So I’ve been thinking about this idea of the Angry Black woman. Specifically, I’ve been relating this concept to the workplace. I recently attended a diversity training where the presenter was arming us with tools on how to work with a client that has persistent anger related to her job, boss or co-workers. We were empowered with breathing exercises, visualization exercises and friendly confrontational techniques to help our female client deal with the irrational ideas that she was holding that was creating anger. What I never heard was how to work with a client who has the right to be angry.
There seems to be this notion that the workplace is no place for anger or any emotion for that matter. The more progressive we’ve all become the less I hear about how to adequately process, direct and deal with feelings at work. I imagine that unless you clean clouds for a living, you will at some point deal with an emotion or two and in the case of gender or racial discrimination, there times when a woman has the right to be angry at work.
- Inequality in Pay: Most of the women that I know can attest to being in a situation where they have equal credentials and job responsibilities, but were not compensated equally. It seems almost impossible that in this day and age we are still fighting for equal pay, but fifty years after President Kennedy signed the Equal Pay Act women are still making about 81 cents for every dollar that a man makes. Black women such as myself are looking at closer to 70 cents to every white male’s dollar. Facing that reality is enough to wrinkle an eyebrow.
- Glass Ceiling: I have tried and cannot think of a better metaphor to describe the phenomena of women being prevented from advancing in the workplace. It is the reality of so many women that have taken the time and effort to learn their craft, pay their dues, work day and night only to find themselves hitting a wall that they cannot break through. This is not a “corporate America” issue. The good old boy club exists in higher education, entertainment and any other area of work. Preventing a woman from advancement that she’s earned is an anger inducing act.
- Voice Mutation: Voice Mutation is a term that I use to refer to two conditions; one literal and the other figurative. When my female clients describe situations where they are cut off, spoken over or completely ignored, I see this as a literal voice mutation. I don’t always think that it happens intentionally, but I believe that the culture has to ALLOW for such occurrence. There are other occasions when the female voice is simply left out of the room because she is not in a position of power or leadership. At one of my places of employment we referred to leadership as the “Man Team.” The Man Team consisted of a group of men that were promoted to the highest positions in the division. These men made all of the money, made all of the decision and held all of the power. Because the “Man Team” was a group of middle age white men, their decision lacked the consideration of anyone outside of themselves. There were so many times that decision were made and all of them women looked around at each other in disbelief. Voice Mutation occurred because a feminine voice was not permitted to be a part of the decision making process. When you know what you’re talking about and are not permitted to say it, but are forced to suffer the consequences of someone else’s erroneous decision-making you may begin to feel a tad bit angry.
- Lack of Due Process: When a woman deals with this type of discrimination on a consistent basis and has no adequate process of having her situation remedied at work she will rightfully experience emotion. She may become angry, stressed, sad or even depressed. Often times human resources and other agencies are set up to protect the company and not the ailing staff member. I once heard an HR professional say that the staff members of the organization were her customer and she was there to serve them, but the conundrum was that her paycheck was issued by the oppressive institution. She could only do so much advocating for her customer before being out of a job herself.
I have found integrating the five basic principles of feminist theory into my work with clients experiencing race or gender discrimination to be very empowering for clients. Feminist theory suggests:
- The personal is political which implements social change
- The counseling relationship is egalitarian which encourages equality between the therapist and the client.
- Women’s experiences are honored and they should get in touch with their personal experiences and intuition.
- Definitions of distress and mental illness are reformulated involving the internal as well as external factors of distress. Pain and resistance are viewed as a positive confirmation of the desire to live and overcome distress rather than being viewed as weak.
- Feminist therapists use an integrated analysis of oppression which means they understand that both men and women are subjected to oppression.
When I take these principles into account and balance my client’s disclosures along with my personal experiences of gender and race discrimination in the workplace I jump a little less quickly to pathologize her as an angry black woman and instead meet her in a place of empathy and agree that her perception is her reality. Change begins with her feeling empowered to see realness in her experience which allows her to work to advocate for personal and social change.
If done right, career counseling is personal counseling and the personal is political.
Andrea Holyfield is a counselor specializing in career counseling and womens' empowerment. For more information go to www.LiveWellCPS.com