Women of Color in Headships: Uncovering Experiences of Discrimination and Microaggressions

Fall 2020

By Lora Mei McManus

Independent-Mag_1.jpgIn the 2018–2019 school year, only 51 NAIS schools had heads who identified as both a woman and a person of color. Last fall, I conducted a qualitative phenomenological research study to honor the stories of 12 women of color who are heads of NAIS schools and to shine light on their experiences with gender- and race-based microaggressions. As a woman of color and an aspiring head myself, this research was intrinsically personal and professionally humbling. Little did I know that when I presented my research in May 2020, the country would be on the brink of a racial reckoning (again) as individuals, schools, and companies alike would soon be publicly showing their support for the Black Lives Matter movement and committing to anti-racist work.
Much like COVID-19, the global health pandemic that continues to upend normalcy, racism has been brought to the national forefront as the pandemic that it is. In June 2020, 24 states and local governments had either passed or were considering declarations that racism is a public health crisis, shedding greater light on the well-documented racial disparity of health outcomes—rates of COVID-19, cardiovascular disease, asthma, anxiety, and miscarriage, among others. This paints a conclusive picture: Racism is making us sick.
Like any infectious illness, racism is highly contagious and transmittable through social institutions to individuals who, in turn, become carriers. Most often, racism, a parasite with a long incubation period, expresses itself as a microaggression or microinvalidation that gnaws away at the physical body, mental health, and emotional resilience of its host. Medical sociologists and practitioners have proven that the accumulated impact of frequent and recurring microaggressions is detrimental to an individual’s mental health and sense of self over an extended period of time. They describe it as a contributor to allostatic load—the total sum of stress an individual has experienced over a lifetime. According to “Allostatic Load Burden and Racial Disparities in Mortality,” a 2012 article in the Journal of the National Medical Association, people of color generally present with disproportionately higher allostatic stress loads than white people, independent of socioeconomic status and health behaviors.
As we saw this past summer through the plethora of [email protected] Instagram accounts, which were originally designed as an anonymous online listening session to amplify the narratives of the experiences of Black students in private schools and colleges, microaggressions run rampant in independent schools. It is essential that NAIS schools, as frequent breeding grounds for the proliferation of racism, examine and inspect these spaces under a black light, looking for the bacteria of covert discrimination that may not be visible on the surface.
While schools across the country have vigorously dived into confronting the physical pandemic of COVID-19—dividing into task forces, studying detailed projection models, assembling reopening protocols—the same extraordinary energy must also be directed toward the parallel social pandemic of racism. There is an urgency for schools to first develop a listening triage system to hear the deep wounds of discrimination, bias, and prejudice, and then to initiate a proactive healing and prevention plan to reckon with the harm that has already been done and prevent future relapses.

[email protected]: Listening to the Stories of Women of Color Heads of School

While the stories and anecdotes collectively shared this summer primarily highlighted the experiences of students and alumni, this infectious disease can be experienced at every level of the organizational hierarchy. For the women of color with whom I spoke for her-story-1-(1).JPGmy research, even the title of head of school does not function as sufficient personal protective equipment to repel race- or gender-based microaggressions, microinvalidations, and double standards.
The 12 women of color I interviewed through Skype and Zoom shared their stories, which were unique yet had striking similarities, painting a clear picture of their collective health and well-being. Each woman interviewed holds a deep love for and immense pride in her school. However, to love responsibly is also to be honest and critical. After all, critical thinking is one of the skills independent schools try to impress upher-story-2.JPGon their students as lifelong questioners. Each woman carried with her a multitude of stories of times in her career when the dual diseases of racism and sexism continued to recur.
After having gone through multiple search processes—without explanation about the final negative decisions—prior to obtaining her current position, one woman explained, “Sometimes it feels like I was just chosen because the school needed to have a person of color to be part of the semifinalist pool.” Other women spoke of the hiring process as “demeaning,” with requests for additional writing samples beyond what they had already submitted. A few commented on the general anxiety they felt about the moment a board search committee saw their face for the first time and realized they wher-story-4.JPGere a person of color with a white-passing name.       
Another explained how she uses the physical layout of her office as a way to counteract those who might be inclined to doubt or invalidate her ample qualifications. She displays her bachelor’s degree from an HBCU and two master’s degrees from state universities on the wall behind her chair so that they face parents and guests in her office. 
Each of these anecdotes (and the other voices shared in “Her Story” in these pages) represents just one X-ray of a moment when an individual was pained with the acute symptoms of racism and/or sexism. Notably, each of these occurrences was directly linked to the actions, or inactions, of individuals within the community. A head of school does not operate as a leader in isolation, but rather as one piece of a larger system composed of board members, faculty, staff, administrators, parents, students, and community members. These individuals and groups are integral members of the community with a direct impact on campus climate.

