“The most disrespected woman in America is the black woman. The most unprotected person in America is the black woman. The most neglected person in America is the black woman.”
— Malcolm X, 1962
Omarosa Manigault Newman is good at secretly recording conversations with her employers. She’s a savvy operator who knows how to create a media splash and can trade insults with the best of them — including the president of the Untied States. But, for me, regardless of how I may feel about her reality TV antics, there’s something relatable in her increasingly contentious battle with the White House.
I am a creature of Washington politics, so I know how the blackball game is played. I heard all of the same rumors about Omarosa that many others did: that she was mean, cunning, not to be trusted. But perhaps unlike many of my Caucasian peers, I took those character attacks with a grain of salt.
Because I, too, live every day as a smart, educated, professional black woman. And as many of my sisters can tell you, the white, patriarchal power structure of the modern workplace often feels uniquely prejudiced against women of color. We bear the collective brunt of the many stereotypes used to hold back women and minorities. We are accused of being too difficult, not likable, not easy to work with — or worse.
This dynamic is made even worse by the isolation that comes from being a black woman in public. With the departure of Manigault Newman, the White House is looking very white indeed. Senior advisor Kellyanne Conway, my longtime friend and fellow New Jersey native, was hard-pressed to name even one single black staffer still working in the West Wing.
This isolation is oppressing in a number of ways. Forget a support network of your peers, being the “first” or simply just the only black women on a team — any team — brings increased internal pressure and external scrutiny.
And yet, rarely does anyone ask what it feels like to work in such an environment.
If discrimination does happen, women of color may be fearful to speak up. And why wouldn’t we be? Majority rules, and it often feels more prudent to stay silent rather than risk the counterattack. Better not to rock the boat. Better to laugh at the sexist jokes or swallow our pride when subjected to soul-scarring stereotypes — some of which can be traced all the way back to the language of slavery and the idea that black women were somehow less than female.
If discrimination does happen, women of color may be fearful to speak up. And why wouldn’t we be?
I can give you two quick examples from my own life: Some years ago, I took a job with a major defense contractor. At the time, I was the first black woman hired by the company as a vice president. My first week on the job, I attended a meeting along with 20 senior white males, one black male and two white women. I was excited. I participated. I offered insights on new federal regulations we would need to navigate, and felt great about my first week.
I was fired three weeks later, because I “spoke at the meeting” — and the senior male executives felt I should have been silent and listened. Needless to say, I did not leave quietly — and I got a great attorney.
More recently, I accepted an engagement as a paid keynote speaker. But before I went on, a white woman from the event pulled me aside and told me that my time was going to be cut short in order to give other speakers the opportunity to run long. It was an embarrassing and rude encounter that took place in front of a room full of other women. Appalled, some of women present pulled the organizer aside and called her out on her behavior. Later, however, instead of apologizing, this same person told other potential clients that I was difficult to work with.
What do these encounters prove? Black women (and men) don’t need to be called n***** in order to experience humiliating, racial prejudice. It’s not overt, but the motivations are often quite clear nonetheless.
I may not like Omarosa’s methods, but like me, she isn’t afraid to rock the boat.
Obviously, Trump is not your average boss. If he were, it's likely his behavior would not be tolerated. He is petty and vindictive and offensive. I get that a former “Apprentice” employee betrayed his trust. But this wasn’t any employee, it was a woman of color. Incensed, Trump took to Twitter to call Manigault Newman a “dog” — an insult that implies an otherness, a subhumanness.
Trump insults a lot of people on Twitter, but I have not seen him call any other former employees dogs — not even his hated nemeses James Comey and Robert Mueller. Notably, Trump seems to reserve some of his most condescending remarks for Maxine Waters, Frederica Wilson and now Omarosa. Do you see a pattern?
Some people will likely write off these comments as rude, perhaps, but not racist. At best naïve, such statements ignore a glaring truth: We cannot talk about the day-to-day reality of minorities in America without talking about race. Culturally, politically and economically, race plays an intrinsic role in our society. It is what we live with daily.
Whether trying to access a community pool or play a round of golf, black citizens know that they run the risk of harassment and even violence. An Oregon resident even called 911 on black Oregon State Representative Janelle Bynum, for handing out leaflets in July. A few days later, on July 22, 2018, Nia Wilson, a beautiful, 18-year-old black woman, was stabbed to death by a white, male assailant in Oakland. She and her sister were just trying to ride the train.
We have lived with these injustices and microaggressions for centuries, but we have not been believed. Omarosa understood this truth well. That is why she secretly recorded her conversations. Don’t let the bluster fool you. She knows what it means to be a black woman in America.
Sophia A. Nelson is the author of "Black Woman Redefined: Dispelling Myths and Discovering Fulfillment in the Age of Michelle Obama (2011)."