Karima-Catherine Goundiam is the founder and chief executive officer of digital strategy firm Red Dot Digital and business matchmaking platform B2BeeMatch.
As the long and chaotic U.S. election campaign draws to a close, two words are likely to endure: “I’m speaking.”
When U.S. Vice-President Mike Pence interrupted California Senator Kamala Harris no fewer than 16 times during the vice-presidential debate, she repeated the simple response over and over again. Her firm and dignified pushback instantly spawned dozens of articles, internet memes and reaction gifs.
As much fun as some of those responses were, as a Black Canadian businesswoman, I can tell you the situation that played out in that debate is not just an American thing, it’s not just something that happens in the political sphere and, sadly, it’s not only white men who do the interrupting.
If the current VP of the United States felt that level of rudeness and condescension was acceptable to display on worldwide television, imagine what happens to the rest of us ordinary people every day. Outside the international spotlight, this happens all the time to women in general, and women of colour in particular, in all manner of settings when very few people are looking.
As an entrepreneur in the world of digital strategy, I have been doing business in Canada and in multiple other countries for many years, and have met with countless government officials, chief executives and fellow businesspeople. Quite frankly, interruption and condescension are par for the course in many of my meetings.
Last year, a colleague of mine, a white man, had set up a meeting with potential clients in the finance world. He brought me in to contribute as a subject-matter expert. The clients, also white men, spoke to me as if I were my colleague’s assistant and behaved as though I wasn’t even in the room. My colleague had to step in on my behalf to reorient the meeting. He was shocked by their behaviour, and later asked whether I had experienced that before. My answer brought him to tears: I wasn’t shocked at all. This was normal. I’ve had countless clients pay me for my expertise, yet speak over me and tell me how to do my job and, sometimes, even how to run my companies.
The problem goes well beyond interrupting. It’s a kind of everyday dehumanization by way of contradicting, minimizing, dismissing and ignoring, among other things. It’s exhausting. And while the specific scenario of Black women interrupted by white men does happen all too often, because it rests on historic and systemic injustice, I don’t believe it’s only a Black woman versus white man issue. White women do it to women of colour; men do it to women irrespective of race; older people do it to younger people, and so on. When people are in a position of power and privilege, they often behave poorly toward those they see as inferiors.
Of course, I think Kamala Harris did a great job defending herself, and I hope many people follow her example. I try to do the same in my everyday dealings. Sometimes it even works! When my reaction shows my strength of character, it can command respect.
However, I’m not here to give advice to Black women; we already have lots of experience navigating the treacherous and narrow territory between keeping silent and coming across as “too angry.” We already know what it’s like to notice and name problems of this kind, only to be accused of causing them by speaking up.
Instead, I’d like to talk about the third person in this scenario: the moderator. If the debate moderator – a white woman – had been doing her job, and enforced the basic rules of debate, then Kamala Harris wouldn’t have had to hold her ground over and over. We would have lost a meme-able television moment, but perhaps Ms. Harris would have been able to spend more time speaking to the issues and less time insisting that she had a right to be heard in the first place.
Corporate and business settings are not the same as television debates. We don’t usually have moderators. But by the same token, in most business settings, we do have meeting chairs, colleagues and other potential allies who, like my team member, have the power to step in and reorient a meeting or discussion when they see disrespectful treatment of Black women and others.
The trick is, you have to decide to notice it’s happening. That means you need to develop and use your empathy. And then you have to do something about the problem. Whatever position you hold in the corporate setting you’re part of, you can use it to step in, for instance by re-interrupting a colleague and asking them to let a Black woman finish. I want to celebrate all the people who are respectful and supportive, and who’ve done this for me. I just wish it weren’t so exceptional.
We can admire Kamala Harris all we want, but fundamentally we need to change the system that put her in that situation in the first place. And by “we,” I mean you.
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