of fellow professional black women, as if they had been reading my mind, about the Serena Williams story. My peers were outraged and pained at the injustice and hypocrisy that condemned Serena Williams for having an “unprofessional meltdown,” while a string of white male players’ regular and even violent outbursts for the past four decades has been brushed off as a function of their competitive natures.

This text conversation and a subsequent chat with my coach brought it all together for me. Professional black women in the corporate world see Serena Williams’ frustration with an intimate familiarity and deep empathy, because we have lived it, and often continue to live it in our careers.

Serena Williams Works for You

Black women show up daily and are not seen. We filter our difference to make everyone less uncomfortable and we maneuver within a culture that sees us for what they think we should be and not what we truly are. Despite our elite educations and honed expertise, despite being at the top of our game, people see us as mere transgressions of expectations.

Like Serena, we are breaking our rackets, too. Some of us are doing it out loud—disrupting meetings, speaking up against bias, defending our position, standing our ground, or refusing to chart any course other than our own. Some of us are protesting silently while we plan our exits, ready to take with us our knowledge, talent, and irreplaceable contributions.

The Context of Anger

When we break our metaphoric rackets, people get afraid and defensive. We are out of bounds and out of line and out of place. This is how the trope of the Angry Black Woman gets born—when white corporate culture cannot handle the frustrations that it freely and easily affords others, just because it’s coming from black women. Consider for a moment how fraught a woman of color’s context is.

Here is Serena’s context. Before she broke her racket on September 8: Her French Open ranking fell from No. 1 to No. 453 because she took maternity leave. She had her French Open suit criticized and banned by the French Tennis Federation. Arguing a call has caused a line judge to claim fear for their safety, while men argue aggressively over calls all the time. Serena has been penalized and even chastised for daring to make a noise after executing an incredible shot when nearly all players do this reflexively in an intense moment.

These are only a few examples of how Serena’s body and behavior have been scrutinized and policed, both by tennis officials and the court of public opinion.

All things being equal, Serena should be penalized for breaking her racket. However, nothing is equal.

Do You See Her?

Who is the Serena Williams in your company? The star talent no one can actually believe made it this far. The one who frightens people because she out-achieves, out-performs, and shows up as herself. Or the one who is playing by the rules just long enough to bring her talents to a safer corporate culture that can see her.

Have you responded to her frustration with fear and condemnation? How have you ever tried to understand its deep and fraught context?

In what ways can you imagine your black female colleague has been scrutinized and policed? By people in positions of power—professors, police, CEOs, judges, presidents—and people who simply assume the right to have an opinion about her?

Take a step back. Have you ever thought about your black female colleague’s experience?

Five Ways of Seeing

When you open your eyes to your black female colleague, here is how you can truly see her. Consider this a new prescription for your lenses.

1. Commit to curiosity.

Encounter her for who she is, without imposing any expectations about who she is supposed to be. Consider what it means and what it takes to be a woman of color in the corporate world, how she must constantly manage and navigate how she is seen. Consider that you rarely, if ever, have to do this.

2. Embrace your ignorance.

In this arena, your rank and title and accomplishments don’t afford you expertise. You must commit to learning, which begins with admitting what you don’t know or what you’ve gotten wrong.

3. Work through your discomfort.

It is uncomfortable to consider legacies of bias and discrimination, the social and cultural structures of injustice. Your black female colleague makes you confront this every time you see her. Imagine witnessing a moment when she stops filtering out her difference and how uncomfortable that will make you and others. Work through that as your issue, not hers.

4. Radically reframe the question of her value.

It is not how well she fits in or follows the rules or acts “appropriately.” It is not the degree to which she helps you forget that she is black. Likely, her value has yet to be truly seen. Imagine what it means for her to be successful in a culture that demands her performance for the sake of erasing white discomfort, and what she has had to accomplish and learn to be here today. Consider it an opportunity to address your corporate culture when you witness her frustration.

5. Have the courage to fail.

As you approach your black female colleague with new ways of seeing, embrace that understanding and mutuality may grow hesitantly and haltingly. Your investment in her, as with all your colleagues, is meant to draw out her excellence and allow it to be seen by everyone.

Seeing Difference Means Equity

If you’re wondering why your black female colleague requires this level of effort simply to be seen, likely it’s because seeing sameness is not taxing for you. People who look like you, especially those who remind you of yourself, are easy to see—not only comfortable but pleasing. They aren’t doing anything particularly outstanding, they just make you feel okay. In turn, they are the ones who freely receive guidance, mentoring, and opportunities because you can look straight at their potential without any difference obscuring or distorting your view.

The result is that sameness lowers the bar and creates a double standard. Black women are seen only for their accomplishments because you can’t see past their difference. I’m not asking you to pretend that you see her with sameness—that would be disingenuous and harmful. I’m asking you to see her difference, really see it, with the five steps above, and acknowledge that those are the steps you take toward equality in your corporate culture.

Serena’s Reconciliation

Amid the booing crowd and her sobbing opponent, Serena Williams took up the work of reconciliation. No one else would or could do it. She hushed the crowd, whispered reassurances to Naomi Osaka, and worked to repair others’ hurt while she set aside her own. It is a work that black women know all too well and perform all too often.

Reconciliation is exhausting work that black women must perform after they disrupt bias, in order to reassure, ease fears, return others to their expected comfort, and move on with their work. For anyone else, reconciliation is the mark of a true leader who can build and maintain relationships, embrace vulnerability, and enact repair. For black women, there is no such win.

The Heightened Stakes of Motherhood

Among Serena’s heated exchange with the line judge, she mentioned her daughter, who is now a year old. “I have never cheated in my life. I have a daughter and I stand for what’s right,” she said.

Then, the most remarkable and startling part of Serena’s exchange happened. She demanded an apology from the line judge. Twice. To be exact, she said, twice, “You owe me an apology.”

I don’t think I’m alone in saying that the pursuit of success and achievement is different after you have children, especially if you have daughters. With heartbreak and fear, black mothers anticipate their daughters’ experiences, knowing there is no way to protect them. We can also find reserves of strength to assert our value and demand what is ours because of them.

Seeing Ourselves and Being Seen

Is it any wonder that black women across the country are seeing themselves in Serena Williams? What happened to Serena happens to us every day, just not on a world stage. You can almost set your watch by it: Black woman works in a context of negation and filtering. Her long-held frustration is made visible. Others react with fear, contempt, and entitlement. She performs unacknowledged reconciliation. Rinse and repeat.

When I first heard the news about Serena Williams’ US Open loss, I felt the trauma but couldn’t articulate what it meant for me. It took a community verbalizing our shared experiences and offering validation to help me recognize the story’s impact and see the Serenas all around me and in myself. You can and you need to see her too.

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