Black women are the breadwinners. They are “the most active voting blocs in the US electorate.” They are community-builders and the unsung heroes of the civil rights movement. They are the United States’ most educated demographic. They are entrepreneurs—black women-owned businesses grew by 164 percent from 2007 to 2018. And their excellence has been fueling progress on earth— and in space— from time immemorial.
So, what’s the reward for all of their work and contributions? Black women earn just 61 cents on the dollar compared with white men. They are more likely to be evaluated unfairly in the workplace. And black women are least likely to reach high-ranking executive positions even when they’re highly credentialed.
Here in Delaware, black women have been sounding the alarm about disparities in black women’s maternal health (black mothers are three to four times more likely to die in childbirth than white mothers in Delaware), racism and the lack of inclusion in the technology industry, the need for more black women in tenured professor roles at the University of Delaware (Black women represent 2% of UD’s 754 tenured faculty), and the need for more black women in elected office, among other topics.
Clearly, racism and sexism join forces to make life and attainment substantially harder for black women. But sometimes the barriers for black women’s progress are sourced from an unexpected culprit: “woke” white folks.
Yes. I am saying that the same folks who stand shoulder-to-shoulder with black women at The Women’s March can be the ones standing in opposition to black women when they think their interests are threatened. That same Notorious R.B.G.-t-shirt-wearing, who-runs-this-world-girls-singing, Michelle-Obama-Becoming-toting person can become part of the problem despite their good intentions. And white folks’ ability to wield “woke” words are no balm for the pain of friendly fire.
The current race for a seat on Red Clay School District’s school board provides a great case study in how well-meaning white folks can undermine black women’s progress.
Enter Sarah Fulton, candidate for Red Clay school board.
March 6th was the filing deadline for school board candidates and Sarah Fulton filed on the last possible day. Lilian Oliver, a black woman, filed to run for that seat the prior week. Sarah and Lillian will be running against incumbent Martin Wilson Sr. Martin was first elected in 1999.
But here’s the issue.
On the day before the filing deadline, Sarah reached out online to ask me about my thoughts about Martin versus Lillian. I told her I don’t know much about Lillian.
She responds: “I admittedly thought about running for that seat but met with Lillian a couple of times. We talked and decided which one of us should run.”
She goes on to tell me that she thinks Lillian is “just not up to speed on the issues” and “really needs help.”
She once again says that “I really thought about running – but it’s a majority minority district and I don’t think it’s wise to turn it into a 3 way race.”
She wraps up with her assessment of Lilian’s campaign, a campaign that just officially launched a week prior: “I just don’t know if she’s doing what she needs to do to win. Especially in the burbs.”
Now, some might not see what’s wrong here —Sarah is simply making a strict political calculation. So let me translate the coded language that “woke” white folks use (intentionally or unintentionally) to undercut black women.
Sarah admits to meeting with Lillian a few times and agreeing she was the right candidate to run for the seat. This means she was either not being fully honest about her feelings about Lillian or her trust in Lillian’s candidacy was thin at best.
This is consistent with a pattern of woke white folks serving black women sweet words to their faces while privately disparaging their qualifications. Or, they act like they trust black women’s leadership while simultaneously seeking ways to take control at the slightest perceived misstep. Research tells us that black women are most likely to “have their judgment questioned in their area of expertise and be asked to prove their competence.”
Sarah hastily claims that Lillian is not doing what is needed to win so she feels obliged to step in and save the day. This “white savior” complex is ubiquitous in the same “majority-minority” communities that Sarah believes should be represented by people of color. And it is rooted in a “presumption of unreliability” that allows a white woman to assert that a black woman with a track record of serving her community is “not up to speed on the issues.”
Sarah is also concerned about how Lillian will do “especially in the burbs.” This is essentially “woke” white speak for “black women do not have appeal beyond the black community.”
I concluded my brief but revealing conversation with Sarah by asking her if Lillian had a team. I quietly wondered why she would not simply leverage her skills and resources to help a candidate she believed was a better person to run for the seat.
Paulo Freire said “true solidarity means struggling alongside the oppressed.” [emphasis added] Malcolm X talked about the need for white liberals to be comfortable with giving advice and standing on the sidelines rather than always at the top.
Until that time, black women are going to keep working, persisting, and making history with or without you.
Important Note: This blog post is not an endorsement of Lillian Oliver. I still do not know much about her. I just know what it looks like when black women are undermined and I think it is worth calling attention to the broader issue. My endorsements are thorough and look like this.