It wasn’t so long ago that #BlackWomenAtWork was trending in social media. Within the space of a week, Congressional Representative Maxine Waters (D-CA) had her hair derided by bombastic former Fox pundit Bill O’Reilly and journalist April Ryan, was spoken to as if she were a child by then-White House Press Secretary Sean Spicer. In the midst of a White House press briefing, Spicer ordered Ryan,“Stop shaking your head.” Ryan later explained she felt she was treated like “roadkill.”
Because these incidents resonated with Black women, they prompted a revival of the hashtag by activist Brittany Packnett. They became global teachable moments as well as an occasion for the collective coming together of Black women around the worldwide watercooler that is Twitter. The relatively democratic nature of social media allowed millions of Black women to be seen and heard in a way they usually were not.
In addition to social media, television is also becoming a place where the reality-defining structural forces, and inner lives of Black women are now more apparent. It’s even more significant that this has begun happening now, because Black women are often erased from narratives around “feminist” issues, when the definition for “all women’s needs” ends up implying “white women’s needs.” There is now broadening opportunity for Black women to find the uncomfortable — or sometimes even downright traumatic — experiences they’ve had in their own, real-life workplaces reflected in storylines on screen.
Whether it’s a journalist labeling Veronica (Shanola Hampton) on Shameless a “hooker” in the local paper for just standing behind the bar she in fact co-owns; Beth (Susan Kelechi Watson) on This Is Us, being fired and told outright that the company sees her as “less valuable” than her white colleagues; or Insecure’s Molly (Yvonne Orji) feeling — well — insecure about her non code-switching co-worker in a white work environment, television programs today show the impact of a white supremacist world on Black women’s experiences at work.
Writers are also delving into the intersection of oppressions Black women face at work. Season three of Black-ish explored the experience many working women have: Feeling conflicting emotions after finding out that they are pregnant. Pregnancy might be the most natural thing in the world, but for working women, it also often comes with with a level of anxiety that exceeds average health and financial-related concerns. Many women have to wonder how their pregnancy will affect their career prospects. So when Bow’s (Tracee Ellis Ross) pregnancy begins to show around the same time she comes up for partner at the medical clinic where she works, she goes to extreme measures to keep it a secret from her colleagues, like awkwardly (even for Bow) hiding behind the work equipment.
Bow worried that she would no longer be considered as a serious candidate for the position because her colleagues would assume that she couldn’t be as committed to her job after giving birth — something her husband Dre (Anthony Anderson) did not have to fret over. Unfortunately, Bow was indeed passed over for partner, and as is so often the case, she was unable to prove that her pregnancy was the reason why.
Black-ish writers did a great job of showing how this dynamic tends to affect women at all economic levels of society. Throughout the course of the same episode (called “Manternity”), Bow’s nanny — also a Black woman — informed her that she too was pregnant, and that she was reluctant to tell Bow, voicing the same exact fears that Bow had about her own employers.
Black women also experience gaslighting at a high rate, if only because they’re never certain if other people’s actions are being impacted by race, by gender, or both. It was recently revealed on 9-1-1 (“Stuck”) that Athena Grant (Angela Bassett) was passed up for a promotion to lieutenant in her police department, not just once but four times! She was given the nebulous reason that she “didn’t have the necessary leadership skills for advancement.” Her new boss encourages her to go for it again, assuring her that the fifth time would be the charm. This time, the department is basically desperate for people at that level since “recruitment is down and retirement is up.”
This would cause anyone to wonder whether or not the opportunity was extended to her because co-workers finally recognize her value, or if it was being offered because she was a last resort and they had no other choice. Though it’s apparent to viewers that Athena’s boss knows that she is actually the best person for the job, if the circumstances had been different, would she have been passed over again, despite her qualifications?
