Unapologetically… A “Problem” Woman of Color

During this past summer 2016, Jennie Sheeks (my dear friend) and I collaborated on a Work and Witness workshop titled, “Showing Up #UnapologeticallyBlack in Quaker Spaces” for Philadelphia Yearly Meeting’s Annual Sessions. Here is a portion of the workshop description as previously shared:

PYM Quaker spaces—meetinghouses, committees, organizations and schools—are invariably mostly white spaces. What does it mean to show up as an “unapologetically black” person in those spaces? This two-day workshop hopes to examine some of the forces at play, such as implicit bias and micro/macro-aggressions, and to explore why and how they are often part of our exchanges in Quaker spaces. We will use scenario-based breakout exercises as part of the journey. We will consider why close self-examination is important for all Quakers, and what we can do to mitigate the negative effects of how white Quakers interact with “unapologetically black” Friends, as we strive toward an inclusive, anti-racist Society of Friends. People of all racial, cultural and ethnic identities are invited to attend. While the workshop is geared toward interactions between black and white Friends, the material can be intersectionally applied to all Friendly interactions.

The idea for this workshop came out of phenomenal material presented at the White Privilege Conference (WPC17), held in Philadelphia in April 2016. In particular, one workshop resonated with me: “Problem Women of Color”: Re-imagining our Freedom from Institutional Oppression. When I attended this workshop, the room was full of women of color (mostly black women), who in varying degrees all self-identified as “problem” women of color in their organizations. Several of the women held official positions in their respective organizations in the fields of diversity and inclusion; the ones who did not (such as myself), held unofficial roles as the staff person of color who speaks up the most about issues around racism, equity and justice.

Regardless of our status–official or unofficial–we all knew what it was like to be seen as the “problem”, to be seen as the threat others in our organizations wanted to censor or push away or out. And we were all tired. Still fighting for justice and equity, but T-I-R-E-D. Down to our bones. Our individual recollecting of workplace ostracism, micro/macroagressions, and repercussions were so similar, it was like hearing yourself tell the same story over and over again.

At the end of the WPC17 workshop, the presenters shared a 2005 handout by the Social Justice Institute. Similarly, because the handout is so powerful, and speaks so perfectly to the condition of so many outspoken, unapologetic, “problem” women of color in predominantly white institutions and organizations, it also became the basis for the ending of the “Showing Up #UnapologeticallyBlack in Quaker Spaces” workshop.

By the summer of 2016, Jennie and I had come full circle (or so it seemed), from the previous summer’s sessions where we publicly broke open from the accumulated pain of workplace racism. In the intervening months, I had written a letter to yearly meeting leadership, and suffered severe consequences at work, and thought that was behind me. I started to trust again. Even though I was still in emotional pain from all the trauma I had experienced (and still was experiencing) as I labored with staff in our anti-racism efforts, by summer 2016 I was starting to feel real hope that censorship and the crippling fear of retaliation were behind me. As it would later turn out by the end of 2016, I was wrong.

So, let us turn our attention to this powerful material, which Jennie and I turned into a PowerPoint slideshow. Here are the cyclical steps as adapted (citation to handout from the Social Justice Institute):

  • When a woman of color enters an organization where she is underrepresented, as in a predominantly white organization or institution, there is usually some underlying, but hidden, starting problem.
  • For argument’s sake, let us imagine that we are in a scenario where the hidden problem is institutionalized racism.
  • There is some dissonance between the purpose of the organization and its actual day-to-day internal practices.
  • The evident symptoms of dissonance may include: mostly or all white leadership, tokenized hiring or promoting of people of color, repetitive racial injury, denial of racism, and criticism from communities of color.
  • When the woman of color enters the organization, there is a “honeymoon” period where she is made to feel welcome and needed. Both she and her new colleagues are happy she is there.
  • The woman of color, usually outspoken, starts to notice and identify the symptoms of dissonance–where the purpose of the organization doesn’t quite match up with its actual internal practices–and starts to point them out.
  • First, the woman of color tries to work within: to push for accountability within the current structure of the organization.
  • Her push for accountability becomes extremely difficult and fails, and she pleads with the organization for safety and protection from continual and unaddressed racial micro/macroaggressions and other racial traumas.
  • The relationship between the woman of color and the organization’s predominantly white leadership eventually becomes adversarial.
  • The organization’s leadership has the following adversarial responses toward the woman of color: Deny. Ignore. Blame. Retaliate. Target. Alienate.
  • The organization’s leadership further personalizes the adversarial state of the relationship.
  • The organization’s leadership become patronizing, often displaying tellingly-inauthentic kindness betraying a sense of internalized superiority.
  • The organization’s leadership believe themselves to be “victims” (when they are not), and deflect responsibility for wrongdoing back onto the woman of color.
  • At this stage, other people of color (PoC) may be pitted against the woman of color.
  • The other PoC may willingly defend the predominately-white status quo (usually because they have long benefited from such socioeconomic positioning), or they may be unwittingly or unwillingly pitted against the woman of color through other forms of organizational tokenism.
  • The starting problem becomes transformed and blamed on the woman of color.
  • The institutionalized racism is redefined and deflected as a personnel issue or a communication issue caused by the woman of color.
  • By deflecting the problem, the symptoms of dissonance are never addressed.
  • The organization continues to engage in dissonant practices such as maintaining a mostly or all white leadership, tokenized hiring or promoting of people of color, repetitive racial injury, denial of racism; there is continued criticism from communities of color.
  • The stated purpose of the organization remains in misalignment from its actual day-to-day internal practices; the organization’s stated beliefs do not match its actions and behaviors.
  • The woman of color leaves.
  • She may leave “voluntarily” choosing to quit because of the traumatizing work environment, the emotional and psychic fatigue, or the health consequences to constant daily racial stress.
  • She may leave involuntarily by being fired.
  • She may be forced out in other ways: for example, by being demoted in hours and compensation rate to an untenable income level, while given the alternative to leave with a substantial severance package with restrictive legal clauses. (I personally know of an example of this.)
  • Once the woman of color leaves, the organization is free to perpetuate the myth of its righteousness, that “we are not racist.”
  • The cycle repeats itself when the organization seeks to hire a new woman of color.
  • The new woman of color may or may not point out the organization’s dissonance; often, the organization creates hiring practices seeking out potentially less-“problematic” women of color.

