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Own Your Presence and Get Mad Respect

Unfortunately, people too often disrespect Black women. Four female leaders and coaches share how to stand tall, set boundaries and school the offenders.

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Nicole Miles
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Michelle Obama. Maxine Waters. Serena Williams. Nikole Hannah Jones. You. Me.

What do we all have in common? Unfortunately, people too often disrespect us simply because we’re Black women. Moreover, in an AARP survey conducted in October and November 2021, 70 percent of African American women age 50-plus said they experience discrimination regularly.

Our race, gender and age expose us to bias in our communities, businesses and work. Unconscious and conscious biases lead to microaggressions and blatant disrespectful behavior. When you’re fed up, don’t go off or let it slide. Remember the words of our (forever) First Lady: “When they go low, we go high.” In the moment, the key is to respond rather than react. Sometimes a simple “I’m not going to engage with that energy” can put an inappropriate commenter in check.

Here are a few more polished ways to politely put people in their place before their offenses escalate.

Establish the rules of engagement and an exit plan

“When women face disrespectful behavior from people, whether male or female, professional or family, we must become more assertive and establish rules of engagement,” says Nicole Davis, Ph.D., cofounder of Empower to Engage and author of Eve, Where Are You?: Confronting Toxic Practices Against the Advancement of Women. Dr. Davis’ pastor said he wanted to ordain her because of her leadership, Godly wisdom, knowledge of the Bible and heartfelt connection with the congregants. Yet he felt the title of evangelist was more fitting for a woman.

“Only after I challenged the decision and threatened to reject the position altogether because of his male-chauvinistic views did he relent and ordain me as a minister with the same title as the men,” Dr. Davis says.

Dr. Davis teaches women to have an exit plan. For example: “If my supervisor accuses me of___________ at the team meeting again, I’ll report it to HR.” Or “If they make a joke about my________, we’re not inviting them anymore.”

“Being able to walk away from unhealthy relationships is a gift of self-respect that a woman can offer herself. Once we learn how to treat ourselves, it becomes easier to teach people how to treat us,” Dr. Davis says.

Talk less, say more

The next time you want to read someone the riot act, think about how many times you’ve stopped listening long before someone else finished theirs. To get your point across before your offender gets distracted by their phone or zones out thinking about how they’re going to respond, put the bottom line up front and talk less to say more.

Diana Patton, a civil rights attorney and founder of RISE with Diana, was shocked and confused when her friend introduced Patton as her Black friend. After a couple of days of trying to pray away the inner turmoil, she decided a conversation was in order. Patton’s friend thought she’d welcome the idea and even called Patton her “Black sister” as a term of endearment.

But Patton was clear and concise about her feelings. “No. Never would I welcome your introducing me as your ‘Black friend.’”

Enough said.

Draw a line in the sand, and don’t let people overstep

Despite employers’ claims of being more inclusive, they continue questioning Black women’s judgment, expertise and competence. They still question Black women’s existence in certain positions. Yet once Black women “prove themselves,” the disrespect doesn’t stop; it shifts.

“When they witness your competence and excellence, they’ll ask more and more of you. It’s up to you to implement boundaries — to know how to say “no” to work that reaches beyond your scope of responsibilities, to manage expectations on timelines and to safeguard your personal time,” says Angela Swain, Ph.D., Trifecta Business Coach. “Try not to let your desire to prove yourself as a valued teammate make you take on more than you can handle.”

Speak your respect into the universe.

People will follow your lead with language, so lead with the basics of respectful language.

Say “please” and “thank you” to show respect for others and your expectation to get it in return. The key is to accept the thanks and not devalue what you did. Instead of saying “No problem” or “It was nothing,” acknowledge appreciation with “You’re welcome.” If getting credit for your work is rare, reiterate your contribution: “I’m happy to support the team” or “Client satisfaction is always my goal.” But be careful to sound sincere, not sarcastic.

“I’m sorry,” however, can be tricky. Apologize if you’re wrong, but don’t say “Sorry to bother you” or “Sorry to ask.” Instead, reframe it positively: “I need five minutes to get your feedback” or “I need another day to make the best product.”

Finally, when coworkers, friends or family take advantage of your kindness and you’ve had enough, don’t say “I’m sorry, I can’t because ...” Just say no. A drawn-out explanation leaves the door open for debate and manipulation. Be brief and be done with it.

“Teach people how to treat you,” says Jackie Ferguson, cofounder of The Diversity Movement. “In every aspect of your life, share the words and actions that make you feel most safe and respected. People will be receptive to that,” she says. “Where you feel you are not being valued, find other ways to spend your time.”