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Black women need to give themselves permission to RSVP 'no'

OP/ED: Many Black women leaders have been seated at the proverbial table, only to realize that the actual change they are seeking is still elusive.
Amira Barger is a Bay Area resident, parent, and executive vice president of Communications & DEI at a global firm.
Amira Barger is a Bay Area resident, parent, and executive vice president of Communications & DEI at a global firm.Nancy Rothstein

On my LinkedIn page, I recently included a meme that read, “Sometimes when you’re invited, you’re still not welcome. Know the difference.” The message resonated with my followers, especially Black women. Many commenters shared the sentiment — that while we deserve to be at every table, not every table deserves us.

Yes, Black women and other historically marginalized leaders are making their way into board rooms, management acceleration programs, elected offices, and C-suites. But too many leaders view diversity simply as the inclusion of identities. The truth is, simply being included will not get us the outcomes we need, like equitable pay, sponsorship into C-Suite roles, succession plans with a timeline we can count on and more.

In other words, representation is not the whole solution.

Take the unrest surrounding the May 2020 murder of George Floyd. Later that year, my local government in Benicia, California created the Commission United for Racial Equity, to which I was appointed. After many delays and deliberations, the commission was vastly watered down by the city council from its original intent and purpose. It seemed like a performative gesture where representation was more important than results.

Then there’s our corporate landscape where there are numerous examples of executives (particularly Black women executives) hired into diversity, equity and inclusion roles. But many are suddenly finding their positions threatened or have decided to leave on their own after realizing that their lofty titles held no actual authority to advance change.

The fact is, performative allyship goes beyond simply not feeling welcome at the table. And it results in actual harm.

There is myriad data surrounding harmful workplace phenomena, including "pet to threat". This happens when women, typically Black women, are groomed by companies until they start demonstrating high levels of confidence and shine in their role, a transition that is wrongfully perceived as threatening to employers.

Another outcome is racial “weathering”, in which studies have shown that the constant stress of racism can lead to worse health outcomes, particularly for Black women.

As we approach the three-year anniversary of the Covid-19 pandemic, many Black women professionals I’ve spoken to say they are reconsidering the arc of their workplace journeys. This arc is increasingly leading us to RSVP "no" to seats we once clamored for, opting instead to exit corporate spaces, once revered as the hallmark of achievement, and build our own tables.

According to Project Diane, the number of businesses founded and led by Black women in their database doubled in 2020. It is one of many reasons a recent study published in the Harvard Business Review cites Black women as the fastest-growing group of entrepreneurs turning down the invitation to standard corporate tables. Black women now run over 2.7 million of the 12 million businesses in the U.S.

We should expect to see more of this as people tire of the commonplace tokenism within ivory towers. We need systemic change across institutions, but, because the "system" of inequity is so ingrained, many are finding that the path toward systemic change may lie outside of the established institutions.

Representation should not be the measure. Nor does it equate to results. Now that we are receiving invitations to the proverbial table, perhaps the truth is, we don't actually want or need them. What we want is a table all our own.

To my fellow Black women, I hope you occupy spaces where the fullness of who you are is celebrated and amplified. As a necessity, we as Black women have developed a high tolerance for suffering, but the emotional labor of hiding behind a smile in response to tokenism or marginalization is too great a cost. I don’t want that for us anymore.

I know I’m no longer clamoring to sit at tables where my sanity, safety, and soul are on the menu. I hope that you give yourself permission to RSVP “no” to tables that no longer serve you.