some of us are brave
I have reasons for not leaning in with Sheryl Sandberg.
Kate Losse writes a great, insightful piece that situates Sandburg’s book in the neo-liberal corporate ethos that dominates some feminist traditions. That is one reason I am not so interested in the book.
The less erudite reason I am not interested is that it fails my litmus test for things I should make time. When allocating my limited time for feminist or self-help manifestos, I ask myself some version of “is this [book, film, article, theory, advice] for women who can cry at work?” If the answer is yes, then I feel rather confident that I am not the target demographic. Subsequently, it falls from my “must read” list, flies past my “read for pleasure work be damned” list and settles somewhere around “read it if there’s a copy in the waiting room of the oil change place and your phone battery is dead and there’s no child to play tic-tac-toe with” list.
“Lean In” sounds like it was written for women who can cry at work.
I am not one of those women.
Crying at work is a euphemism for the myriad ways in which black women are sanctioned for demonstrating behavior from which white women benefit. My particular story is about the day I started bleeding at work. I was pregnant so bleeding was cause for extra alarm. I may have cried a little. The VP of the department saw me and was aghast that Tressie has tear ducts. My co-worker, a darling petite brunette, had cried over lunch choices, returning from maternity leave, and being asked to move offices. In every instance, I witnessed how her tears garnered positive reinforcement and support from managers and peers. When I cried it was a clear violation of the “strong black asexual woman” archetype and I sensed the shift in how I was subsequently treated.
My anecdata is supported by data on the emotional labor, race, and gender. The primary conclusion, as it pertains to work: black women cannot do what white women do without consequences.
In “Keeping your “N” in Check” Durr and Harvey-Wingfield detail the differential effect of “impression management” that black women encounter in career promotion. It contextualizes my experience in corporate America. Black women talk about the thorny, often opaque path they must navigate to prove themselves competent without the benefit of being considered women in the ways in which white women are considered:
For professional black women, the performances that they feel compelled to give are shaped by theways intersections of race and gender isolate them and place them under greater scrutiny. As theytake stock of their work environments and perceive colleagues’ stereotypes, beliefs, and preconceptions,these women learn that, like Michelle Obama, they must repackage themselves in waysthat are more palatable to their white co-workers. As these colleagues’ goodwill and collegiality isnecessary for advancement and occupational stability, black women professionals find themselvesdoing both surface acting and emotional labor in order to successfully integrate their work spaces
In “Shifting“, black women discuss how being both black and a woman complicates advice like Sandberg’s on how to get ahead. It is more than just code switching — changing one’s speech to conform to social norms – that complicates that kind of advice. Impression management also demands that one accurately ascertain what performance is expected of her in rapidly shifting social conditions. Those shifting conditions are a result of both racialized and gendered expectations that can vary so widely as to become a full time job to manage. Sometimes I was supposed to “take no gruff” by enacting my black superwoman powers to further the interests of the women in the office. Other times I needed to silence my assertive voice to allow the more lilting “up talk” of my white female colleagues space to develop. Failing to do so made me as combative as the men. Whether I was “masculine” or “feminine” varied by context and it was primarily a function of how I needed to operate to further the needs of white women. That kind of social switching is exhausting and increases the opportunities for performance failures that can jeopardize one’s climb to the top of a place like, oh I don’t know, Facebook.
None of this is new, of course. Black feminist theory and critical thought has long detailed how inadequate feminist frameworks that are centered on the existence of white women ignore the reality of many women. Sandberg’s book also adds the dimension of class. It not only ignores poor and working class women but it also ignores how navigating class constructs is different for black women, even high achieving black women. I dare say that Michelle Obama and Oprah Winfrey have a great deal in common with Sandberg but that they also experienced very different kinds of obstacles in attaining elite corporate positions.
From the “Lean In” pushers who demand I read the book to understand how great it is or to decide that I am justified in not reading it, I am told that Sandberg deals artfully with the limits of her advice. I am told that she is clear that she has privilege and I am told that knocking down a successful woman for writing the kind of business books men write all the time is some sort of violation.
I do not accept that it is my responsibility to authenticate my disinterest. I also think Sandberg will manage without the support of one low-status black woman.
Sandberg doesn’t have to attend to things I care about like race, class, inequality and capitalism. But when she does not then you must understand why I mostly tune out all those imploring me to lean in.
An “anti racist” scholar in Canada took me to task of my criticism of Slaughter’s Having It All thesis awhile back in an online forum. She said that I can no more expect Slaughter to speak to my feminist concerns than I can be expected to speak of Slaughter’s.
That gave me pause.
I think I have determined how I would respond to that criticism as it relates both to Slaughter and Sandberg.
Basically, so what?
Privilege is about never having to critically engage the realities of others. So what if the threshold for clearing my litmus test for relevance adds an additional burden for those in privileged positions? If the burden is so great, I am always willing to trade my privilege for Sandberg’s.
It is not fair but I do not think I am arguing for fairness. Fair ignores the reality of structural inequality. Fair supposes that Sandberg and I are peers. And while I thank you for the back-handed compliment, you and I both know that is blowing smoke up my arse. We are not peers. We are not equals. Expecting some arbitrary “fairness” index in our engagement of ideas effectively reproduces our respective unequal power relations. Sandberg should have to work harder to earn bona fides in my feminism because she needs my kind of feminism the least. Wealth and privilege inoculate her from the job insecurity, poverty, and isolation that other women work to provide through feminist ideals and labor. They have less time, fewer resources, less attention to be divided across concerns with concrete implications to their actual livelihoods, if not their very lives. Running a multi-billion dollar company is, without a doubt, stressful and time-consuming. But when Sandberg drops a ball her children likely will not go hungry. That difference requires, from me, a different litmus test for relevancy.
I am arguing for relevant cultural work that contributes to a feminism that is not all about privileged women. It’s about telling me why I should care about why you’re crying at work when I’m not allowed to cry at work.
I’m sure there is a humanistic perspective on that, human empathy and the like. However, I tend to be a structuralist. I am not trained for, or particularly well-suited to, the care of people’s souls. Instead, I like to think about how resources are leveraged to normalize some at the expense of others. There is always a fair critique that structuralism ignores agency. I accept that.
But even when I honor the agency of someone to write a book about feminism that excludes women like me, structural processes of normative meaning-making want to force me to accept its premise even if it is at my own expense. In effect, respecting Sandberg’s agency requires I stifle my own.
I am not interested in that.
And, I don’t have to be.