From an early age and well into adulthood, girls are discouraged from taking up space, being outspoken, or behaving in any way that can be perceived as being “difficult.” From school, to the workplace, to entertainment, women of color know the feeling of having to hold their breath and think about how to respond to backhanded comments or conform to standards of beauty in order to “fit in” and not be deemed as “unprofessional.” Gabrielle Union, a popular judge on NBC’s America’s Got Talent, was dropped from the production recently after being repeatedly told her hairstyles were “too Black” and speaking up when co-workers and guests made racist and inappropriate jokes. When women who speak up about racism and problematic behavior are considered an inconvenience to the workplace – we have a problem.
A win for Black women is a win for all. When society decides to punish them for their choice in hairstyles and speaking truth to power, we dim the light of a group of women who hold the power to fuel a movement of racial, economic and gender justice. It’s why the work of women like Senator and Women’s Foundation of California Board Member Holly J. Mitchell, who led The C.R.O.W.N. Act, a bill that bans discrimination against natural hairstyles, is so important.
The conversation and outpouring of support that came after Union’s firing have shown that we no longer believe this silencing behavior is acceptable. Culture – from what we read, watch and tweet – has enormous influence over our society and a unique ability to influence behavior.
Culture change and policy must go hand in hand in order to change the way we think and talk about gender.
That’s why in 2019, The Women’s Foundation of California launched the Culture Change Fund, which uses culture to change how the broader public thinks about gender and issues ranging from economic security and income inequality to violence against women to maternal health and sexual assault to abortion and contraception, and more. This work will focus on sharing stories of women and gender expansive people who break the mold and show what the true power of diversity looks like. We are creating a community of practice and learning where funders, academics, and activists can contribute to a living library of ongoing resources and information sharing, and supporting organizations who are integrating cultural strategy into their own work.
We’ll never achieve true gender justice if we don’t tackle the systemic inequalities that keep women of color from succeeding and being our authentic selves.
Inclusion isn’t about being happy with ‘good enough’ and ‘staying in one’s place’ and any woman’s value should not be based on shrinking themselves, talking softly, and being modest. Gender, racial, and economic justice are not optional. It’s time organizations stoped enabling cultures to thrive on racist, sexist, xenophobic, homophobic, transphobic, un-inclusive and/or discriminatory behaviors and implement change that will empower the lives of communities who will move the culture forward.
Surina Khan is the CEO of the Women’s Foundation of California.