Lean In Litmus Test: Is This For Women Who Can Cry At Work?

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 the
ways intersections of race and gender isolate them and place them under greater scrutiny. As they
take stock of their work environments and perceive colleagues’ stereotypes, beliefs, and preconceptions,
these women learn that, like Michelle Obama, they must repackage themselves in ways
that are more palatable to their white co-workers. As these colleagues’ goodwill and collegiality is
necessary for advancement and occupational stability, black women professionals find themselves
doing both surface acting and emotional labor in order to successfully integrate their work spaces

bookcoverIn “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.

15 thoughts on “Lean In Litmus Test: Is This For Women Who Can Cry At Work?

  1. Hear Hear. There are famous male sociologists that I have not read. It’s pretty obvious said men have not read much feminist sociology. My line is, when they start ready and citing feminist sociology, I might pay attention to them.

    I think this is a bit like what you are saying here. Sandberg is not writing for or about you. She does not engage with issues relevant to your life or to the work that you do. That’s a pretty good reason not to read her.

    I haven’t heard you say that she shouldn’t have written the book, nor that the book shouldn’t have been published. I haven’t heard you tell others not to read the book. It is kind of interesting that people find it so hard to understand that this book is a low priority for you. Makes perfect sense to me.

  2. RE: crying at work –

    I found out that I could not show emotion at work (beyond eager, smiling happiness) the hard way. After being reprimanded by my boss for “not doing my job” (i.e. being lazy), my response – out of fear that I would be fired from the job that was (and, sadly, is still) keeping me afloat as a working student – was to cry. And I only did this after repeated requests for proof/evidence that verified the accusation. None was provided. In fact, my requests were dismissed because I was being “defensive” and “getting angry.” After the tears of frustration and fear started, my boss became immediately and visibly uncomfortable, stood up and left the room while she announced that she was going to get an HR rep.

    RE: Sandberg and Slaughter feminisms

    To a certain extent I agree that we can’t expect Sandberg and Slaughter types to speak about our feminist concerns. But what I think your Canadian responder failed to account for, or simply ignored, was that women of color and various other marginalized groups have indeed been expected to speak about and participate in movements that advanced the needs of (middle to upper class) White women. For instance, the ignorance surrounding criticism aimed at First Lady Obama for being a “mom-in-chief” ignored how motherhood can be exceedingly feminist for Black women, while simultaneously calling on Mrs. Obama to advance the needs of White feminism by making her career the primary definition of her identity as a woman.

    1. “But what I think your Canadian responder failed to account for, or simply ignored, was that women of color and various other marginalized groups have indeed been expected to speak about and participate in movements that advanced the needs of (middle to upper class) White women.”

      BOOM! Exactly.

      We are treated as White “allies” to feminism, not feminists ourselves, often as sidekicks expected to rally causes even when it poses detriment to our own needs.

  3. Exquisite essay Tressie. Just…thank you. This speaks to many Black women and other women of colour’s opinion on this work, from the conversations that I have had on Twitter. I like that you pointed out even sharing class status does not change the salience of a racialized gendered experience (re: Sandberg v. Oprah/Michelle).

    Again, excellence. Thank you.

  4. My total lack of interest in this book is that I am just to frickin’ busy to bother with someone’s glorification of their career. I have work to do, I have a child to raise, I have a lifetime partner I need to negotiate life with. I am a busy woman with too much on my plate to bother with contemplations about “leaning in.” Sometimes leaning out is a much better way to be…

  5. I agree with @JoVanEvery in that you have made no attack to any one or any thing. It is unfortunate that simply not engaging in something that is popular can create such an ill-informed backlash. I guess that is what is meant by disruption of dominant paradigms.

    Though I in no way believe that you require my validation, I still say thank you for posting. I think you have a strong and understandable point.

  6. “I do not accept that it is my responsibility to authenticate my disinterest.”
    This phrase sums up so much of my life! I want it on a shirt and a coffee mug …billboards! Thank you! … from a white working class lezbeau who has lived her whole damned life cheque to cheque … I’m not allowed to cry at work either -but for other reasons. Also I’m not “allowed” to call *bull***** when gay middle class white boys want me to work for free ($ free and recognition free) to further their agenda, because then I’m the one being “divisive” – right.

  7. Thanks for making this so clear! Love your post. I knew there was more to my problems with the call to lean in.

  8. Super! Thank you!

    Love this: I do not accept that it is my responsibility to authenticate my disinterest

    And this: I like to think about how resources are leveraged to normalize some at the expense of others

    I have been thinking a lot about the later in relation to a few documentaries recently aired on various outlets of PBS….Makers for one, and another, No Job For A Woman. Histories with most of us left out!

  9. First, I want to say bravo! I love how well you articulate response about issues facing black women who don’t fit into the Euro-Victorian standard of size or presence As a black woman that also fits into that category, I find I am constantly expected to explain, justify, or stifle my thoughts about a particular subject or my feelings. It would be nice if more people respected a black woman’s right to choose her goals and standards. Instead, we are encouraged to stay in line with the rest of the “lemmings.” Our feelings are constantly negated in favor of the collective or the so called “greater good”, while others receive a pass. Our perceived vulnerability makes us appear weak and they’re seen as compassionate, empathetic, etc. I appreciate you for challenging the narrative. My favorite line in this piece is: “In effect, respecting Sandberg’s agency requires I stifle my own.
    I am not interested in that.And, I don’t have to be.” I love this line! Thank you for adjusting the narrative…

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