The Role of Black Women Professionals - A Debate with My Mom
I come from a long line of Black women professionals: my great grandmother was a nurse, my grandmother was a doctor, my mom is a doctor, and I am a nurse.
In the past, simply being a Black professional and a woman was revolutionary. My great grandmother had stories about her patients in Harlem not allowing her in their homes at first because they believed ‘there are no Black nurses up here.’
My mom had to put on a louder and bolder professional persona at work to be believed as a capable physician. She would come home and curl up on the couch with takeout because it was so the opposite of her natural introverted nature.
Simply existing was what the women in my family did to advance the cause of equality. They also voted, and my mother donates to the ACLU.
But joining marches, being mentors, leading diversity and inclusion activities - these are not things the women in my family did.
Another thing about my mother: her father was dean of an Historically Black College and University (HBCU).
When she was offered the role as head of Diversity and Inclusion at a university, his advice to her was to turn it down. “You don’t want to be pigeon-hold as the Black doctor.” He wanted his daughter to be considered for all types of leadership roles, not the ones predesignated for minorities.
Here is the disappointing part: He was right. My mother saw throughout her career people of color who went into these roles only being offered these sorts of roles. Her career, on the other hand, broadened.
This is not unusual - I had Black professors in college who did not want to mentor minority students for fear of being seen as the end-all-be-all for minority student issues. They also felt their White colleagues should do an equitable amount of minority mentorship.
Looking back, it makes sense for my mother to listen to this advice because the goal was to get as high as she could. Any glass ceiling she could break would open the way for others to follow.
The question I have been asking myself lately is whether simply existing is enough. It does not feel revolutionary that I am a Black woman and a nurse. It feels like I have to do more than be an insurance company executive and a consistent voter.
Yesterday my mom and I were debating if her father’s advice is still true, and, if not, what role should Black women professionals now play.
I would love to hear what others think about this.