From Serena Williams to Michelle Obama, black women are all too often reduced to the “angry black woman” trope. ‘We all know it: the angry black women and the violent black man. If you’re a black woman with a point of view, you can be seen as aggressive*. It’s a stereotype that’s persisted for decades’, explains Andrew Pearce, Head of Accenture’s African Caribbean Network.
The stereotype characterises black women as overly challenging, aggressive and hostile. It also refers to their double minority status and intersectional experience which is unique to that of black men and white women. It’s harmful, it’s dangerous and it keeps the concrete ceiling firmly in place.
This is something Femi Otitoju knows all too well. She’s made it her life’s mission to take on inequalities at their root cause and eliminate unconscious biases, all whilst tackling the “angry black woman” stereotype herself.
Femi wasn’t your average 1970s teenager. While most teenagers were out dancing to disco or buying their next pair of flares, Femi was out campaigning.
Challenging Section 28. Fighting domestic violence. Debunking racist stereotypes. She’d be protesting sex shops one day and comforting people over the Lesbian and Gay Switchboard the next. A keen participant in the Women's Liberation Movement, her activism led her to support the Women's peace camp at Greenham Common, and Lesbians and Gays Support the Miners in Wales. ‘I had my day job, but I spent the rest of my time out campaigning. I only worked in order to be able to be an activist’, Femi explains.
Fast forward to the 1980s and politicians had started to pay more attention to equality activists. For the first time, equalities departments – race units, women’s units, disabilities units – were starting to pop up in local government. And who better to staff them than activists themselves? Femi quickly went from selling ad space for newspapers to the public sector. She spent two years as a Women’s Officer and another two as a Lesbian and Gay Officer.
Then she had her eureka moment.
One day in the mid-1980s, someone suggested that she become a Race Officer. ‘I remember thinking: I’ve been a Women’s Officer, I’ve been a Lesbian and Gay Officer and now I might be a Race Officer. This all sounds very separatist to me’.
So, she decided to do something about it. That’s how Challenge Consultancy was born. Set up by Femi in 1985, Challenge tackles inequalities on behalf of all minority groups.
That includes the inequalities Femi faced herself. In Challenge’s early days, she felt the “angry black woman” trope weigh against her as people assumed, consciously or unconsciously, that she would be too hostile and aggressive. Femi felt she had to counteract the stereotype so she forged a softer personality – something someone should never have to do. ‘I had to work very hard to make sure other people were comfortable around me’, she recalls. ‘I acted like an “easy black person” or the “friendly face of feminism”. A lot of black women have to do this’.
Even her corporate branding was doctored to soften her image and counter the stereotype. ‘Early on, I spoke to some brand specialists. They said “looking like you do, and tackling the things you’d like to tackle, you are going to be a very difficult prospect for a lot of people. You need to appear as unchallenging as you can”. I thought: well I can’t do that, I’m here to challenge the status quo. So, the branding specialists suggested we at least soften the image and chose a nice, gentle colour. That’s why my brand is pink’.
Perhaps the biggest barrier Femi faced in the early days was securing funding. Here, she faced a double discrimination against her gender and her Nigerian heritage. ‘I wasn’t taken seriously. All and sundry, from salesmen to bank managers, were very circumspect. They’d hear my Nigerian name, look at me and then see my assistant, who was a white man, and assume he was the person in charge. But actually, he was my part-time PA’.
‘Does this stereotype still persist today? Absolutely,’ Andrew Pearce says. ‘99% of the time it’s clumsiness, poor language, bad decision making. But sometimes it’s malicious. It all goes back to unconscious bias. So how do you deal with it? You have a conversation about it. You call people out, educate and counsel them’.
That’s exactly what Femi is doing with Challenge. Her strategy is a simple one: identify the root cause of an inequality issue and take it on. ‘Making change at a grass-roots level means working with those that have “power” to make that change’, she explains. ‘To help put an end to unconscious biases, I work with media companies to correct the messages viewers take in. From BAFTA to the BBC, I’ve increased representation in storylines on TV and I’ve increased representation amongst the people that make those storylines. I’ve even heard TV characters say great words around inclusion and diversity that I’ve used in training courses.’
Her plans for the future? To make her job obsolete. But until then, she says ‘there’s a lot to do’.
Femi’s top tips for budding black entrepreneurs:
*Reference source: https://www.bbc.co.uk/news/world-us-canada-45476500
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