American Experiment: Caught in the Intersection*

An active-duty friend of mine was fired recently. Despite being described as “hard-charging, high-flying, and mission oriented” (usually positive descriptors in a military setting), those in supervisory positions determined this particular leader did not have sufficient soft skills to continue to lead.

Apparently accountability to published standards was too much for those in subordinate positions, who deemed this leader assertive and ambitious.

Do I even have to identify this leader as a woman?

I’m sure it’s obvious; these traits are only considered negative when displayed by women. The mostly men in her chain of command have freely admitted to urging her to be softer, less strident, more soothing, seemingly oblivious to the extreme sexist, misogynistic, and anachronistic attitudes their comments reveal.

As someone who has frequently and favorably compared the military’s willingness to reward good leadership regardless of gender, to what I’ve experienced post retirement, I was taken aback.

But there’s more. This stellar officer, a frequent presenter at professional conferences, made an “I’m-working-like-a-slave” comment in a moment of stress that was heard by a subordinate who reacted uncomfortably. Apparently, this comment, coupled with concerns about her disposition, required her to be fired, disinvited from presenting at a conference she was scheduled to attend and the subject of a whisper campaign within her professional community.

Before you pronounce her guilty of racism, did I mention this leader is black? Is it necessary to mention the subordinate is a white male?

And without getting into the whole “can black people be racist” argument, I have questions…

What makes any comments uttered by black people about slavery racist? Even Kanye West’s controversial comments about race and slavery were primarily labeled ignorant and inaccurate versus racist.

Doesn’t firing the black woman play into the reality of institutional racism? Isn’t the accusation of racism by a white man and subsequent firing by another white man examples of the white man’s positional power to define reality in a system of white supremacy? Isn’t using the institutional power of the dominant culture to punish a black woman for being something she technically cannot be, exactly what constitutes institutional racism?

Did the black men made aware of the incident acquiesce to defining the incident as racist because they believed it to be so or were they unwilling to push their white counterparts or subordinates to consider a more nuanced interpretation? Were the white women privy to the story outraged by the sexism but unwilling to interrupt the real “ism” by speaking up for a woman they might perceive as uppity?

Black women often find ourselves at the perilous intersection* of race and gender, victims of patriarchy, white fragility, expectations about what is feminine, perceptions that don’t recognize our femininity and stereotypes that mistake our strength for anger. In this space, some are discredited, some are discarded and some die. Those who proudly serve this country are no exception.

After a career spent working hard, sacrificing personally to achieve role model, rock star status, my friend has been devastated.

I pray she recovers.

“There’s a huge double standard and a massive problem going on with weaponized outrage in this country. White men have found a way to destroy women and people of color with their mostly manufactured outrage at comments and actions that make them uncomfortable while being absolutely immune to and vaccinated against the outrage of others.” paraphrase of a Twitter comment by Eugene Gu, MD, a Surgeon-Scientist

*Intersectionality refers to the complex and cumulative way that the effects of different forms of discrimination (such as racism, sexism, and classism) combine, overlap, and yes, intersect—especially in the experiences of marginalized people or groups. The term was coined by legal scholar Kimberlé Crenshaw in a 1989 essay that asserts that antidiscrimination law, feminist theory, and antiracist politics all fail to address the experiences of black women because of how they each focus on only a single factor. Crenshaw writes that “[b]ecause the intersectional experience is greater than the sum of racism and sexism, any analysis that does not take intersectionality into account cannot sufficiently address the particular manner in which Black women are subordinated.” Merriam-Webster.com

#AmericanExperiment

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