Kansas City Black Professional Women Change Corporate Culture by Breaking Stereotypes | KCUR 89.3
Sandra Stites looks forward to Mother’s Day, a day when the women in her family celebrate each other.
On the Saturday leading up to Mother’s Day this year, Stites, in her gray Patagonia vest to match her shoulder-length gray braids, joined his 88-year-old mother, 57-year-old sister, 29-year-old daughter and 25-year-old son. -Good time for pedicures at the West Plaza Salon.
“We have all the women in town, minus our oldest daughter, for pedicures and lady’s lunch,” Stites said, smiling as she browsed the row of massage chairs they occupied. “I would be nothing without my family, zero,” she said.
Stites has been an Obstetrician-Gynecologist for 30 years, currently with the KC Women’s Clinic Group in Overland Park. It was their mother, Edna Stell, who graduated in 1954 from Wiley College in Marshall, Texas, after which she taught elementary school for almost 30 years, who assumed her children would do well.
“I knew they needed a good education,” she said. “They went to the best schools and they did very well. “
Stites was the first African American to attend the private school in Barstow. His sister soon followed.
Stites continued his education at Princeton University, UMKC Medical School and a residency at the University of Rochester.
More and more educated black women
More women than men have graduated from college in recent decades, and a growing number of them are black women.
A 2014 study by the editors of HBCU Buzz found that black women enrolled in college at a higher rate than other races and genders, and data also shows that black women make up more than half. of the black population with post-secondary education.
Even though reports identify black women as the most educated demographic in the country, they still feel the impact of the intersection of racism and sexism.
A 2020 Gallup Center on Black Voices poll found that black women are more likely than their white or Latin counterparts to feel disrespected, undervalued, or treated unfairly in the workplace.
Experiments highlight data
When we left the nail salon the night before Mother’s Day, I joined the Stite women as they gathered around the homemade quiche and fruit salad around the dining room table.
As we talked about the experiences that shaped their careers, Stites admitted that she was used to dealing with racism in the workplace.
For example, she said she will speak with a patient when someone delivers a meal and interrupts the conversation, assuming she’s not the doctor.
On another occasion, a white nurse blocked her entrance to a floor of a hospital.
“The OB floors are locked, you need ID to enter,” she said. “When the nurse came out, I was at the door with my ID card in my hand. She looked me in the eye and slammed the door.
Stites said his heart was still beating as he recalled incidents like these.
The professional black women we spoke with acknowledged the stereotypes faced by black women: Michelle Obama – the terrorist, on the cover of New Yorker Magazine in 2008, and tennis icon Serena Williams, widely berated for reacting with anger. to a judge, who accused her of cheating. at the 2018 US Open.
Christy Pichichero, professor of history and French at George Mason University and director of faculty diversity at the College of Humanities and Social Sciences, has written extensively on race and culture.
“When we just speak in a straightforward manner, when an injustice occurs, there is an intimidating factor, like ‘Oh no, here is an angry black woman who is out of control, irrational’,” he said. she declared. “When the same thing comes from a white man, it would be considered authoritative. So race and gender are linked in this picture.
In 2013, Essence Magazine asked a group of black women to keep a diary of media images of themselves. “Negative images of black women are seen twice as often as positive images,” the magazine said. “Baby moms, angry black women, unhealthy black women and uneducated sisters. “
Some of these images were forced on Michelle Wimes, 54.
Years ago, as a new black lawyer at a large Kansas City law firm, she conformed to the standard for female lawyers, mostly white, who came to work in black or gray suits. , bow tie and pumps.
She just saw the white men she shared an office with get access to mentorship that no one offered her.
She said it took years to build enough self-confidence to speak up. “I said, ‘I want to attend depositions, attend parallel trials, go to lunch with senior partners,” ”sharing her story. “I have proactively researched these experiences and I don’t know if I would have had the courage to do it if I hadn’t seen them happen.”
She began to change her appearance at work.
“It felt like being comfortable with braids… not appearing like I needed to squeeze or relax my hair,” she said. “I could wear colors, be vibrant, you know, just be who I was.”
Wimes eventually became a partner. Today, she is Senior Vice President and Head of Equity and Inclusion at Children’s Mercy Hospital.
Myles Durkee, professor of psychology at the University of Michigan, studies the ways in which black professionals feel the need to change to adapt to work, commonly known as code switching.
The results of his studies revealed contradictions. For example, he found that black and white respondents believed that black professionals cannot talk like they do with other black people if they want to be respected in a predominantly white workplace.
But when he looked at the gender demographics, he found disagreement over the issue of hair styles. White women said they think it is unprofessional for black women to wear natural hairstyles at work.
“This is where a lot of racial stereotypes came into play,” he said. “When we asked white women specifically, why did they feel this way about natural hair… they associated natural hair with layered, frizzy, undressed, etc.”
While every black woman I spoke with said stereotypes affected their work experience, it’s impossible to generalize among a demographic.
Porcia Block, 45, who was promoted earlier this year to senior vice president and state auditor at the Federal Reserve Bank of Kansas City, felt the impact of her race and gender as a pressure to perform .
“I often found myself being the only black woman in the room,” she said. “I always felt I really needed to bring my ‘A’ game.”
She said that mentors, black and white, were the key to her success. She plans to play a similar role for young black women interested in her field.
“You want to make sure the door stays open for others,” Block said. “You are not only on your own path, but you have to ask yourself ‘how can I set up opportunities for others to get out of this?’ “
Love wins over hate
The adult children of Stites share that sense of responsibility that comes with opportunity and success.
The two eldest Sierra and Ailea Stites have both made career choices that tackle systemic racism in public health.
At one point in our conversation, I asked how they see racism manifested in the workplace.
“It’s implied,” Sierra and her mother responded immediately, simultaneously. “If you weren’t a white journalist you would say, ‘Yeah sure, I get it,’ Sierra said.
Being a black professional is a daily and sometimes exhausting experience.
“What can you do to make it through the next day and what can you do to uplift the next person behind you?” ” she says. “I am aware that I have to send the elevator to the next person, especially when you have reached the level of success (my family) has.”
Sandra Stites and her family ended their Mother’s Day weekend Sunday at Community Christian Church in the Plaza. This was the first in-person service since the start of the pandemic.
All the women wore elegant Sunday hats, another Mother’s Day family tradition. He was not an imitation among the predominantly white congregation.
Stites stands out for another reason. Her husband, Dr Stephen Stites, is white.
Studies show that the number of mixed marriages of black and white Americans has increased dramatically over the past 50 years. But Sandra and Stephen always knew they would face challenges as an interracial couple.
“We knew we had to be better than just a couple who loved each other very much,” said Sandra. “We knew it would be difficult, especially for the children. “
Stephen Stites says their shared values of family, work, faith and love of the outdoors would support them. As for how others saw them, the common good that they see in most people will prevail.
“Love trumps hate,” he said. “What you need to do is make sure you’re trying to do the right things, and I think that sends a very powerful message to everyone.”
Under the Radar: Recogning Black Excellence is a KCUR series aimed at countering pervasive negative images of African Americans by showcasing black success stories in Kansas City.