Kansas City's Black Professional Women Change Corporate Culture By Chipping Away At Stereotypes
Studies show Black women are among the most well educated demographic, and they say they're speaking out, wearing natural hair and wanting the same as their white colleagues, paving the road for the next generation.
Dr. Sandra Stites looks forward to Mother’s Day, a day the women in her family celebrate each other.
On the Saturday before Mother’s Day this year, Stites, her grey Patagonia vest matching her grey, shoulder length braids, joined her 88-year-old mother, her sister, 57, her daughter, 29, and her son’s 25-year old long-time girlfriend for pedicures at the West Plaza Salon.
“We have all the women in town, minus our eldest daughter, for pedicures and lady’s lunch,” Stites said, smiling as she perused the line of massaging salon chairs they occupied. “I wouldn’t be anything without my family, zero,” she said.
Stites has been an Ob-Gyn for 30 years, currently with the KC Women’s Clinic Group in Overland Park. It was their mother, Edora Stell, a 1954 graduate of Wiley Collegein Marshall, Texas, after which she taught elementary school for almost 30 years, who assumed her kids would do well.
“I knew they needed a good education,” she said. “They went to the best schools and they did very well.”
Stites attended the private Barstow School. Her sister soon followed.
Stites went on to Princeton University, University of Missouri-Columbia Medical School, and a residency at the University of Rochester.
Increasing numbers of educated Black women
More women than men have received college degrees over the last several decades, and an increasing number of them have been Black women.
A 2014 study by editors of HBCU Buzz found that Black women were enrolling in college at a higher rate than other races and genders, and data also show that Black women account for more than half of the Black population graduating with postsecondary degrees.
Even as reports identify Black women as the most well educated demographic in the country, they still feel the impact of the intersection of racism and sexism.
A 2020 poll by the Gallup Center on Black Voicesfound that Black women are more likely than their white or Latina counterparts to feel disrespected, undervalued, or treated unfairly in the workplace.
Experiences underscore data
When we left the nail salon the day before Mother’s Day, I joined the Stites women as they gathered over homemade quiche and fruit salad around the dining room table.
As we talked about the experiences that have shaped their careers, Stites acknowledged she’s accustomed to encountering racism at work.
For example, she said she’ll be talking with a patient when someone delivers a meal and interrupts the conversation, assuming she’s not the doctor.
On another occasion, a white nurse blocked her entry to a hospital floor.
“The OB floors are locked, you need an ID to get in,” she said. “When the nurse was coming out, I was at the door with my ID in my hand. She looked me eye to eye and slammed the door.”
Stites said her heart still races recalling incidents like these.
Professional Black women we spoke with recognized the stereotypes Black Women encounter: Michelle Obama – the terrorist, on the cover of the New Yorker Magazine in 2008, and tennis icon Serena Williams, widely chastised for reacting angrily to a judge, who accused her of cheating in the 2018 U.S. Open.
Christy Pichichero, Professor of History and French at George Mason University and Director of Faculty Diversity in the College of Humanities and Social Sciences, has written extensively about race and culture.
“When we’re just speaking up in a direct way, when an injustice is happening, there is an intimidation factor, like, 'Oh no, here is an angry Black woman who is out of control, irrational,'” she said. “When the same thing comes from a white man, it would be viewed as authoritative. So, race and gender are bound together in that image.”
In 2013, Essence Magazine asked a group of Black women to keep a diary of media images of themselves. “Negative imagery of Black women is seen twice as often as positive images," the magazine found." “Baby Mamas, angry Black women, unhealthy Black women and uneducated sisters.”
Some of these images have been imposed on Michelle Wimes.
Years ago, as a new Black lawyer at a large Kansas City law firm, she conformed to the standard for women lawyers, mostly white, who came to work in the black or grey suit, bow tie and pumps.
She just watched as the white men she shared an office with had access to mentorship no one afforded her.
She said it took years to gain enough confidence to speak up. "I said, 'I want to go to depositions, to shadow trials, to go to lunch with Senior partners'" sharing her story. "I proactively sought those experiences and I don't know if I'd have had the moxy to do that if I didn't see (them) getting to."
She started to change her workplace appearance.
“What that looked like was being comfortable wearing braids … not showing up like I needed to press or relax my hair,” she said. “I could wear colors, be vibrant, you know, just be who I was.”
Wimes ultimately became a partner. Today, at 54, she’s Senior Vice President and Chief Equity and Inclusion Officer at Children’s Mercy Hospital.
Myles Durkee, professor of Psychology at the University of Michigan, researches ways in which Black professionals feel the need to change in order to fit in at work, commonly known as code-switching.
The results of his studies revealed contradictions. For example, he found that both Black and white respondents believed Black professionals cannot speak the way they do with other Black people if they want to be respected in a majority white workplace.
But when he looked at gender demographics, he found disagreement on the issue of hair styles. White women said they thought it was unprofessional for Black women to wear natural hairstyles to work.
“That’s where a lot of racial stereotypes came into play,” he said. “When we asked white women specifically, why did they feel that way about natural hair … they associated natural hair with nappy, kinky, ungroomed, etc.”
While all the Black women I spoke with said stereotypes affected their experience at work, it's impossible to generalize among any demographic group.
Porcia Block, 45, who was promoted earlier this year to Senior Vice President and General Auditor at the Federal Reserve Bank of Kansas City, felt the impact of her race and gender as pressure to perform.
“I’d often find myself being the only Black woman in the room,” she said. “I always felt I really needed to bring my ‘A’ game.”
She said mentors, Black and white, were key to her success. She plans to play a similar role for young Black women interested in her field.
“You want to ensure the door remains open to others,” Block said. “You’re not only on your own path, but you have to be thinking 'how do I set in motion opportunities for others to come through?'”
Love trumps hate
The grown Stites children share this sense of responsibility that comes with opportunity and success.
Sierra and Ailea Stites, the elder two, have both made career choices that address systemic racism in public health.
At one point in our conversation, I asked how they see racism manifesting itself at work.
“It’s implicit,” Sierra and her mother responded right away, simultaneously. "If you weren't a white reporter, you’d say, 'Yeah, of course, I get it," Sierra said.
Being a Black professional women is a daily, sometimes exhausting experience.
“What can you do to get through the next day and what can you do to bring up the next person behind you?” she says. “I'm aware that I have to send the elevator down for the next person, especially when you have achieved the level of success (my family) has."
Sandra Stites and her family ended their Mother’s Day weekend gathering on Sunday at Community Christian Church on the Plaza. It was the first in-person service since the beginning of the pandemic.
All the women were in elegant Sunday hats, another family Mother’s Day tradition. It was not one seen imitated among the mostly white congregation.
Stites stands out for another reason. Her husband, Dr. Steven Stites, is white.
Studies show the number of mixed marriages of Black and white Americans has increased dramatically in the last 50 years. But Sandra and Stephen still knew they'd face challenges as an interracial couple.
“We knew we had to be better than just a couple that loved each other a bunch,” Sandra said. “We knew it was going to be hard, especially for kids.”
Steven Stites says their shared values: family, work, faith, and a love of the outdoors would sustain them. As for how others saw them, the common good they see in most people will prevail.
“Love trumps hate,“ he says. "What you have to do is make sure you try to do good things, and I think that sends a very powerful message to everybody."
Under the Radar: Recognizing Black Excellence is a KCUR series aimed at countering the pervasive negative images of African Americans by showcasing Black success stories in Kansas City.