Black integrity matters
Money/status/(perceived) power matter. But, as a Black women, my integrity matters more and I refuse to be shamed for it.
By Tynesha McCullers
Some time ago, I was sitting in a room full of Black women in a sister circle. The purpose of the group was to discuss our experiences at work, our lives in general, and to find ways to support each other.
This was probably the second time we had gotten together and I was still getting to know the women in the space as co-workers. While the previous session didn’t have an agenda; we found out at the beginning of this one that the focus would be professionalism. Women talked about their positive and negative experiences with professionalism and accountability and encouraged young professionals like myself to “play the game.” I quickly deduced that “playing the game” was code for assimilating to whiteness in order to appease white people in the workplace and hopefully get ahead, their rationale being that it would be the only way to get ahead in my field and get a better salary.
The women spoke of ways you shouldn’t show up at work. They talked about needing to dress appropriately and always having a blazer on hand. They spoke about how to engage at meetings, the importance of minding your language and keeping your authentic feelings to yourself.
The entire time, I felt like they were talking around me but about me and my behavior at work. They told me that, as a Black woman, I could not just talk or act like I did. That people wouldn’t take me seriously if I continued to be my true self. I asked about the importance of being true to myself no matter what and about integrity. My point got drowned out. And though I stood my ground for the bulk of the meeting, I left feeling angry, betrayed, and alone.
I recently watched the heated exchange between Mo’Nique and Steve Harvey on Mo’Nique choosing to speak out about being blackballed and discriminated against for standing up for herself, and Harvey’s disapproval of her approach. As I saw the continued dialogue on social media, I couldn’t help but find myself back in that room with those women. The subtle but present chastising, patronizing, and gaslighting coded in messages of love and care are still with me and were with me when I watched this “interview.”
In the American context, money/status/(perceived) power matter. But, as a Black women, my integrity matters more and I refuse to be shamed for it.
Around this time last year, Mo’Nique’s plea for everyone to boycott Netflix was the talk of social media. She noted that there was a disparity between what she was offered and what white and male artists of similar caliber were offered. The comedienne and actress’ goal was to push Netflix to offer her more money for a stand-up special. Based on what I saw online, the response from consumers was mixed, but primarily negative. Folks questioned Mo’Nique’s worth, complained about her approach, and minimized her pain all while refusing to believe or support her. It was sad to witness.
I ended up writing a piece about Mo’Nique and other Black women advocating for themselves. It was meant to address the backlash and criticism Mo’Nique and women like her were receiving for demanding their worth. While some celebrities like Jada Pinkett Smith and Wendy Williams spoke out in support of Mo’Nique and her request, others (some of whom she has good relationships with) remained silent, at least in public.
So I was surprised to see Mo’Nique and Steve Harvey trending together on Twitter a little over two weeks ago, and honestly didn’t know what to expect. Reading tweets and watching the clip of the two actors discussing the original boycott Netflix request and the continued dialogue around Mo’Nique being blackballed left me feeling sick to my stomach. Harvey called Mo’Nique “a problem,” agreed with the sentiments that she was “being difficult,” and disapproved of her approach to getting what she deserves, all while admitting her truth was right. Laced with tone policing, respectability politics and misogynoir, the almost seven minutes of interview churned my stomach.
Harvey spoke about having people depending on him and how he couldn’t just say or do whatever he wanted as that could cause him to lose the money game. Mo’Nique talked about integrity and how that mattered more to her than money. She made clear for folks who may not have been certain about the context of her request that she wasn’t trying to please anyone or make folks feel comfortable because that could take away from her gift.
Though Harvey constantly spoke over her and worked diligently to be viewed as “right,” Mo’Nique’s words struck a chord with me. Not only because I agreed with her but because I’ve had well-meaning Black people try to feed me the same narratives as Harvey. They think about their family, their salary, and where they want their career to go before deciding if they’d like to stand up for themselves or speak their truth, and so they project their thinking onto you.
What’s interesting is that these folks always spend time trying to convince outspoken people like me to change and be more like them. They’ll rely on shame and manipulation to get you to believe that you somehow don’t care about where you’re going or who you’re hurting, which is a lie.
The fear of losing money/status and power can cause people to operate in the most disingenuous ways. It’s what drives attitudes similar to Harvey’s and the women in that room with me that day. The pursuit of money and positionality encourages a mindset in which a person will do whatever it is they have to do in order to attain status and wealth, even if that means lying, stealing, or worse: Denying themselves their truth.
More often than not, I find myself having to defend my character, especially in work and classroom settings. It wasn’t until a few years ago while in graduate school and therapy when I began to learn the language about my decision making processes. More specifically, I learned how to describe why I choose to speak up and out. What it simply comes down to is a cost/benefit analysis. Before I make decisions, I tend to weigh the costs and benefits of all sides. If something appears to cost me more than it benefits me, I won’t do it; and if it’s the opposite and it benefits me more than it costs me, I will do it.
With time, I figured out that it costs me more to shut the fuck up than to tell the truth — more specifically, my truth.
I lose my appetite and sleep doesn’t come easy when I hide my truth. I’ll replay scenarios of what I should have done or said until the shame is overwhelming. Trust can be lost and relationships can crumble. And worst of all, I can lose my self-assurance which keeps me grounded. I came to the conclusion, that not speaking my truth is expensive, so I refuse to hide my feelings or experiences to appease people in positions “higher” or “lower” than me.
Much like Mo’Nique said in this interview, changing for others takes away from your own gifts, and I can’t have that. I also know that “playing the game,” buying into whiteness or respectability, isn’t ultimately going to save me or my people. Being broke with integrity is better than being rich without your dignity. While it may not pay your bills, your truth has the ability to set you free.
In “The Greatest Love of All”, Whitney Houston sings, “no matter what they take from me, they can’t take away my dignity.” Her words reign true for Black women with mindsets like Mo’Nique and me. Although she was blackballed, “lost” money and friends, and continues to “lose” opportunities, Mo’Nique still has her truth, her dignity, and most importantly her integrity. And as a Black woman, I believe that’s what truly matters most.
Tynesha is a strong-willed higher education professional in the DMV with a passion for social justice. Born and raised in North Carolina, Tynesha is true to southern roots. Tynesha has a B.S. in Human Development and a Master of Education. Tynesha’s interests include watching documentaries, listening to podcasts, singing, painting, traveling, writing (@_colourmebold on Twitter)