Our Separate Ways: Black and White Women and the Struggle for Professional Identity

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our seperate waysBy Ella L.J. Edmonson Bell and Stella M. Nkomo

This book is far from an easy read.  In fact, and perhaps because of my personal demographics, I found it to be a rather painful read.  In short, the authors’ objective is to place attention on the dual impact of racism and sexism in both the workplace and the journey to the workplace.  Our Separate Ways is distinguishable from other studies of sexism and racism in its methodology (intentional over-sampling of black women to get a real sense of their professional experiences), its evaluation of the corporate interactions between black women and white women, white men, and black men, and the influence of culture and racism in terms of how black women are perceived by their colleagues and how they perceive themselves.

The book begins making its point by comparing the lives of black and white women beginning with their childhood experiences through to their respective corporate positions.  The authors use the women’s childhood stories to demonstrate how despite occupying similar professional rungs, they have often come from very different backgrounds some of which could be characterized as expected and some which is less typical.  The value of exploring these early childhood experiences is that they often impact both groups of women’s self-perceptions about their capabilities.  These early experiences also affected how the women saw themselves relative to each other.  The book demonstrated that white women are presumed to be from middle to upper class families which have prepared them for their current station.  Meanwhile, black women are often thought of as coming from poor families.  The challenge is that the class and family backgrounds of both groups of women were quite varied, but the assumptions about the black women often gave rise to assumptions about their capabilities, work ethic, and ability to fit and operate within the organization culture.

The book presents several instances where both groups of women encountered sexism, although its mechanisms were different.  White women tended to be mentored and protected by white male superiors while black women tended to be abandoned by white men because of concerns that a close working relationship with a black woman might lead to accusations of sexual impropriety which is likely a relic of America’s slave history.  Mentoring relationships were critically important to the white women’s ability to ascend their corporate ladder.  In example after example, white women pointed to a white male colleague or superior whose support was critical to their success.  Black women did not have nearly as many supporters from either white men or white women.  The overall impact is a tremendous sense of workplace isolation.  Moreover, white men indicated that they simply felt more comfortable with white women because they did not have to worry about assumptions relative to the nature of their interaction.  Likewise, they acknowledged the need to work through their cultural and racial prejudices.

Our Separate Ways also discussed in detail the additional burden of navigating cultural differences that black women face.  For example, while both groups of women were considered incapable in some of their professional experiences, the black women were often thought of as having a chip on their shoulders and wearing their blackness on their sleeves, likely to isolate themselves, possessing a poorer work ethic, and even less capable.  While the black women were often as seen as outsiders in the organization and this status was exacerbated by their failure to operate in a race-neutral manner, as expressed by African Art and other ethnic artifacts in their offices and exhibited through their attire, the white women were likely to silently tolerate sexism.  The white women of the study talked about the sexism they observed and encountered, but they thought they could overcome it if they played the game well and long enough.  On the other hand, black women did not seem to believe that silent endurance of racism or sexism would lead to a positive end.

Our Separate Ways has implications for people as private individuals and for employers.  For employers, the implication of this book is that a tremendous amount of work still needs to be done in the direction of real workplace diversity relative to race and gender.  Our Separate Ways suggests that we have quite a distance to go in terms of accepting and respecting people and outside of mainstream Caucasian culture.   Failure to do this work will continue to result in increasing costs in terms of turnover, public relations, client retention efforts, and employment practices liability lawsuits.

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