The Stereotypes That Bind Women of Color

Excerpt From
YOU 3.0: A Guide to Overcoming Roadblocks to Success
for Professional Women of Color

Available March 1st

YOU 3.0It’s no secret that women of color experience racial and gender bias almost everyday. Some of these experiences are subtle while others are more overt and aggressive, even today when it is not only illegal, but considered politically incorrect to do so.

They exist, never-the-less and are experienced more prevalently in the workplace. The source of these biases is stereotypes and misconceptions about women of color that have been handed down through decades and generations of perpetuation.

What’s more, the stereotypes have been subscribed to and perpetuated by both whites and our own communities. They have even become popularized in song, movies, television and web series and music videos.

In spite of this, women of color push on to achieve success in their lives; in their chosen fields and professions. And – we are still trying to bring as many people as we can along with us.

What of the stereotypes we encounter? They are largely based on limited knowledge and limited exposure to women of color in a professional setting. With the majority of executive management in corporate America being white men, the majority of their professional and social circles do not include people of color much less women of color.

For a significant number of corporate America’s executives, their frame of reference for people of color in general is what they have been taught by their families over generations and what they see and hear in the media.

Their template for women of color, if any, is as mammy, jezebel, sapphire, or welfare queen. Each of these stereotypes has a corporate translation and corresponding expectation. They are the types that bind us. I have intentionally chosen not to capitalize these labels.

In corporate environments the stereotypes and expectations look something like this:

mammy = under employed, underpaid work horse. She is not taken seriously and is given more and more responsibility without recognition or additional compensation. She is not expected to speak up for herself and will almost never rock the boat. She can be counted on to always play nice with others.

How she is misunderstood: she is well aware of her mistreatment and has mastered hiding her resentment in the workplace. There is a limit to what she will endure. When that limit is reached, it will be difficult to reverse her resulting decision.

jezebel = will get the job done, but with an attitude. She may be hard to get along with; plays nice with others if she feels like it. Not taken seriously and never considered for significant advancement.

How she is misunderstood: Her intelligence and savvy are masked by her attitude, which may be intentional to keep people at bay. She is resilient and resourceful. More than anything, she wants to be treated fairly and with respect. She has secret goals and aspirations that she is working towards.

sapphire = She is treated like mammy, given more and more responsibility but offered charitable recognition and compensation. Not taken seriously in revenue generating roles because she is believed to be either a “token” hired to satisfy diversity goals or an anomaly. More likely to advance in staff division roles. Will play nice with others to get to where she wants to go.

How she is misunderstood: Because she is self-assured, out-spoken, self reliant, she is often mis-characterized as “the angry Black woman when treated unfairly. She knows she is most likely qualified plus for any role she is placed in. She knows her value and defines expectations. She expects to be rewarded and advanced on merit.

welfare queen = does just enough to get by and demonstrates no interest in aspiring to higher levels. Relegated to low level jobs with even lower expectations. She has minimum to no skills.

How she is misunderstood: Has limited view as to her possibilities. Her aspirations, or lack thereof, are based on what she believes is possible. What she believes is possible is based on what is modeled in her personal world. She does not know how to actualize her vision.

Of all of these, sapphire is the most difficult for male and female corporate executives to reconcile. While all of these are misunderstood, sapphire is the only profile that outwardly breaks type and therefore challenges one of the misconceptions of women of color within the corporate environment; that we are unintelligent, unqualified and under prepared to make significant and important contributions to the organization and its business goals.

Melissa V. Harris-Perry notes in her brilliant work about Black women, “Sister Citizen”: “When they confront race and gender stereotypes, black women are standing in a crooked room, and they have to figure out which way is up. Bombarded with warped images of their humanity, some black women tilt and bend themselves to fit the distortion.”

Charisse Jones and Kumea Shorter-Gooden, Ph. D. call this tilting and bending “Shifting”, which is also the title of their book. We all do it to some extent or another – shift– in order to not so much fit in I suppose, but to achieve the accomplishments and success we want and that we know we are fully capable of.

There is a reason that most of us were raised with the mantra “you have to be twice as good if not more just to get in the door.” Our mothers and grandmothers and even great grandmothers knew the stereotypes and unseen barriers that would present roadblocks for us. They remained hopeful, never-the-less that America would one day honor its moral code and promise of equality and fairness.

YOU 3.0

1.   What is your personal experience with encountering stereotypes in your place of employment?

2. What actions, if any, have you taken to counter the stereotypes?

3.  How are these stereotypes impacting your personal and professional life?

Author’s Note: The origins and the evolution of these stereotypes are worth studying and understanding. Yes they are ugly, and brutal and unfair. Never-the-less, they are impacting both our personal and professional lives. And to add further insult to injury, women of color are now actively complicit in the perpetuation of these stereotypes. It is not uncommon to watch the prime time display of disrespect for each other in pursuit of five minutes of fame and even less in fortune. It is a disturbing phenomenon that has profound implications for all of us.

Excerpt from my new book:
YOU 3.0: A Guide to Overcoming Roadblocks to Success
for Professional Women of Color to be released March 1, 2015.

Deborah Gray-Young, CPC, ELI-MP is a Certified Personal and Executive Coach. Deborah is a member of The Black Life Coaches Network where she serves on the advisory board and a member of the National Professional Women of Color Network.

Follow me on Twitter @coachdgrayyoung or Email me:

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