Playing Big and Waiting for Wings
Over Thanksgiving (a complicated holiday, but that’s a post for another day), I read Playing Big — recommended reading for an upcoming conference for women on leadership in higher education institutions. Tara Mohr, the author, shares about the challenges and opportunities for women to actualize their potential. She speaks about our inner voices – either encouraging or discouraging us — the internal dialogue we often have in the silences of our lives and minds. She challenges us to navigate the world almost untethered, courageously, boldly, stepping outside of the shadows, leaping forward, without hesitation, accepting our calling, accepting challenges, saying yes, and leaning in as Sheryl Sandberg also suggests.
Much of the advice from both her and Sheryl is about countering Western society’s socialization of women, as hesitant, timid, not self-assured, fearful. Much of the advice is practical and sensible. Yet, sexism, racism, privilege, oppression, and discrimination, are never mentioned. Am I ok with that?
I guess to ask the question answers the question. I agree that, as women, we need to be on more stages of life, if that means playing big. We have a voice, ideas, perspectives, approaches, strategies, and visions that warrant visibility. Yet, the concept of playing big, the ideology behind those words causes me to pause. Playing Big? The words oddly cause me to imagine football, and the need for a big play. Words associated with Western ideologies of achievement, power, and personal success. Do women need to play big? Maybe so. Probably so. I just can’t seem to get passed the words. Words do matter.
Missing words matter.
Women can’t be generalized as Kimberly Crenshaw reminds us. That is what intersectionality is about — the intersection of identities. Women aren’t just a gender and women are not all alike. Race, class, religion, backgrounds, lifestyles, sexual orientation, gender identity, and more, all influence our experiences as women. And because of that, playing big is not always about getting our act together with special and secret tactics. Tara’s and Sheryl’s advice and suggestions are relevant and important, yet they cannot be executed in a sterile, sanitized environment. For, in America, our environment – political, socially, professionally, and personally– is dirty, contaminated, and complicated.
The environment in America is one bell hooks calls an “imperialist, white-supremacist, capitalist patriarchy” — a hegemonic system of domination that Patricia Hill Collins in Black Feminist Thought encourages us to recognize. This system makes it more difficult and challenging to play big – to leap, to communicate with power, to let it be easy, as Tara suggests. In my last blog “On Being a Backbone: Black, Brilliant, and Bruised (http://menahprattclarke.com/2018/11/19/being-a-backbone…iant-and-bruised/), I write about the sheer emotional challenge of being the only, of trying to play on the same field as others, of belonging, of socializing.
So, for many women of color, it is not about playing big. It is about playing. How can we get in the game? Sometimes, it is even more preliminary, fundamental, and basic. Can we get on the team? And, then, how do we move from the bench to the game? And then, how do we get thrown the ball to get a chance for a big play? Can our number be called? And do we only get one chance? One chance for a big play? Do we have to go it alone? Can more than one number be called? And my goodness, will we still have our minds intact, when we reach the big stage?
I’m more and more convinced that “self-help” books for women on leadership must also challenge the status quo of the system, and not merely provide individual advice.
I wonder, what would it take for Tara to write Playing Big with the missing words? The words of identity, -isms, oppression, privilege, and power? What would it take for her to know – to really know — the impact of different identities? What relationships and experiences should she have had? What education should she have had at Yale, at Stanford? What education did she have? I wonder, what experiences has she had?
In largely segregated America, how do different communities begin to understand different journeys – honestly and authentically? There has to be that willingness and a desire to go to the “other” “dark” side. Very few do and so few know. Yet, our identities do influence our journeys and our journeys happen in a larger societal and historical context.
So, in addition to doing the personal work encouraged by Playing Big — the pull yourself up by your bootstraps, with some stronger gloves, and maybe different shoelaces advice, we should simultaneously acknowledge that we need different shoes all together. And even more ambitiously, and radically, perhaps, perhaps, we won’t even need shoes and need to walk, and we can get some wings and fly.