Armor in the Briefcase Battlefield

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(image via Funk Gumbo Radio)

Immediately after I started contributing to the #BlackFemaleProject (and reflecting on my own professional journey), I began to think deeply about the coping strategies that Black women employ in the workplace to survive and thrive; in spite of the many barriers that exist. Prayer/meditation, critical mentor-mentee relationships, an impenetrable poker face — there’s a host of other strategies that have served me well, like many of my sister-friends. Being a visual person, I likened these strategies to the armor that a warriors (or soldiers) put on to protect themselves while in combat. Hence the inspiration behind “W-2 Warriors.”

In my research for the exhibition, I came across a 2013 Feminist Wire article written by Jac’leen Smith titled, “Armor.” Smith reflects on the experiences of herself and her mother, as they navigate the world as Black women. One particular quote stood out to me:

“And when it comes to maintaining emotional composure in the workplace, not just as a black woman, but as a woman, we’ve been taught that ‘it isn’t okay to cry at work’ as tears equate to weakness, and justifiably so, as we are emotional creatures by nature, but it is those emotions that sometimes put us an disadvantage and render us even more susceptible to discriminatory behavior. Thus we wear masks, and do not dare remove them until we are in the security of our own homes, where we feel the freedom to release the tears that manifest out of frustration, frustration that we cannot fully articulate without being called ‘sensitive.’ I have learned to practice this until it has become routine, with the exception of the few times I had to remove the mask, say in the ladies’ room, in the safety of a stall, but still, even then, the embedded perception of strength and how I should carry that, only allowed me to briefly stay in that space.”

I can completely relate to that experience. Smith concludes by expressing how our “armor” — while a source of protection and vehicle for perseverance — often becomes a heavy burden. She’s right, yet I struggle with balancing these conflicting thoughts. I’d love to hear others’ thoughts on this.

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