Though Athena doesn’t outwardly question this, she is still hesitant about throwing her hat in the ring for the position — especially after fighting so hard to gain access into the old boys club of law enforcement, then repeatedly getting denied the opportunity she rightfully deserved. After mulling the decision over for a while, she realizes that she is satisfied with her life the way it has turned out, and likes being out in the field interacting with everyone. Still, viewers are left wondering, is she satisfied or is she tired? Is she simply resigned to her situation and perhaps subconsciously resentful? Is this her passive-aggressive way of telling the powers that be to basically go jump off of a bridge?
The sad part of all of it is that there are so many women out there like Athena who lose this professional war of attrition. Eventually, they give up and do not ever live up to their potential, because their value is consistently diminished in the workplace. Some women consider shifting career paths to different industries; others, like Athena, stay on the plateau. The glass ceiling remains intact, and in the end, society as a whole loses — including those who ultimately benefit from the disappointments of women like Athena. We can’t determine or know how much progress has actually been stymied after limiting the career horizons of hard-working, Black women.
Another television character whose career has taken some disappointing turns is Annalise Keating (Viola Davis), from How to Get Away With Murder. At the beginning of the series, Annalise is a highly respected law professor at fictional Middleton Law Schoo. She also manages her own law firm, which she runs from her swanky, spacious, suburban home. Unfortunately, by season four, Annalise loses her law firm and starts running a decidedly less sexy legal clinic that is partially funded by the white glove law firm, Caplan & Gold. Due to this arrangement, Annalise must play nice with the firm, and work for others according to their rules. This change has forced her to interact with and defer to clients and colleagues in a different way than we’ve previously seen.
In a recent episode, a white, female client attempts to touch Annalise’s hair, while at the Caplan & Gold offices. As expected, Annalise put the woman in her place, and the client recoils in shock. It’s up to the other prominent Black woman at the firm, Tegan Price (Amirah Vonn) and a white partner to try and keep the client on board since the client is deeply embarrassed and mostly just offended that her racist actions are being interpreted as racist. This moment exemplifies the type of microaggressions Black women and people of color often find themselves dealing with at work. They’re much like recurring nightmares from which the individual wakes up feeling frustrated and powerless. At least it wasn’t up to Annalise to put the client’s feelings above her own humanity, as is often the case for marginalized people who have less power than the offenders with whom they work.
As a character, Annalise Keating also provides an example of the way that structural realities work on a subconscious level to shape the lives of Black women. Annalise takes on cases — often pro bono — that tackle issues related to how race can factor into negative outcomes within the legal system. Though challenging cases, Annalise takes them on due to her strong sense of morality. She feels it’s her responsibility to help people, regardless of how little she may actually profit. Annalise’s moral compulsion to take certain cases is part of the social conditioning that Black women are often subjected to, and this often works to their detriment.
Though they are among the lowest paid workers to begin with and part of a community with the lowest average net worth, Black women are also most often lauded and given social reinforcement for using their time in efforts geared toward social re-engineering that reap few material benefits and often keep them in cycles of low income if not outright poverty—not to mention the health issues this can cause them. White men or many in the Asian community for instance, are free to dedicate their time and resources to work that will bring them and their communities increased wealth and status.
Many Black women are subtly pushed by use of positive reinforcement, into professions like social work where there is a high capital investment to access the profession in the form of time and loans, with low rates of return. These same professions also usually don’t lead to the positions of true social power or influence in society. Instead of that work changing society, it just recreates the conditions where yet another civil rights lawyer or social worker is needed. This season, Annalise has increased social and financial capital due to her big Supreme Court win, but as she faces off against the governor of her state, its evident who wields the real power. Annalise’s taking on cases of social merit, while laudable and necessary to an extent, also put her health in jeopardy. This was a major theme of last season during her therapy sessions where her therapist feared that Annalise’s increased stress and obsession with getting justice for her clients might jeopardize her sobriety.
While it’s encouraging to see showrunners acknowledging the increased emotional labor that Black women must endure, they have only just begun to scratch the surface. Hopefully, we are at the beginning of a new era where even more television writers will create compelling narratives that put Black women’s issues front and center, and as a result, will change real-life Black women’s experiences at work for the better.