Our Separate Ways

Can Higher Education Help Bridge Barriers Between White Women and Black Women?

Two Black women standing together face two white women standing together on separate sides against a navy background

Social media was aflutter this week with reactions to several elections throughout the nation. While celebrations erupted about the historic ascension of BIPOC mayor-elects in Boston, Pittsburgh, Cincinnati, and Cleveland, America’s attention was on the Virginia governor race. Glenn Youngkin (R), who doubled down on false anti-critical race theory rhetoric, claimed victory in a close race. For some scholars, this shift in the electorate signals a shift back to retrenchment on racial reform efforts.

It did not take long for pundits and cultural commentators to cast blame overtly and covertly on the white women constituents who voted overwhelmingly for Youngkin. Concurrently, the preliminary data from the same gubernatorial race indicates that Black women voted in mass for the former Virginia governor Terry McAuliffe (D).

Screenshot of a tweet regarding the 2021 Virginia governor's election
Tweet from Sahil Kapur

The racial divide between Black women and white women goes beyond the ballot box. From my own experience, I know that this divide is at the heart of workplace discord within many professions and is viewed as a barrier to advancing a feminist agenda (paywalled). Yet, I have found myself wondering about the extent to which higher education can assist in producing more research insights to build bridges between white women and Black women. My reflection on this matter took me back 20 years to the work of Ella L.J. Bell (Professor of Business Administration at the Tuck School of Business at Dartmouth College) and Stella M. Nkomo (Professor in the Department of Human Resource Management in the Faculty of Economic and Management Sciences at the University of Pretoria). 

I received the book Our Separate Ways: Black and White Women and the Struggle for Professional Identity (2001) by Bell (now Bell Smith) and Nkomo as a gift from a Black woman mentor while I was an early career corporate executive. My mentor urged me to spend time in “study and thought” on how she and I could partner on workplace strategies that would help me work well with my white female counterparts. My mentor added that the book would give me tools and language to “call out” my white female teammates to harmonize team dynamics as much as possible. I remain grateful for this gift that continues to enrich my understanding of the complex dynamics between Black women and white women.

Our Separate Ways is a groundbreaking study covering eight years of research. Through more than 100 interviews, Black and white female corporate managers share their lived experiences before and during their professional ascensions. Our Separate Ways may also mark the first study to identify that some white women’s strong alignment with white men (and a patriarchal agenda) frequently supersedes any gender affinity they share with Black women. Our Separate Ways was reissued in 2021 by Harvard Business Review Press with an accompanying interview on McKinsey & Company’s website as a part of the company’s “Author Talks” series. 

Since the release of Our Separate Ways, scholars within multiple disciplines have tackled the racial divide between white women and Black women by illuminating new narratives and producing new diversity-centered data sets. For example, Martha S. Jones’s award-winning book Vanguard: How Black Women Broke Barriers, Won the Vote, and Insisted on Equality for All (2020) applies an intersectional framework to elevating the once-hidden histories of Black women’s involvement in the 20th and 21st centuries’ voter rights movements. Toward Inclusive Excellence contributor, Jennifer Vinopal’s ongoing research project explores white academy library leaders’ commitment to racial justice activism. Other scholars such as Robin DiAngelo (paywalled), Barbara Trepagnier (paywalled), and Winifred Breines (paywalled) have introduced works to support engaging in critical and tough conversations on stereotyping and how constructs of whiteness and Blackness inform relationships (paywalled).

Extra: Listen to an interview with Martha S. Jones and TIE Editor In Chief Alexia Hudson-Ward from the TIE Podcast series.

These examples of elevating hidden histories of Black women leaders, white women leaders iterating and taking action to address their own biases and racism (paywalled), and teaching white people that racism is a spectrum of patterns, not a small series of isolated incidents are examples of how higher education can be at the forefront of solutions-centered activities on this crucial topic. 

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Header image is a detail of This is Harlem by Jacob Lawrence. Courtesy of Hirshhorn Museum and Sculpture Garden. © 2021 The Jacob and Gwendolyn Knight Lawrence Foundation, Seattle / Artists Rights Society (ARS), New York. For more information, click here.