While women of color in the U.S. continue to secure places of high esteem, status and leadership in the work place, anxiety driven over-productivity of women of color is a place to be aware of, understood and personally managed. Often referred to as the ‘double glass ceiling’, women of color must meet not only the barriers of gender inequality in the workplace but also racial inequality. Having to ‘prove oneself’ to almost irrational and near unattainable levels of perfection has all too often lead women of color, of all ages, into a frenzy of hyperproductivty, anxiety and stress that neither her male nor white women colleagues have the pressure or expectation to meet or persevere through.
For example, ‘running late for a meeting due to traffic or public transportation delays’, to most employees, while dreaded or inconvenient, travel stress can be alleviated by a quick text or email to the office alerting management of their delayed ETA. However, being a women of color in a workspace where she is one of a handful or perhaps the only women of color, somehow ‘her lateness’ has the potential of transcending generational slander of seeing women of color as lazy, irresponsible, and somehow ill equipped to manage or be suitable for upper management, high paying positions within an organization. Sound familiar?
Now where does this ideology come from? How has work and work spaces become so closely tied to the identity and even self worth of a woman of color? Stemming back to the enslavement of Africans in the U.S, to the Reconstruction era, to the Jim Crow era and well into the 20th and now 21st century, employers, businesses, white masters and slave owners have comfortably idealized and full on objectified Black women’s bodies as tied to work and productivity.
Whether direct labor in field work, suitability for housework onto the most intimate level of fertility and prospect to bear children. So pervasive had this ill notion been, that during her entire pregnancy, up until labor, and then not days after giving birth to her baby, Black women laborers were then forced to return to the field. Often with a baby wrapped closely to her body and not fully physically or emotionally healed.
Black women were expected to resume their positions with the same level of productivity and meeting her daily quota of crop collection. So too had the expectation of ownership over Black women’s bodies that even while breastfeeding her own children, she was still obligated to be a wet nurse for white babies. She was deemed her responsibility and mandate over her own production of milk. Failure to meet any of these roles or expectations could lead to beatings, denial of food, shelter, separation from her own child, and even in some cases, death.
Trace these early narratives to 21st century workplace culture where women of color, let’s say some who are also new mothers, feel the added pressure to resume ‘work as usual’, soon after delivering her child. These women often times experience pressure to meet the workplace standards that fully deny women of their biological, physical and emotional need to properly heal from performing the most miraculous act of humankind, bearing life and giving birth. Deep seated is the misrepresentation of productivity and bodies of women of color that perpetuates those insensitive employer, supervisor lead questions days into maternity leave, “Congratulations on your new baby, so how soon can you return to work?”
To close, U.S. workplace culture is pervasively comfortable promoting and cycling the over-productivity of women of color. Cycling back to a time, not too long ago, where women’s bodies were solely tied to their productivity along with their fertility. So the next time you consider putting aside personal or family obligations for the sake of your work place, know where that narrative stems from, think twice and consider a place where you are able to value yourself and your family first. It’s time to change the narrative.