On the Frontlines: Navigating the Pandemic as a Working Black Woman

How did working Black women fare during the COVID-19 pandemic?

Borrowing words from the late celebrated author, James Baldwin, “To be black and conscious in America is to be in a constant state of rage.”

This sentiment published in the early 60s is still a painful day-to-day reality for many Black women across the country. Despite apparent claims for progress made, Black women still live and work in a world riddled with sexism, constant microaggressions, and racism be it overt or not. Let’s take a look at how working Black women navigated (and continue to navigate) their way through this global pandemic.

Virtual meetings and code-switching

To be African American is to be African without any memory and American without any privilege.” – James Baldwin

Whiteness is synonymous with American workplace culture. For many Black women, this means hiding their true selves. According to research from the Center for Talent Innovation, more than 35% of African-Americans feel a need to “compromise their authenticity” at work.

While working remotely has allowed Black women a chance to step away from the demanding workplace and daily microaggressions, it has opened a door to discuss some of the assimilation practices we engage in, in order to “fit in” and be deemed professional or appropriate at best.

Of particular interest is code-switching.

Laura Morgan Roberts and Courtney L. McCluney explore this concept in greater depth in their Harvard Business Review article titled “Working from Home While Black”. 

They define code-switching as a process largely adopted by Black employees that sees them, “…adjusting their speech, appearance, and behaviors to optimize the comfort of others with the hopes of receiving fair treatment, quality service, and opportunities.”

For many Black women, preparing for virtual meetings requires careful and thoughtful preparation – for example making sure our hair is “presentable” and choosing suitably neutral backgrounds (read: backgrounds devoid of anything remotely ethnic) that don’t detract from the carefully curated “professional image” we present at work.

Tired of being invisible and ignored

There are so many ways of being despicable it makes one’s head spin. But the way to be really despicable is to be contemptuous of other people’s pain.” – James Baldwin

It is no secret that Black women in corporate America are often rendered invisible. In fact, here are the findings from a study commissioned by the National Opinion Research Center:

Where diversity, equity and inclusion initiatives are concerned, many of us feel only lip service is being rendered. Far too many organizations lack, plans that go beyond representation.

This invisibility and sentiment of being ignored were amplified to greater heights with the murder of George Floyd on May 25, 2020 and Breonna Taylor on March 13, 2020, and the response (or lack thereof) by many companies.  

It’s no wonder then that think tank Brookings Institute, reports that up to 181,000 Black women chose not to return to the workforce in 2021, with 91,000 calling it quits in November alone.

For many Black women enough was enough. And quite frankly still is enough. 

Light at the end of the tunnel?

There can be no doubt that COVID-19 was the straw that broke the camel’s back for thousands of Black women. But it was also the wake-up call needed by some to venture into the world of entrepreneurship. Albeit, it is still a journey that is in and of itself fraught with gross underfunding and lack of support. 

Consider that the average annual revenue for a Black-woman-owned business is around $24k whereas that for an enterprise run by a White woman is $218k. One cannot escape racism and sexism in America no matter the title or industry. 

In spite of these challenges, speaking to CNBC, CEO of The Memo LLC, Minda Harts highlighted that, “Black women are the fastest-growing group of entrepreneurs among women.” And that between 1997 and 2017, their growth trajectory was 600%.

It is evident that despite the difficulties endured during COVID-19, Black women continue to stand resilient and continue to fight, be it for a seat at an existing table or the creation of their own.

If you’d like to know how you too can rewrite your story, change careers, and grow your network, become a member of the RealBrownGirls sisterhood today.

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