Highly accomplished women of color exist everywhere today. They run global corporations, they sit on judicial benches, they save lives in operating rooms, they are successful entrepreneurs.
But let’s be honest. Many women over 50 have an outdated frame of reference regarding women of color. And I think this makes sense. We grew up during a time of segregation.
Although we like to think of the United States as a melting pot, we have never truly blended together. The history of our country is of minority groups creating their own neighborhoods: Chinatown, Koreatown, India Square, Harlem, Little Ethiopia -- and the list goes on. These communities were created partly out of necessity, because discrimination existed in white neighborhoods. They also came together around what was familiar to them: food, language, customs, love and acceptance. Their neighborhoods were nurturing.
The majority white population rarely thought about those neighborhoods and almost never visited them. There was little chance of social interactions occurring because schools, stores, restaurants and houses of worship all served specific neighborhoods. Even after schools were integrated in the 1960s, we all went home to our separate neighborhoods.
Things began to change in the 1970s, as women of color started going to college in larger numbers. Institutions of higher learning provided opportunities to meet a broad range of people and to develop professional careers. With degrees in hand, African American women like me hit the job market with excitement and optimism about what lay ahead.
For a long time, though, we ended up in support positions, serving as administrative assistants to white men and women who were working their way up corporate ladders. Few white people would have seen this situation as unbalanced or wrong, even if they had taken note of it. We weren’t considered to be middle management material.
Of course many African American women have achieved ranks much higher than middle management today. But even with impressive careers, we find that we aren’t fully part of the social environment in organizations that are mostly white. We might be recognized for hard work, or for specific accomplishments, but when colleagues go out to lunch or get together for drinks after work, we are often left out. We are invisible. And even when we are included, we often have a sense that we don’t fit in.
Unfortunately, this dynamic exists within TTN as well – and it’s easy to understand why. Our generation does not have a history of connecting with people of other races. As we work to achieve more diversity within our organization, I believe it’s important to be honest with ourselves about the life experiences we bring to the table. We can all see connectivity increasing in the social worlds our children and grandchildren inhabit. But for all of us women over 50, we can only begin where we are.