Black women sitting together at a conference table and laughing with each other.
Image credit: Christina @ on

We cannot talk about the unique challenges Black women leaders face without acknowledging that we, as Black people, too frequently treat Black leaders as less worthy than White and other non-Black leaders.

This may be the result of traumatizing internalized racism that pushes us to align not just with White dominant norms over diverse and ancestral approaches but also with leaders most adjacent to Whiteness. But internalized or not, the result is yet another painful form of double-standards for Black women leaders.

The Harsh Realities of “Black on Black” Subjugation

We, as Black people, too frequently treat Black leaders as less worthy.

I myself have experienced the harsh realities of “Black on Black” subjugation. A few years ago, I sat across the table from a Black contact from a large New York City agency. As a senior member of a consulting firm, I had been tapped to design a session for a department within the agency. I’d already led successful engagements with this and other agency groups, and my training style­­­­—uniquely sassy, engaging, evocative—consistently garnered enthusiastic reviews from agency staff and partners. After a lifetime of feeling “less than” in too many professional spaces, I finally felt in my zone—facilitation, coaching, training, problem solving, and equity work were my jams!

After sharing my design for the session, I was completely floored by the contact’s response: something along the lines of, “That sounds nice…but, I think it would be good to have [a particular White cis-male colleague] or [a particular Asian cis-female colleague] involved…they have a good sense of us and how we like things….” I felt a sharp drain of shame and embarrassment go through my body (notably, in front of my Black junior colleague who had joined me), as well as disbelief and outrage—like, “Sis, what?” How could what was intended to be an affirming meetup be so misaligned across consciousness and expectations with someone who looks like me?

The result is yet another painful form of double-standards for Black women leaders.

Disappointed, I approached my White male colleague to cofacilitate. I never considered him initially because I wanted to show up and show out for this group of majority BIPOC, dope-ass individuals, and he was not on my radar for that. He now had only to follow my carefully put-together agenda—performance in a box! The event ended up being one of my most memorable and consequential sessions. My junior colleague, the client team, and I brought the house down! The group was fueled to carry the effort forward and later reported on the advancements they made post-session. My White male colleague’s performance was not vastly additive.

Even if the agency contact’s suggestion was not explicitly coming from a place of race-based bias, it reeked of internalized racism, defined by Race Forward as the “private beliefs and biases about race that reside inside our own minds and bodies.” I strongly felt from this fellow Black woman a questioning of my ability vis-à-vis other consultant colleagues who were not Black. To be sure, there could have been other influencing factors—such as greater familiarity with the work of the other consultants she suggested. But her naming of these colleagues, even over other qualified Black consultants at the firm, unsettles me to this day.

As a leadership coach over the past five years—two as an International Coaching Federation-certified coach and coach trainer—I also have been privy to too many firsthand stories of Black women leaders feeling over-questioned and undervalued by Black community members, including Black staff, board members, clients, and funders.

Lack of feedback can have real, negative ramifications for Black employees.

Based on these leaders’ laments and my own experiences, there seems to be comfort with digging into and acting on negative stereotypes about Black women leaders—and a never-changing greenlight to do so. This occurs across gender, age, nationality, and other intersectional factors of Black identity.

Harmful Biases in Performance Feedback

One specific theme in which this persistently shows up is feedback.

Ah—feedback. Tough to give. Tough to receive. But necessary for meaningful growth and development of Black leaders at all levels. Yet, for some White and other non-Black managers, it is so discomforting that they regularly and willfully avoid giving feedback to Black colleagues. This happens even when there are clear performance issues impacting not just individual but also team and organizational outputs.

Studies across sectors have shown biases in performance feedback that advantage White men, White women, and those seen as White-adjacent while adversely affecting Black people, and Black women in particular. This lack of feedback can have real, negative ramifications for Black employees. A study by Textio concluded, “Employees who receive high-quality performance feedback grow faster, earn more, and get promoted faster than those who don’t….And the groups of people who systemically receive the lowest-quality feedback are the same groups that are consistently underrepresented in…leadership.”

As members of the community that receive the lowest-quality feedback and are consistently underrepresented, Black women leaders deeply understand the importance of quality feedback in setting a course for advancement—and, critically, earnings. Such feedback is essential in the absence of mentorship from organizational decision-makers. However, without a chorus of managers or peers providing constructive feedback to Black colleagues, Black leaders who do yield feedback as a developmental tool are often reputationally and otherwise punished for doing so.

I hear many stories from Black leaders who feel they have lauded, championed, and been a confidante to Black team members, only to find that upon delivering developmental feedback, some of these team members distance themselves and/or complain (often preemptively) in secret and behind closed doors. At the same time, these team members favor relationships with those leaders who choose to be “nice” (predominantly motivated by a desire to avoid conflict) over “kind” (motivated by a desire to strengthen one another), thus avoiding a critical supervisory responsibility, and ultimately impeding Black colleagues’ advancement, reach, and earnings.

Certainly, leadership is tough and rewarding across all identities. For Black women leaders, there is, however, a confluence of societal, institutional, personal, and interpersonal factors that, when compounded, create a perfect storm for feeling targeted, unsupported, and even villainized. This is not to say that Black leaders are simply victims; we have our work to do, too, as I shared in my 2022 article, “Leadership and Love in Black-Led Social Change.”

Building a Community of Care and Solidarity

So, where do we go from here? Below, I offer three suggested commitments to build toward a strengthened community of care and solidarity with Black women leaders:

    1. Commit to not undermining Black women’s leadership. This point is also reflected in Dr. Danielle Moss’s thoughtful 2020 NPQ article, “Black Women in Nonprofits Matter.”
    2. Commit to examining ways in which you have internalized biases about Black women leaders and dig deep to understand the source of those beliefs and ways in which you continue to be socialized around them. These might include caste systems, White supremacy ideology, homophobia, nationalism, and misogynistic norms that influence how you specifically view and interact with Black women.
    3. Commit to building your skill in calling IN rather than calling OUT Black women leaders when you feel slighted or offended. Dr. Loretta J. Ross’ brilliant Calling In Movement is a must for anyone who seeks to “address harm while creating space for growth, forgiveness, and understanding.”

With these three commitments, building and strengthening a community of care and solidarity with Black women leaders could be possible. And with that, the feedback essential for Black women leaders becomes a space of possibility and growth rather than punishment.