Race, Gender and Cross-Navigation: Seven Words, One Story

by Abby A. (guest contributor)


Words are a powerful thing, especially when concentrated into micro-bullets. NPR’s Michele Norris has tapped into the power of words in “The Race Card Project”, where contributors from all across the spectrum are asked to submit their thoughts about race using six words. After some quiet indignation and tapping into my inner witty sarcasm, I decided on these words for my submission:

“White males are coworkers, not my Johns.”

Since honesty is the best policy – personally and corporately – I posted the following explanation of the associated words:

​“Born and raised in Massachusetts, and it has been a love/hate/understand relationship ever since. I’m in my late 20’s working as a healthcare exec/admin (operational and development) for a growing managed care organization (health insurance/care provider org) in the state. To my knowledge, I’m both the youngest and one of the most senior (by position, not years of experience) admin/development people across the company. Even with the joys of learning about healthcare and making things better for people who normally aren’t seen by conventional physicians, there are significant hurdles that I am conscious of as a black woman here.

Both my bosses (the female President and male CEO – both Jewish) invited me to come with them to a healthcare leadership symposium at Harvard Business School. I naturally said “yes” and made arrangements to go with them the next day – a special treat because the symposium would have cost thousands had I registered for the entire workshop on my own. Because I don’t have a car, and because the CEO was bringing another colleague from California to the symposium (another white gentleman), the CEO and I met at one of the easiest places to park and make a U-turn in the city – by the Marriot in Downtown Boston at 7:45a.m.  I didn’t pay significant attention to the friendly-but-question-mark faces of the concierge in the lobby, but I was mindful to keep my words few, makeup simple, and clothes freshly pressed until we got to the symposium. Later, inside the actual symposium, I noticed more faces – scowls, dismissive and curt glances – as I walked around the lobby during intermission. Why is she here? And what is going on with her hair? Their stares were met with intelligent questions, dagger-like glares and the class that is required of a person in a very uncomfortable setting. After the session wrapped up (and another meeting with state Medicaid officials), the CEO, the colleague from California, and I walked back to the office building from the garage down the street. Because downtown Boston is a mix of urban elite business-types and the urban working poor/baseline educated, I always watch interactions across both groups carefully. As I walked back I noticed several men look around – black, white and everyone in between. Glaring. These faces were not catcalling faces geared towards collecting a phone number, but these faces were akin to the ones who watch seedy movies in backrooms under dark curtains – one part disgust, one part intrigue, one part self-righteous indignation. All parts wrong.”

I’m not saying I was a stripper or street walker in a past life, but I get why females – especially females of a certain aesthetic do it; in some ways, it can be easy to “market” and capitalize on the rich, white sugar daddy fetish. Dark skin + well-endowed + “exotic” hair and features (as I’ve been told by select few brave souls) = prime subject for a secret life that MUST involve promiscuous activity. As a size 10 black woman with locs that is often the only woman of color (or woman at all) in meetings with stake holders and company executives, I tend to think about wardrobe, hair style, makeup and even tone of voice in a way that is different than my non-black colleagues. I smile a lot – to show others that I’m not angry, but body posture and tone often say, “I saw you looking at my thighs. No, I will not be your secret bedwarmer to get to this project and make you feel better. I have more authority, legal protection and martial arts skills to say no, unlike Sally Hemmings. I deserve to be loved and respected past what I look like and your secret fetishes.”  By being here, in this context, white coworkers have to be mindful of me … all of me. And what I am learning is that being around whites as they learn to be around me is an uncomfortable lesson, but a necessary one.

As a country, there are significant strides that have been made, when it comes to race, gender and leadership – especially in areas where the common population is not used to seeing people of color in top roles. But even with this progress, there is much to discuss and implement. Both saddened and invigorated by the challenge of changing the face of healthcare’s leadership (read: any traditionally white industry), I am proud to insert myself – all of myself – into this work. Only time, patience and acceptance will tell of what will be created in the future.


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