I have a confession.
It is a secret I have held for more than 10 years and it is a lesson I have learned from other women.
As society continues to debate the terms and conditions required for women to be leaders, what is often missing is the lens of the woman of color. It is time to talk about the socialization of girls, and brown girls in particular, and the guise we are raising women to wear to navigate the complexities of race, gender, and politics in the classroom and the workplace.
So here goes.
I change my voice to make other people comfortable.
In general, I have a high-pitched voice. It’s genetic. My grandmother spoke in a higher register and I guess I’m following in her shrill footsteps. But my grandmother had style and when she squealed in laughter or sang the soprano out of a church hymn, it sounded like wind chimes in a summer breeze. Her piercing tone commanded authority and carried assurance. She was authentic and her voice was the instrument that ushered her power.
My voice may be naturally high, but when I’m the only African-American or woman at the table, or when I hold a particularly contentious opinion, I go even higher. Instead of wielding the power of my pitch, I ritually sacrifice my self-expression somewhere in the back of my throat and barter my pride for the perceived benefits of social normalcy. I phonetically transform what I physically cannot change, I am an educated black woman with an opinion.
My sister calls this guise “good girl, up speak.” It is the rising tone of voice I enter to placate others. I summon the “good girl” voice as a part of a physical transformation I have grown accustomed to, first in the classroom and now in the workplace. At some point, I have, consciously or unconsciously, accepted the misogynist edict that women, and women of color in particular, are to be seen and not heard. And I have learned that edict from other women.
Careful experience has taught me that speaking assertively may make males, and white males in particular, uncomfortable. Why else would intelligent women, in the media, in my classroom, and in my profession, soften their voice almost to the pleasant vacancy of a child, to communicate their thoughts? We’ve all seen it. So rather than fully challenge my male colleagues to engage in the mental and social exercise of trying to understand what my black, female body is communicating, I too make my words, however cutting, fall softly on their ears, lest they be offended by both my point of view and my tone of voice.
It is not so much playing dumb as it is playing docile. But what’s the difference when you are trying to be heard? In Harvard Business Review, Deborah Tannen, a sociolinguistic researcher, wrote a piece called The Power of Talk: Who Gets Heard and Why. In it she says, “Language is a learned social behavior.” As such, it is infused with the power dynamics that are socialized into each of us as children; dynamics that communicate competence and confidence, and dynamics that can translate into stereotyped gender roles. According to her, “Language negotiates relationships” and the way you address people and how you are addressed, reveals an unspoken social order that defines how we understand each other and how we value each other.
Lately, much has been made of the sociopolitical posturing (“leaning in,” if you will) women must undertake to exercise their power and influence. Yet our greatest instrument of power is our authentic voice. Any time we silence that voice, we miss the opportunity to value other women. For example, by assuming “good girl, up speak,” I validate the antiquated social order that decrees women, and women of color in particular, must infantilize their voice to be heard. Each time I do this, I implicitly encourage women around me to adopt similar positions of subordination to express their feelings. In so doing, I am complicit in the creation and maintenance of the very systems that oppress women in leadership and suppress female thought.
So instead of “leaning in,” the real exercise women may need is “thinking in” or creating a space to re-evaluate how our patterns of behavior undermine our authentic voice and contribute to our disenfranchisement as a group. One of those patterns of behavior is how we speak, another is how we conceptualize our role as leaders. If we continue to define ourselves between a 2-dimensional chasm of “should” and “should not” quandaries that pit domestic aspirations against professional salience, women will always lose. This rigid dichotomy ignores the important and dynamic roles women can fulfill over their lifetime and the opportunity we carry, either in our wombs or our briefcases (or backpacks, as the case may be), to shape the world in which we live with our authentic presence and voice.
When we, as women, strip away the guise, we can be more “I am woman. Hear me roar.” and less “I am woman. Don’t call me bossy.” Instead of being afraid of words, let’s own them. Let’s speak with the authority that our education, experience, and the roles we fulfill, provide us, be that sister, mother, student, physician, or CEO.
New feminism is about women, work, and the will to be authentic. And future generations will rely on us to use the tools at our disposal — the vote, free speech, globalization, and growing numbers of college graduates — to dismantle the structures that demand we conform to misogynist inventions of who we are. For modern American women, we don’t have to be the “good girl” to be the boss. As Deborah Tannen says, “The way we speak is who we are and who we want to be.” Our influence spans the home, office, clinic, and classroom, and who we can be and what we can be is defined by how we use our voice to empower other each other. At its best then, feminism is a collective notion that lifts each of us, despite our color or creed, to live authentically.