Stop Typecasting Black Women

Viola Davis, pictured here during an ABC press tour, won an Emmy on Sept. 20 for her role in "How to Get Away with Murder." (Photo courtesy of ABC/Flickr)

On Sept. 20, Viola Davis became the first black woman to win an Emmy for Best Lead Actress in a Drama Series.

“The only thing that separates women of color from anyone else is opportunity,” she said in her acceptance speech. “You cannot win an Emmy for roles that are simply not there.”

Black women are often sequestered into finite, stereotypical roles, both on screen and in real life. A black woman who defends herself or speaks up is perceived as “aggressive” or “angry.” She may be expected to sacrifice more, work harder and be that “strong black woman” for the people around her. She may even have to fight the stereotype that all black women are single mothers.   

Tamara Winfrey-Harris, author of “The Sisters are Alright: Changing the Broken Narrative of Black Women in America”
Tamara Winfrey-Harris, author of “The Sisters are Alright: Changing the Broken Narrative of Black Women in America”

Tamara Winfrey-Harris, author of “The Sisters are Alright: Changing the Broken Narrative of Black Women in America,” spoke with Diversity Executive about these harmful stereotypes and how to dissolve them. Edited excerpts follow.

Why is there a lack of minority or black female leadership?

We exist in a society that is still racist and is still sexist. We know that women make less than men on the dollar and that black women make less than white women and white men and black men. 

If people who are responsible for promoting you and hiring you cannot see you as a full human being but see you through the lens of a stereotype, that’s going to make it harder for you to advance in the workplace.

This problem exists in the intersection between racism and sexism. How is it different addressing the issue with, let’s say, white women?

One thing all women have in common is that we all experience sexism. I always go back to Sheryl Sandberg’s book “Lean In.” I thought it was valuable, but I have to acknowledge that when black women, or even Latina women, “lean in” in the workplace, we are often seen as aggressive. That’s another layer we have to think about if we are going to do the things that might help promote our careers. There is a difference in how we are perceived, even as we are fighting against sexism. 

How do modern social justice movements, such as feminism or Black Lives Matter, affect women of color? 

For black women, there are far more of our voices being heard. I always like to point back to before the 2008 election. If someone was on television to talk about black topics, it was probably going to be a black man. That changed, in part, because young people were very active. We saw more voices get added to the mix — people like Melissa Harris-Perry on MSNBC. Black women’s voices were not being heard before, and the more people hear from us — instead of hearing about us or talking at us — the better.

Black Lives Matter was started by three black women. That’s a very different situation than in the civil rights of the 1960s or the Black Power movement, where black women worked really hard but were often marginalized. Now people see more of us and hear more from us.

How can diversity leaders dissolve black woman stereotypes in the workplace?

Listen to the actual experiences of black women instead of relying on assumptions and stereotypes. Black women cannot fight against all the ways in which they are stereotyped in the workplace — we have to keep our jobs. But we are going to have to change the narrative because I am not sure anyone else will change it for us. It’s an ongoing battle for us.

In your personal experience, how do you get people to listen?

Sometimes we learn, as someone who is marginalized, whether it’s because of our gender or race or both, we learn to do certain things so automatically we don’t really think about it. You just pick your battles and find a place where you can educate and change the situation. You search for places that allow you to have to most growth. I think that’s the best you can do. 

What would happen to an organization if it doesn’t change or progress?

They will not, in an increasingly diverse United States, have access to a diverse workforce, which ultimately will be bad for the business. There are very smart, very competent people who are black and female and Latina and gay and straight and all of those things. If you have a corporate culture that doesn’t welcome those people and doesn’t value those people, you won’t get them. You won’t get the best of the best in your workplace.