Jennie and I had hoped that by facilitating this workshop, and allowing space to the racial truth of the #UnapologeticallyBlack, that we could at least a tiny bit, “mitigate the negative effects of how white Quakers interact with “unapologetically black” Friends, as we [continue to] strive toward an inclusive, anti-racist Society of Friends.” We still hope to facilitate this work in various ways. For me personally, as a convinced Friend, I believe it to be a spiritual calling. Our workshop’s closing questions included:

  1. What would be effective in interrupting the cycle? How?
  2. What could be effective as a prevention to organizational dissonance and righteousness?
  3. What are some strategies for becoming an inclusive organization?
  4. What can be done differently on the institutional/structural level?
  5. What can be done differently on the individual level?

As you are reading this, I invite you to answer these for yourself, and perhaps ask these questions of your meeting’s members and other Friends.

And I invite you to answer one more:

If you were witness to a clear, real-life example of the above “problem” woman cycle, unfolding right now in real time, would you help or would you ignore the situation?


an #UnapologeticallyBlack “Problem” woman

“Reader, my story ends with freedom.”
– Harriet Jacobs, Incidents in the Life of A Slave Girl


3 thoughts on “Unapologetically… A “Problem” Woman of Color

  1. Having worked for PYM a long time ago, I can say that I saw the same patterns 20 years ago as today. The work I did was directly related to recognizing and coming to terms with the causes and effects of racism, poverty and privilege, and not many Friends liked the message or the messengers. Our program was cut back and cut back and finally shut down. The fault was not so much that they were Quakers, but they were people who felt an intense responsibility to the group but also to the past. They were afraid to move disturb anything of how it was because that is how Friends had always done it. It wasn’t expressed that way outwardly, but really was rather unconscious.

    But really what I concluded along the way was that more than tackling these issues directly with deep reasoned arguments, even though that feels like the fastest route, really the best way to connect with people is by working together on things like baking pies, raking leaves, painting rooms,putting on a talent show, stitching quilts or cooking a community meal. I think that Friends have such a long history of being sober and upright, cerebral types that they might think a matter over for days and weeks. But you know, when people are working together, they learn to trust and appreciate each other, learn about other peoples’ strengths and hidden talents. We learn to be more compassionate and we have more fun when we are doing stuff together.

    Perhaps its very obvious, but still it’s my suggestion: Friends are just as unjust and just as lost in the thicket of racism as everybody else, no matter how they protest otherwise. Your best bet is to assume the worst, and love them anyway, to the degree you can. Best wishes to you, and peace!

    Liked by 1 person

  2. Thank you for the good wishes and peace to you also.

    You mentioned: “really the best way to connect with people is by working together on things like baking pies, raking leaves, painting rooms,putting on a talent show, stitching quilts or cooking a community meal” and I agree!

    It is definitely within the spaces of working together, being human, *seeing* each other that compassion, and trust… and truth and love all grow. You get to be with and see the whole person across from you, to appreciate them in the fullness of life; it’s a beautiful thing. And it’s actually one of the main reasons I love my meeting: the time we have spent together after worship and on other occasions have been balms for my soul because the humanity of us all thrives in those spaces. I am just me, and loved.

    One of the hardest lessons I’ve been shown though, through all of this, is that even with compassion–lots and lots of compassion and patience–trust and truth and love can only grow into fullness when they are shared with mutual authenticity. Many times in laboring in anti-racism work (at work), I took the other person at their word and trusted that they were genuine; that when they said they wanted to work on their racist and abusive behaviors that they really meant it; that when they asked me to point out their micro/macroagressive racist transgressions because they wanted to learn, that they really meant it; and despite my fear of retaliation, that I could put trust in Quakerly integrity.

    I do love those who hurt me anyway, to the best degree I can… but I also believe that loving someone doesn’t negate them needing to acknowledge and bear responsibility for their wrongdoings. Even more so if they have been entrusted in positions of leadership.

    Here’s to hoping and praying for new, healthier patterns.


    Liked by 1 person

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