In my first job out of high school, I was a nursing assistant. It was an under-paying job, dominated by women of color, which entailed helping the afflicted and the elderly perform activities of daily living like bathing, grooming, eating, and using the toilet. The work was grueling, but desperately needed, especially for housebound patients.
I covered two cases to make ends meet. There was Dora, an 86-year-old Italian woman with Alzheimer’s disease. Each morning, after being bathed and fed, she’d ask me, “How in the world did you get so black?” At noon time, as we sat side by side watching her favorite soap operas, she’d pat me on the thigh, lean in, and whisper: “You should stay out of the sun for a while.” I’m not sure if Dora had mistaken me for someone familiar and of a lighter hue, but I do know her remarks were a direct response to my sable skin tone, which didn’t sit well with her.
It was hard to be fazed by her dementia-tinged remarks. After all, she was a white octogenarian who was living and dying in Glen Oaks, a predominately white Queens community with an eight percent Black population. Having been exposed to peak levels of white ignorance, I’d come to expect white people to white. But if there was any question of her or her family’s racism, it was confirmed the day her granddaughter, a middle-aged Jewish woman, called me a “fucking n*gger” because I would not work extra hours at her behest. Even though I had bills and meals to cover, I quit right there on the spot without receiving my final week’s pay. That would be the first of many lessons I’d learn about the value of Black women in the workplace.
“[D]e sister in black works harder than anybody else in de world. De white man tells de nigger to work and he takes and tells his wife,” Zora Neale Hurston writes in her seminal work, Mules and Men, published in 1935. At the intersection of race, gender, and work lie discrimination and extreme oppression for the Black woman. Eighty-four years later, Black women are paid 37.5 percent less than white men and 21 percent less than white women across several demographics: age, education, and occupation. Latinx women earn even less, making just 53 cents to every dollar paid to white men.
To give the disparity context, a white male physician will earn $253,042 annually, while a black woman physician will be paid $152,784, according to a 2016 study conducted by researchers at Harvard Medical School and the USC Schaeffer Center for Health Policy & Economics. Researchers noted that “the pay gap identified was not influenced by the factors known to influence physician pay: specialty, hours worked, geographic variability, and years in practice, or age.” Couple this with the 36 percent of young Black women who have felt the sting of racial and sexist discrimination in the workplace, according to the Status of Black Woman in the United States report, and it’s clear that the workplace is a deeply fraught space for Black women.
According to Dr Dionne Mahaffey, author of Exploring the Lived Experiences of Women Affected and Transformed by Female Rivalry in the Workplace, the hostility Black women face in the workplace is due systematic -isms. “We know the obvious reason [the wage gap persists for WoC] is because of the intersections of sexism and racism,” says Mahaffey. “Women in general make less than men and white people make more than Blacks, and because we fit into both categories, it knocks us down the food chain as it relates to pay.” At the current rate, Mahaffey says, “for [Black women], it’s going to take until 2124 for that gap to close; for Hispanic women, it’s going to take another 109 years after that.” Mahaffey references extensive research conducted by the Institute for Women’s Policy Research (IWPR) that maps women’s income wage gap by race, state, and trend. Based on collected data and analysis, most Black women and women of color will not realize equal pay in our lifetime.
“We can’t do much alone without allies, and policy and paradigm shifts,” Mahaffey said. “But some of the gap is due to a fear of money, and us not asking for more.” She stresses this point: “If you don’t ask for more, you don’t get more….We’re at the point where we know that we get 40 percent less than white men, so whatever salary they offer, you counter,” she said. “Go in asking for more than they offer.”
Aretha Franklin understood this. She famously had a clause written into her contracts requiring $25,000 be paid upfront and in cash before she even stepped foot on stage. That’s what would be in the purse Franklin toted to the stage during her performances. There was a good reason for the stipulation: Many black artists were being stiffed for services rendered, and Franklin refused to be played. She chose to secure the bag.
A Black woman knowing her worth and demanding it should have been a shining example, but some of us never got the lesson. I know firsthand how deeply internalized feelings of low self-worth can be, especially in the absence of allies, or when the bad boss is another Black woman. I have at times found myself chasing validation, putting up and shutting up, enduring extreme duress, and foolishly performing the strong Black woman stereotype, just to get paid less than my white counterparts.
In that nursing assistant job, I had a weekend case caring for a former nurse who was 53 years old. Her ailment did not limit her mobility; I don’t know what trauma she may have experienced in her life, but I do know she didn’t seem to need nursing care in the same way my other charges did. A Black woman herself, she would say things like “The world expects more from us” and “The name of the game is to look busy.” My weekends with her involved moving heavy furniture in order to vacuum every inch of carpet, mopping and waxing floors, dusting and reshelving books and dishes, scouring scorch from pots and pans, laundering curtains and drapes, refolding folded linen, ironing unwrinkled clothing, and anything else that would prevent me from appearing to be a “lazy Black girl,” which is how she described a previous woman assigned to her. None of these tasks was in the job description.
I continued to show up to work because I had to get paid. And, well, I’m a Black woman. I thought it was my duty to prove myself, stay the course, and take the abuse. Her demands were part and parcel of well-established respectability politics preached by Black mothers and aunties to Black girls so that we would work harder and be able to keep our jobs. We’re so busy focused on tirelessly proving we’re worthy of whatever little we get, we never learn how to get more of what we deserve.
As the nation acknowledged Equal Pay Day yesterday, we must also consider the often dismissed and underreported injustices which lie just at the surface, which affect more Black women than one might imagine. The income wage gap is a standing testament to economic inequality in the labor force. But swallowing our self-worth, internalizing people’s projections, and being caught in the whirlwind of egregious misogynoir is a career—and self-esteem—killer.