Commentary
By Whitney Parnell 3-15-2018

A few years ago, as I was heading off to a meeting to engage a potential partner, a male coworker said to me, “Make sure to behave yourself.” With a short window of travel time to make my appointment, I did not stop to ask what he meant, but spent my entire commute wondering what would prompt him to say that. Had I ever behaved in any way short of professional? Did I present in a manner that deemed necessary his comment? By the end of the meeting, after I had successfully closed the deal, I concluded that maybe I was just being too sensitive.

Several years later, after receiving hundreds of similar forms of “advice,” and hearing similar stories from hundreds of other women, I have reached different conclusions.

As both an activist and a nonprofit founder, I regularly come across drastically different spaces and personalities. One consistency in these spaces is my keen awareness that I am entering the space as a young, black woman, who is engaging people on topics of allyship and social justice — terms that are met with “reaction,” to say the least (even if unconsciously).

One time, directly after a presentation to a company about my organization, an employee stayed behind to tell me to omit the term “social justice” from our language because it makes people uncomfortable when I use it so “forcefully.” When I calmly explained to him that it was a term critical to our nonprofit that builds allies for social justice, his tone sharpened as he stated that he was just offering his “consultant-advice” to help my young nonprofit thrive. I offered to discuss more, but he denied the invitation to further dialogue, his disappointment with my response was clear.

On another occasion, I was called by an advisor shortly before a big pitch, to address “concerns” that he had about how I would present myself to the client. He had me walk through every line that I would share (about the company that I had founded), told me that my voice needed to sound “more feminine and gentle,” questioned whether I knew the definitions of certain words I was using, and ended by suggesting that I “wear my hair as nicely as I did at the last event” (it had been straightened). I thought back to that “behave yourself” comment from four years ago and wondered why I was being spoken to as if I were a child. 

I have been told to make my emails friendlier because I sound too intense. I have been told to make sure that I smile more at meetings because my serious face can look mean. I have even been told to stand less authoritatively when presenting because my confidence comes off as arrogant and uninviting — to use my “pretty face” to my advantage to close the deal.

I have suffered the wrath of a bruised ego when I ask to finish my own sentences amidst interruptions. I have been told to be respectful and grateful for any and all advice (irrespective of the offense). Once, I was literally told to stop talking, mid-sentence, so that the person could then proceed with presenting his own opinions.

Examples like these range from unsolicited, to insensitive, to uninformed, to even inappropriate; and I have heard countless similar examples from other women in workspaces. I have also seen women try to navigate this shaky terrain by monitoring and adapting their own behavior. I cannot fault them for it. Everyone must make their own choices about how to thrive as well as possible when challenging circumstances are presented to them regularly and their livelihoods are at stake. My personal decision at this point in my life is to make clear that I will not accept being treated like a little girl.

I am intentional about not using the word “sorry” before messaging an opinion that does not require simultaneous submission. I also have decided that I do not need to add an exclamation point to every sentence, in order to make sure that my demeanor seems positive and magnetic. I have chosen to speak with confidence and strength because I should not have to demonstrate a posture of meekness in order to be worth considering. I have decided to stand my ground when I believe it necessary, because being a team-player does not always mean agreeing with the guy beside me.

While my points of reference thus far may be more relatable to women, I must admit that being a black woman in these spaces deepens both my annoyance and frustration. I find myself constantly evaluating how I can show up authentically and strong in this world, while not compromising my opportunity to thrive amidst others’ reactions. As a black woman, my directness is not only perceived as unfriendly, but as aggressive and angry. As a black woman, my confidence is not just perceived as arrogance, but as intimidating and angry. As a black woman, standing my ground is not just perceived as stubborn, but as hostile — and angry. I have been told this by men, and unfortunately, sadly, some women — demonstrating that intersectional feminism still has a long way to go when it comes to addressing the reality that women of color must navigate sexism and racism combined. I am keenly aware of the “angry black woman” caricature, and am often paranoid that its repercussions follow me like my shadow.

In response to my articulation of this struggle, a confidant once said to me, 'Now that you know what it's like out there, focus on playing the game, rather than being respected." But why can't I be respected and treated fairly?"

My capacity for patience both increases and diminishes simultaneously. On one hand, I have been able to unlock a serenity and focus that overcomes my entire body amidst inappropriate behavior directed towards me, ranging from ignorant micro-aggressions at meetings, to the yelling and cussing that I have encountered from grown men who were not prepared for my expressed expectations of respect. In a way, being accustomed to it has allowed me to stand my ground and maintain calm despite the situation.

But I cannot allow others to speak to me like a little black girl, and make it clear on days where my patience running on empty that there is no wiggle-room for that.

As a 30-year-old woman (who knows that respect should be given at any age), I want to make it clear in every space that my identity does not somehow value me any less than someone else. I may not be able to ultimately control whether others treat me with that respect, but I can control how I comport myself, how I articulate my expectations, and how sometimes it may even be necessary that I point out my perceptions of why I believe that I am being treated differently. It is a risky choice because the probability of escalation increases when someone is blatantly called out for their racism or sexism. 

A few weeks ago, I was called by a supporter and warned to be “more MLK than Malcolm X.” I could veer into a whole separate piece around the misguided implications behind a comment that so drastically simplifies two leaders that were critical to the rights that I have today, but I hone in on this particular example because I have received the feedback dozens of times. Upon my pushback to his notion, his response was, “but what about being Christ-like?” His accusation was that I was not living by example of my faith. It stung but was not out of the ordinary. Christ is often the response I receive when I am being "too hard on people." While training people who seek to be white-allies, I regularly come across terribly insensitive comments, to which I respond honestly about the danger and harm in their words. Often, they become defensive, saying that I should be willing to endure their imperfect articulation because it is necessary for their process; that it is my job to show grace and patience as they journey to better themselves, even at my own pain and expense. Even in spaces where I am hired to give the trainings, I find myself still being told how I should behave. I am told the same thing by colleagues to whom I go seeking refuge and support from the emotional toll of engaging in this work. I find myself constantly being told that speaking such truth is contrary to being Christ-like.

I respectfully disagree. Yes, Christ is my ultimate example of love and compassion, and his death on the cross represents grace abounding. But truth is not the antithesis of grace, and love is not only executed through kindness. John 1:17 says “grace and truth came through Jesus Christ.” Love in its fullest abundance incorporates truth, understanding that we must hear that in order to become our best selves. Christ lived grace hand-in-hand with truth, as a vocal activist that held his followers accountable for supporting the marginalized. To say that one is only allowed to show grace, but never speak truth is a drastic misinterpretation of this faith; thus, I am a firm believer in the notion of speaking truth to power because of my faith. And I hope allies understand this. Amidst a world of nuanced sexism and racism, I hope that our allies should be more deliberate about being our cheerleaders, rather than our coaches. I graduated from elementary school a long time ago. Treat me like a grown woman.

Whitney Parnell is a rising black millennial activist and the co-founder and CEO of Service Never Sleeps (SNS).

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"Please Stop Telling Me to Be a 'Good Little Black Girl' "
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