The deliberate silence of black women in educational leadership
Photo courtesy of The Reel Network
By Rebecca Lais, Teacher for America Alum
Aggressive! Will ! Passionate!
Aggressive, willful, passionate, have been words falsely labeled as mere descriptors when in reality they are evidence of the continuing sexism and racism that plague our society. Women leaders have always faced adversity and are still considered second-class citizens in our country. We see this playing out at the national level, but we also see it through daily interactions with the privileged.
Naively and ignorantly, I believed that as women we shared the same experience. It wasn’t until I was under the guidance of an amazing black female leader that I realized I was horribly wrong.
During my three years as a college English teacher in Tulsa, Oklahoma, I had the opportunity to work under the tutelage of a phenomenal black principal. She embodied the vision of not only equality but fairness for our academics, and she specifically fought the school-to-prison narrative through our restorative justice program.
She worked tirelessly and relentlessly on behalf of her students. Yet, through several interactions and conversations that I have observed, she has been unfairly characterized as too difficult to work with “or” too arrogant. “
“Too hard to work” or “too arrogant”.
As a black woman in an arena dominated by white men or white women, her experience is totally different from that of those enjoying the benefits of privilege and well known to her fellow black leaders.
One example that comes to mind is a meeting I attended as a special education teacher. Our principal was explaining to a district employee (a white woman) that one of our students needed additional behavioral assistance due to several worrying situations our school was not qualified for. We were then told that the district did not have the financial resources to help “all the students” and that we had to fend for ourselves.
As our principal defended our scholar, the employee begins to talk about her, turns to me and asks me to “reason with her”. I can’t help but wonder if our manager had been white or male, would she have been considered “unreasonable”?
“Reason with her! “
As I got to know our director and we discussed her experiences as a black leader, she shared various memories that she allowed me to share. She remembers a time when she had to ask the assistant principal, an African American man, to lead some conversations with district employees because she knew her voice would not be heard and our academics would lose opportunities. Consequently.
She also describes a conversation with another black woman who told her that her long braids were “unprofessional” for a manager. Too often to count, his co-workers told him that his voice was “too harsh” or that his approach was “too dominant”.
She has faced discrimination from all sides, and yet she still continues. When I asked her why she remained attached to her job as a principal in Tulsa, she replied:
“I want our young black women to know that they don’t have to change who they are because of what our society tells them to be. They may not be accepted for who they are, but it is not their responsibility. They need to see black women in leadership who refuse to let prejudice dictate how they will live their lives. I want them to own who they are because we need them.
It is not the responsibility of black women to adapt who they are and how they express themselves because of our white and male dominated society.
It is not the right of others to label someone as “too much” of anything.
We need black women in leadership.
Our country is proof of this today. We need our young black academics to see their reflection in leadership and see how each of them can make our nation better.
Becca Lais received her undergraduate degree in Peace Studies, Gender Studies and Philosophy. She moved to Tulsa as a member of Teach for America, and she taught English for 6e-8e universities in the north of Tulsa. She is currently completing her Masters in Social Work at the University of Oklahoma-Tulsa, and she plans to use her Masters to work in the area of advocacy and community practice. She is a proud feminist, aShe is dedicated to fighting for equality and fairness. She believes in empowering young people to use their voice for change and justice in their own lives and in their communities.
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