Proactive Healing and Prevention

While the overall physical, mental, and emotional well-being of the head of school is of great personal importance, it is paramount to see her health as extending far beyond the individual to function as a wellness exam for the vitality of the school community as a whole. If these shared stories comprise the health report of the most highly ranked, best paid, and most powerful employee of the school, whher-story-3.JPGat must the physicians’ notes say for the women and girls of color in the community who do not hold her title? A head of school’s experience is indicative of the health of a school’s broader climate. Just as every single individual must take responsibility for stopping the spread of COVID-19, so too must every individual in the school community assume a role in the fight against racism.
Hiring committees. Ensure equitable hiring processes by requesting like materials from all finalists. Acknowledge the physical toll of air travel and grueling multiday interviews combined with the frustration and psychological impact of search committee decisions by eliminating the overt or subconscious practice of bringing in “diversity” candidates. Recognize any personal or institutional implicit biases you hold when examining a candidate’s qualifications. Consider nontraditional career trajectories or backgrounds as community assets rather than qualification deficits.   
Community members. Instead of saying, “You’re doing such a wonderful job,” be more specific and take responsibility for your shared role as a community change agent. For example, “I really appreciate your leadership style and the changes you are making. How can I support you?” Then be prepared to follow through with any support requested.
Board members. Consider emotional labor as billable hours when placing a contract in front of a woman of color head of school. Women of color often shared their experiences of needing to constantly “calibrate themselves” so as not to come off as too feminine, aggressive, passive, or domineering—a familiar double standard for many women—while also tryherstory6.JPGing to redefine leadership as the perfect harmony of both strength and nurture. These tasks alone—rooted in the plagues of racism and sexism—mean that women of color have two more essential duties than a white man in her position would have. 
Allies. Lean into discomfort by examining the ways in which white dominant culture shows up in your own beloved school. Immerse yourself in anti-racist literature, formal and informal, to examine your own implicit biases and recognize microaggressions and microinvalidations when you see them.
White and/or male co-conspirators and accomplices. Deeply understand and know the seat of privilege in which you sit, and use your position to actively dismantle systems of privilege and oppression. Always remember that your voice will inherently be heard differently, particularly by your white and/or male colleagues—use it well.
Heads of school. Negotiate wellness days into your contract in addition to paid sick her-story-5.JPGleave and vacation days for when the symptoms of racism flare up in your body. One of the most resounding themes women of color heads shared was feeling they must work harder than their white and/or male counterparts to prove their competence, often at the expense of work-life balance and physical health.

For the Greater Good

Simply having a woman of color head of school as a symbolic figure is an insufficient antidote to the metastasizing race- and gender-based prejudice within independent schools and society more broadly. Her mere presence does not function as an antibiotic that singlehandedly cures any symptoms of racism or sexism. Students, parents, faculty, staff, and administrative teams alike have the privilege and responsibility to directly interrupt the transmission of racism and sexism within independent schools. By battling racism as it affects the head of school, the overall health and well-being of the school climate can also improve. This listening triage system and proactive healing and prevention plan is merely a framework model to demonstrate the level of care and attention that needs to be directed toward every aspect of a school—the people and programs, most notably—in the fight against the rapid spread of racism in education settings.   



Go Deeper

This article was built on the foundation of the author’s recent research study, which was designed to contribute to the growing understanding of the ways in which experiences of sexism and racism pervade the highest levels of structural hierarchy in independent schools. Her research study examines the lived experiences of women of color in independent school headships and how manifestations of race- and gender-based prejudice and discrimination in the form of microaggressions occur in the workplace and have detrimental effects on job performance and psychological and physical well-being.
Check out the full contents of McManus’s master’s thesis, “Experiences of Discrimination and Microaggressions Toward Women of Color in Independent School Headships.” 
Lora Mei McManus

Lora Mei McManus is the PK-12 chair of equity and instruction at The Blake School in Minneapolis, Minnesota, and a graduate of two independent schools in Los Angeles, California.