“Black women love a piece of paper,” said my sister as we were walking early one morning. She wasn’t talking about money - though of course proper remuneration is always welcome - but about certificates of educational achievement.
She wasn’t wrong.
As a group, Black women tend to be educational overachievers, always seeking to do more and better. I’m a case in point. I have two Master’s degrees. The first one was by choice, and the second came about because I had to do a postgrad certificate in teaching and learning when I went to work for Coventry University. Since I was already one third of the way to a Master’s, I decided to complete it. That’s how we roll.
For many Black communities (I can speak knowledgeably about my own, but I’m told it’s much the same in other countries), education is the ticket to a better life. For Black women, who are almost universally disrespected and overlooked, it’s a must.
I may have told you this story before, but someone I know was discussing education with work colleagues. When she mentioned she had a Master’s degree, every head swiveled round and one person said with surprise and shock: “You have a Master’s?” To her, it was unthinkable that “the little Black girl” should be more qualified than she was.
Overqualified Yet Underpaid
Most Black women will have the experience at some time in their careers - and some, throughout their careers - of being dictated to and condescended to by people much less qualified and experienced than they are. They will have suffered from being overworked, underpaid, and disrespected by white colleagues and bosses.
The box that white supremacy creates for Black women doesn’t admit to their (our) educational achievement and professional competence but that’s precisely why we have to have those things. Black women, like other Black people, have to be better than the rest to achieve the same things.
Remember, when that Epstein guy disrespected Dr. Jill Biden last year? And when Dr. Timrit Gebru was fired by Google (that’s how she tells it, and I believe Black women - who would lie about that?) that resulted in more Black women putting their qualifications at the end of their names so people could see just how qualified they were. (I didn’t do it, because M.A., M.A. would just be ridiculous, but I totally understand why they did.)
Why You Need Your Certificates to Have a Chance
A report on racism in Canadian workplaces had some stats that rang true for me, having seen similar reports about both the UK and the US. Black people are less likely to be hired, more likely to be unemployed, more likely to be affected by credentialism, more likely to be underpaid. And that’s not to mention the microaggressions and the poor promotion prospects.
So getting those pieces of paper is necessary to even have a shot.
What’s An Anti-Racist To Do?
So what can anti-racists do to help address this problem in the workplace? I speak here as a former employee, rather than an HR expert, but here’s what I think:
Anonymize the selection process to see a wider pool of candidates
Accept non-standard backgrounds that still provide the skills you need
Hire qualified Black and brown people and support, mentor and promote them
Honestly, it’s not that difficult if you have a will to do it. After all, there are tens of thousands of super-qualified Black people out there.
All you have to do is be willing to look.
© Sharon Hurley Hall, 2021. All Rights Reserved.
Cover photo courtesy of Canva.