Nobody ever talked to my mom about college. When she was in high school, it was assumed that she would end her education after 12th grade, get married (or not), and pop out babies. Of course she would work – she’s a Black woman, it’s what we do – but not at a job that required higher education. Never that, because, Black woman.
Black women have always worked. I mean, that’s why we were brought here in the first place – to work. Well, to slave, which is different that “work” since that word implies wages and at least a modicum of choice, both of which are the antithesis of slavery. But I digress… Though we never had to fight for the right to have a job outside of the home, Black women have had to struggle with the fact that we were often limited to jobs that we were allowed to have. Though some of us were able to gain access to more ‘professional’ employment, that was a privileged few. Often, we were relegated to lowest-level work – domestic servants, unskilled factory workers, washer women – work that had little security, financial or physical.
On the surface, we have come a very long way. We aren’t legally barred from entering any profession. There are Black women occupying spaces that girls coming up in my mom’s generation couldn’t even imagine. Black women are represented in almost all career fields, and are pretty much killing it wherever we go. Still…
Many Black women don’t have the luxury of choice when it comes to a career. We work because we have to, because we are supposed to. That “do what you love” stuff either doesn’t apply or has the implied caveat of keeping it within reason. “Do what you love… as a side hustle.” “Do what you love… as long as it pays the bills.” “Do what you love… later.”
That sucks, man.
TBH, I have issues with the idea that you should “do what you love” because I disagree with the use of the word “love” with regards to employment. I don’t think that you need to love your job for it to be satisfying and meaningful. But you definitely have to like it. “Do what you like” is a much better mantra… but many Black women can’t even get that far.
Too many Black girls have educational experiences like my mom – no one talks to them about the future. Even though she graduated in 197(cough), not much has changed. In too many schools around the country, kids (not just Black ones) are told to fixate on getting into college and aren’t encouraged to think about what they are going to do afterwards. In my doctoral program, I did field research at a high school in Harlem where most of the kids were Black or Latino. While interviewing a teacher about their college and career readiness practices, he went into great detail about the school’s college trips and projects related to choosing a school. When I asked about careers, he said that they could ‘figure it out in collge.’ “I’m 33 and still figuring out what I want to do.”
“Yeah but you’re a White male who went to Harvard. These kids don’t have that luxury.” I said… In my head. Not out loud. (I wish, but it would have killed the interview and research project.)
Too many Black girls without the luxury of exploration turn into Black women stuck in jobs they hate. Jobs that aren’t fulfilling. Jobs that don’t match their skills, talents, motivations, or career values. Jobs that burn them out and leave them unable to thrive in other aspects of their lives.
Let’s change that.
A major overhaul of future-oriented educational practices would fix this for all Black women, but we can also start small. Next time you talk to a Black girl, ask her about her dreams, then provide some resources. Maybe you know someone who does what she wants to do – connect them. Or you know of an organization or book or website that could teach her more – share it. Become a mentor, however informally. If we want our girls to have life opportunities that we weren’t able to imagine, we have to expose them to a world they may not know.