Black. The first thing people see me as. Not a president nor an aspiring doctor or a good person. Just black and usually all the stereotypes that come with being black. My blackness isn’t something that I can turn off or disclose. Heck, even my name, Deneisha, screams black. I take pride in my blackness and it’s something that I would never want to hide, but I would be lying if I told you that being black didn’t come with its challenges and barriers, especially in positions of leadership.
Growing up black in a not-so diverse community made me very aware of how the world saw me and how I presented myself. I wanted to prove all the stereotypes wrong. From the way that I spoke to what I brought to school for lunch, I would try my best to not stand out. To not be different. However, even as I changed myself to better blend in, I was still met with criticism and microaggressions. “You talk so proper” and “you don’t sound black” were things I often heard. People would even call me an Oreo (Black on the outside and White on the inside).
Unfortunately, microaggressions and feelings of wanting to blend in do not cease in the world of leadership. Where I have to worry if my natural 4C hair is professional enough. Where I debate speaking up, as I might seem like an ‘angry black woman’ if I do. These stereotypes and microaggressions that plague the black community cause me to sometimes take a step back and try to not take up space. It hinders me from being my true authentic self and the leader that I want to be.
Sometimes it can be challenging to enter a space or a profession where you don’t see anyone who looks like you. It can be isolating and alienating. Even as leadership becomes more diverse and equitable, I am most often the only black person in the room, sometimes even being the only person of colour. In situations like these, it can sometimes feel like I don’t belong in these positions. The imposter syndrome is overwhelming. Although I love bringing a different perspective to the floor, it sometimes makes me doubt my skills and worth. It makes me question if I’m a diversity hire and I wonder if people will recognize me for my skill or my race. These doubts and thoughts make me want to work harder and I constantly feel like I have something to prove. That I deserve a seat at the table, not because we’re trying to reach a diversity quota but because I’m brilliant enough to be here. In hindsight, I don’t need to prove anything to anyone. Studies have shown that it's quite difficult for women of colour, especially black women, to acquire positions of leadership, therefore, I have already proven how brilliant I am by just being hired. As a woman, to stand out you have to be the best of the best, when intersectionality comes into play, this is especially true when you’re a black woman, there is no room for you to be average.
When I find myself in a leadership position, I can’t help but feel like I’m representing the black community. Although this comes with great pride, it also brings a lot of responsibility and pressure. It feels as if I make one wrong move, I prove all the negative stereotypes right. Not only for myself but for my community.
On top of all of this, oftentimes I feel as if I can’t talk about these struggles of being a black woman in leadership. I fear I will be framed as playing the victim or told to keep it to myself as sharing might make others uncomfortable. Having to constantly endure these issues is exhausting. Especially when you feel that you have to educate others about microaggressions and racism to make any sort of change. However, correcting someone’s ignorance is not my responsibility.
My blackness is deeper than my skin tone and the texture of my hair. It’s an experience that’s rooted in history and culture that should be celebrated. My blackness makes me feel powerful and I shouldn't have to conceal parts of it in fear of the way I’ll be perceived. As I continue to grow and become confident in who I am and my abilities, I’m learning to be black with no apologies. To be Deneisha without hesitation. I remind myself that although being black is a huge part of my identity, I am so much more than just my race.