Black women and cross cultural communication: The April Ryan effect

Admittedly I cannot stop thinking about the challenges we have with cross-cultural communication. I am especially obsessed with how Black women are interpreted in corporate culture. I am spending so much brain power on this because 1) my dissertation focuses on Black women coping with racial-gendered bias; 2) my company specifically works with women of color and businesses trying to improve this communication, and 3) the White House staff cannot leave April Ryan alone.

My dissertation findings are clear and in keeping with dozens of studies before me, and more than likely many to come behind me. Black leaders are stymied by stereotypes. Writing them all out here would be a boring exercise because regardless of race, we know what they are. The impact of them however, is staggering. Black women are barely visible at the top levels of leadership, they earn 67 cents for every dollar earned by a white male, and they face increasing racial-gendered microaggressions that impact their ability to do their jobs.

My company, Black Women, Wise Women LLC focuses on supporting female leaders of color and helping businesses understand that identical communication styles aren’t necessary or even desirable in the workplace. Because most leadership studies have focused on the culture of white males and have normalized their behaviors and to a strong extent, those of white females, people that have different cultural values and ways of communicating are often deemed unworthy of responsibility. They are seen as less intelligent, unhappy, too direct, and a host of other titles that baffle and confuse those who have worked so hard to prepare themselves for leadership.

And then there is April Ryan. Ryan is the sharp bureau chief of the American Urban Radio Network and also serves as their White House correspondent. In March of this year, then White House Press Secretary Sean Spicer came at Ryan, admonishing her for shaking her head as he delivered questionable truths from the podium. It was stunning to watch this awkward exchange, and it was also clear that Spicer felt emboldened to take out his frustration on one of the few black women in the room. Not only did he do this, but he also treated her like a child that he needed to correct. Then there was the bizarre exchange between Ryan and President Trump. When she asked if he would be meeting with the CBC (Congressional Black Caucus), it was clear that first, he had no idea what CBC stood for, and then he asked her to be their scheduling assistant and get a meeting on the books. Huh? Of course, she was black so she had to know all the black people on the Caucus right? Finally, there were Sarah Huckabee’s comments on August 1st. These exchanges always start off innocently before they fly off the rails. Ryan got Huckabee’s attention the way most of the journalist do by calling her “Sarah.” Huckabee made a snarky comment, “Since you said my name so politely,” followed by accusing Ryan of being sarcastic. What Ryan was, if you are viewing the video, was highly professional and respectful—and then confused. This annoyed Huckabee and made me ask, “What exactly did you want Ryan to say?”

This spectacle led me back to the Twitter hashtag #blackwomenatwork started by Black Lives Matter activist Brittany Packnett. After Ryan’s first assault by Sean Spicer, and post personal insults on Rep. Maxine Waters by FOX News the same day, she asked black women to share their professional challenges at work and boy did they!

Keosha Abegail: “Coworkers invite me out and I don’t go—I am not a part of the team. I invite them out and they don’t go—they are busy: #blackwomenatwork
Shanae Herron: “Being told I talk white” #blackwomenatwork
Mandy Williams: “When you have to constantly choose between self-respect and health insurance so you make yourself sick swallowing the BS 24/7 #blackwomenatwork
Janus Adams: “TV news exec: “You’re great! If you were 5’9 and blond I’d hire you immediately.” #blackwomenatwork

And then there was a whole string on communication bias:

Lindsey McKee “Gave solicited feedback; told I was being negative. White colleague gives same feedback; it’s accepted and acknowledged.” #blackwomenatwork
Sarah Johnson: “The moment I stand up for myself I am labeled as the angry, loud, opinionated black woman.” #blackwomenatwork
C Mac: Being told you are rude, aggressive and unapproachable. When you are direct, confident, and professional,” #blackwomenatwork
Sailor Petty: “Having your boss meet with you 3 times in two weeks about the tone of your voice when you ask questions in meetings.” #blackwomenatwork
GoDDessli: “Must always smile. Must always wear hair straight. Must always bring donuts for people. Must always speak in a low voice.” #blackwomenatwork

The responses covered all of the personal questions and judgment about hair, especially natural black hair, (My boss took me to lunch and told me to straighten or process my hair to be taken more seriously.”) Race (“Are you mixed because I really like you!”). And then there were the requests for services (I was told that the room needed to be cleaned by the lawyer who I came to teach.”).

This type of racial-gendered bias has resulted in the loss of amazingly talented leaders that could be bringing their innovation and creativity to the corporate, nonprofit and educational sectors. These women, who are often limited by the boxes put around them, sometimes manage to work around these barriers to land great jobs and long careers. They often pay a “success tax” that leaves them isolated, lonely and not very trusting of others.

Without honest and fearless facilitated discussion on the need to include female voices of color in the board room and in significant leadership positions, we will continue to miss out on some of the best and the brightest America has to offer. It starts with listening non-defensively, broadening the ideas of what makes a great leader, and uncoupling from norms that keep us in a rut.

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