I want to thank George Myers for opening the conversation about cultural bias and Behavior Style preferences. I was compelled to share my thoughts after reading his blog post and thinking about a question he posed: “What words come to mind when you think of . . . an assertive African-American woman?” I thought of me.
Navigating the ‘In-Between’
I come from a long line of strong and courageous black women—women who took care of business. They spoke their minds and were the primary decision-makers in the family. These matriarchs were honored and their words of wisdom were gold. I aspired to be them so it was no surprise that when I completed the Behavior Styles self-assessment, my dominant preferences were Controller–Persuader. My upbringing and experiences were the training ground for how I lead and engage in relationships today. My preferred Controller-Persuader styles have worked in my favor, but I have also exerted a lot of energy defending the beauty of the styles. You see, these Behavior Styles are not without context, and how I show up depends on people’s perceptions of me, especially as a black woman.
“You are bossy.”
“You are loud.”
“Why are you so angry?”
When I hear these statements/questions, I am not surprised. They are latent with gender and ethnic stereotypes that I have learned to navigate. These are part of my life lessons as a black woman. As a young girl, I had “the talk”—not the talk that most typical white teenagers have with their parents. Our talk was about how to engage the police if pulled over (while walking, driving, hanging out with friends), how to respect “authority” as not to be a victim of racial profiling, and how to talk slow and lower my voice. And, in an interesting juxtaposition, my mother taught me to speak up, advocate for myself, know my rich history, and fight for my rights. How do I balance these two lessons? I learned to navigate the “in-between”—being cognizant of my surroundings and understanding the unwritten rules.
This is one of the reasons why I became an educator, especially in the neighborhood where I grew up. I wanted to educate students about navigating the in-between—teaching them to lean on their talents and strengths and recognize the perceived negative narratives of Black, Indigenous, and People of Color (BIPOC). I wanted them to learn the unwritten rules, by which they played so that they can become aware of how to navigate them, giving them power and control over the choices that they will make.
How I ‘Show up’ Is Never Neutral
During my tenure as a principal, coach, and now facilitator of leadership learning, I became interested in learning more about social psychology and the implications on leader development. I participated in a number of professional learning opportunities and earned certifications in four areas related to strengths, talent management, fierce conversations, and behavioral styles. While each learning experience affirmed my talents, personality traits, learning and behavioral style, I also learned that these identifiers were not neutral.
Achiever (Gallup CliftonStrengths™), Dominant (DISC® assessment), and Controller-Persuader all had a different connotation when I showed up as a black woman and I knew that if I did not call out the cultural context by which we show up with these identifiers, I was leading and developing people blindly, especially my BIPOC sisters. I knew, from observation and personal experience, that it could be dangerous to ask a black woman to simply “lean in” to a conversation without an awareness of the in-between. Yet, my own experiences have left deep scars that tell the story of how these lessons were learned—mostly, through trial and error.
I recall being “scolded” for sharing my thoughts at a meeting because that is “not how we do it here in the South, dear . . . [women] listen and know that the questions asked are rhetorical.” This was a new lesson to learn—added to the laundry list of nuanced behaviors I have adapted. So, not only did I have to navigate my blackness and my female-ness, I had to now navigate southerness, as well. The space in-between is narrow and at times I feel like I am being squeezed, but I am reminded of the strengths and power that comes with knowing how to balance this space. Sharing these realities became part of my mission, part of the awakening to the realities of how cultural biases paralyze and/or empower us.
I choose to empower!
I remember when I made the shift to lead and facilitate learning by exposing these realities for black women like me—by being vulnerable. I acknowledge that people have similar and different experiences that shape how they show up at work and home and then I share my story.
“My name is Kendra Washington-Bass. I was born and raised in New York City. I come from a line of proud black women who taught me to be resilient. As I developed into the leader I am today, I am aware of how my Behavior Styles may conflict with people’s perceptions of who I am and how I am supposed to behave. I am aware of the ‘dangers’ of being a black woman in leadership with a Controller-Persuader style and I am aware of the beauty and honor these styles possess.”
I reshape and control the narrative, bringing it back to its beauty.
I am decisive.
I have high energy.
I am passionate.
Change the Narrative
These are small steps toward addressing a larger issue of combating institutional racism and oppression. As we grapple with the recent televised and reported deaths of Ahmaud Arbery, Breonna Taylor, George Floyd, Rayshard Brooks, and countless others, my responsibility is heightened to ensure that as an educator and leader, I address racial inequities, give voice to marginalized people, and provide safe space for people to grapple with the complexities of social justice issues.
Awareness is the first step in gaining control. Once you are aware, you now have choices—choose to be complicit or choose to call out and change the narrative.
I am decisive. I am vivacious. I am passionate. And I am a black woman.
Kendra received her BA in Communication and Film at the University of Notre Dame (1994), MS in Urban and Multicultural Education at the College of Mount Saint Vincent (1999), Advanced Certificate in Educational Leadership from the College of Saint Rose (2004), Educational Specialist degree from Mercer University (2009), and PhD in Educational Leadership from Mercer University (2013).