Don’t Supervise Us The Same: Intersectionality in Positions of Leadership
Supervision conversations in Student Affairs are often driven by discussions of leadership styles. Though it is important for us to teach and learn the two dominating practices in the field, integrated development and synergistic supervision, these conversations are often incomplete without considering the cultural identities of the people supervising and being supervised. This, of course, becomes all the more complicated when we begin to consider intersectionality as central to the way people live their identities. As a woman of color in higher education, it has often been my place to learn how to communicate across racial lines. In communities of color, this is sometimes referred to as “code switching” or the act of performing our identities in traditionally accepted ways at work, while reserving the right to be more of ourselves at home.
My professional experiences have required me, like most women of color in the field, to develop competence of higher education’s largely white and particularly male leadership structures in order to be successful within my positions. Often, this means learning first hand how our worldviews, experiences, and cultural practices as women of color can be counter to those expected in a normative--white/ cisgender/ heterosexual/ middle-class--work environment. I recognize the burden of thinking about how one is viewed in the workplace, and the impact of that perception upon supervisor/supervisee relationships is something all women face. Many student affairs women have shared, often on twitter and at convention meetups, that we’ve wondered how the roles we take on in meetings and group projects might differ if we were men, or how the practices we employ might be viewed differently. Contrastingly, the intersections of my identities as a Black woman often mean I am faced with questions of how these situations differ along racial lines as well as gender. Having a supervisor that understands this intersectionality and the roles in which identities play in how women of color experience the workplace, and how students perceive and color their interactions with us can make all the difference.
As a Black woman in career services, I am especially delicate with fellow women of color I advise due to our unique positionality as raced and gendered individuals. This means taking extra time to make emerging women of color aware of the socio-cultural nuances of workspaces they may not otherwise come to realize, or realize after it’s too late. Though I am sure I raise more questions than answers in this piece, perhaps it is time for our experienced colleagues who seek to understand and do anti-racist work to begin mentoring young white student affairs professionals on workplace dynamics. Multicultural competence classes in our general curriculums are one way for our white colleagues and leaders to learn how to engage in shared spaces, but it must be coupled with professional practice standards that move beyond asking inclusion of differences and that are learned from people we know and respect.
As women of color, we necessarily spend time teaching and learning how to collaborate and work within white cultural norms, while our white colleagues are not always consciously prepared for how to engage with us or structures of white privilege. Should our profession seek to better support, retain, and collaborate with women of color, it would be in our best interest to prevent negative supervision practices from pushing women of color out of the field by raising these issues earlier in our training, practice, and curriculums. So what can our white student affairs colleagues do to begin shifting dynamics in of our offices, classrooms, and student unions?
Pay attention to workplace culture and ask tough questions: In many social justice trainings and workspaces, setting up ground rules is critical for engaging in difficult dialogue and discussion. Perhaps doing the same in the work environment can encourage culturally sensitive and relevant work practices. If the work environment you’ve created allows a specific majority of people to be more of themselves than others, perhaps it’s time to question why and begin the work of changing this.
Assess consciously: Think about how differently we give advice depending on the bonds and relationships we have with those on the receiving ends. It is critical that leaders challenge their supervisees, but do so bearing in mind how the words, contexts, and phrases we begin with can sometimes be heard differently due to a supervisee’s experiences and cultural background. As our experienced colleagues begin to pass the torch, it is important for those who take on leadership positions to think critically about how our management practices can help or hinder the very people we seek to mentor.
Taking an intersectional approach to supervision doesn’t mean changing who you are as a supervisor, it means changing how we treat one another by taking account of different experiences. Showing vulnerability and admitting that sometimes you may not know what to say or how to be supportive because you haven’t dealt with an issue may be exactly what a supervisee needs to hear to feel as though you support them. By supervising women of color as individuals and recognizing their need to navigate work spaces from two minoritized positions, you show your employees that their positionality is important and that you seek to make their experiences as just as possible.
Brittany M. Williams
Career Consultant & Doctoral Student
The University of Georgia