Ritu Bhasin
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4 Ways I’m Underestimated as a Woman of Color

 
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Racism is real, and it seems as though now more than ever before it’s being called out in the public sphere. Just recently, a racist incident at Starbucks—in which two Black men were arrested for not ordering anything, aka for “waiting while Black”—received significant news coverage, caused an uproar across many communities, and prompted immediate action from the company. This kind of coverage helps to make it clearer to those who’ve never experienced the sting of racism that it does, in fact, infiltrate all aspects of our society.

The unfortunate truth for people of color is that what we’re finally seeing discussed in the mainstream just affirms what we already know is true—that racism shows up constantly in our everyday lives and permeates everything that we do. Sometimes this racism shows up as violence or a state-sanctioned violation of our rights. But often it’s far less overt, which can make it more insidious. 

As people of color, these “subtle” acts of racism affect our countless interactions and experiences—who sits beside us on the subway, the level of customer service we receive, how we’re treated at work, and so much more. I can tell you that, as a Brown woman, it’s these more covert forms of racism that I experience on a regular basis. 

One way that racism consistently shows up for me as a woman of color (note: the intersection of race and gender has an amplifying effect on the racism coming my way—the racism I experience is sexist, and the sexism I experience is racist) is in constantly being underestimated. When I was younger and people signaled that they didn’t believe in my value, I would question my own behavior (which I discuss in my book). But now I have crystal clarity about how the racial bias that is woven into our social dynamics impacts how I’m treated.

Sharing our stories of oppression is critical for change, so I want to share a few of the ways that bias and racism impact my daily life. In particular, I want to share examples of less overt racism—what may at first appear to be simple acts of disrespect—because I desperately want more people of color to gain clarity about what’s really going on. Only then can we collectively disrupt what’s happening.

“Are you supposed to be here?”

I travel a lot for work and find myself spending a lot of time in transit with fancy business types—mostly older white men, and very few people who look like me. Because I fly so often, I’ve racked up a high frequent flyer status with my favorite airline, which allows me to be at the front of the line for boarding. I can’t tell you how many times I have been asked (by fellow passengers, usually trying to butt in line) to confirm that I’m in the correct line for boarding. Often, I’m met with confusion by people who assume, at first glance, that I couldn’t possibly be in “Zone 1” of the plane. 

This happens to me a few times a month, and every time, I ask myself why I’m experiencing this type of questioning behavior when others in the same line are not. The fact is, these experiences tie back to judgments made about me as a brown-skinned woman. The people in these encounters underestimate me, assuming that, as a woman of color, I couldn’t be “important” enough to board first.

“Are you really worth this much?”

In my work as a global speaker on leadership and diversity, my abilities, level of excellence, and value are often blatantly underestimated. Frequently, people will come up to me after a presentation and say some version of, “I wasn’t expecting much from this presentation, but you really surprised me. You were amazing!” Which leads me to wonder: Why did you assume my presentation wouldn’t be of high quality?

I’m also frequently challenged on my pricing, particularly by new clients. Recently, I had a first-time client (literally) yell at me over the phone, saying, “Are you kidding me? You're trying to charge the same rate as investment bankers on Bay Street [Canada’s Wall Street]!” Because I had already signed the agreement, I proceeded with the work. After my presentation, this same individual came up to me and said, “Now I understand why you charge what you do. That was excellent.”

It often feels like, as a woman of color, my credentials and CV are simply not enough to prove my value as a professional. I’m constantly having to “re-audition” for a role that I’ve been an expert in for years now, decades into my career. I know that being questioned in this way is not the norm for similarly qualified, or even less-qualified, white men in my field. Again, when it comes to my work, I’m being underestimated because of others’ biases.

“People don’t care what you have to say.”

When I launched my book last year, I hired a (white, female) publicist to help land media coverage. She pitched the book, which reveals my experiences with bias at work and how to interrupt these types of experiences, to a mainstream TV program. At first the producers (with whom she’d worked often) avoided her messages. After persisting, she was finally told outright that the topic was “too provocative” for them to cover. 

Upon getting this news, my publicist was shocked—she’d never been treated like this by a network, and she rightly identified it as racism, which was very upsetting for her. She couldn’t believe it. I, on the other hand, was not surprised. I knew going into it that it would be an uphill battle to get mainstream coverage as a woman of color—despite the media’s refrain that it wants more diversity, but can’t find it.

This is what racial bias by the media can look like. Covering a topic that is highly relevant among people of color (and others) is considered too provocative for a mainstream TV program—one that regularly covers cutting edge topics, and whose audience is drawn from the most multi-cultural city in the world. Simply put, the network underestimated the relevancy and importance of what I had to say.

“Are you really good enough?”

I was recently put forward for a leadership speaker’s series at a top institution by an esteemed leader there, who knows my work well. Right away it became clear that the event director perceived this as a favor and assumed that I wasn’t qualified to be featured at an event. He immediately scheduled me into a bad timeslot—a Friday afternoon in the summer—knowing that most of their usual audience would be unavailable. As soon as I saw his email with the time it was scheduled, I knew that he expected very little of my talk—both the quality and potential turnout. Of course, I wrote back to advocate for a prime timeslot, because I know my value and there was no way I was going to do the event without one.

Yet again, I was underestimated. Despite being endorsed by a well-respected leader in the organization, and despite the fact that I’m a speaker who does nearly 100 gigs per year, the event director (wrongly!) assumed that nobody would want to attend my event.

It’s Not in My Imagination

Some people who don’t regularly experience racism may argue that there are factors besides race and gender at play in these experiences. Maybe, they’ll say, it’s because people are just jerks. Maybe it’s an age thing. Maybe someone was just having a bad day. Maybe you’re reading into it. Or, perhaps, you’re just too sensitive.

But when I recount these stories to other women of color, they know exactly what I mean, because they too have experienced the intersection of racism and sexism.

There are myriad factors at play in any given situation, but over the course of a life, regular patterns begin to emerge tied back to race, gender, and other differences. It doesn’t serve me, or anyone on the receiving end of bias, to dismiss what we know to be true. 

We live in a society entrenched in misogyny and white supremacy, and it does show up in our lived experiences. It’s critical that we recognize this for what it is and keep sharing our stories to help others understand the hurt, the exhaustion, and the setbacks that result from our experiences.