Backstage at the 2017 Grammy awards, after reluctantly accepting the Album of the Year honour for her album 25, Adele told me and a group of other journalists why she felt Beyoncé was more deserving of the award for her latest record, Lemonade. “I felt like it was her time to win," Adele said, face flushed, hands flying. "What the fuck does she have to do to win album of the year?” 25 is an excellent album, a solid, lovely, and at times goosebump-raising project from a singer with one of the greatest voices of our time. But while 25 is excellent, Lemonade is groundbreaking. Sonically, it is a genre-crossing, boundary-pushing project, a complete 180 from the world’s biggest pop star. Emotionally, it is an artful ode to Black women that uplifted us, provided us solace and recognition — liberation. “Freedom,” with its lyrics “I break chains all by myself/Won’t let my freedom rot in hell/Hey! I’ma keep running/Cause a winner don’t quit on themselves” became an empowerment anthem — just one track on the album that helped us pick up our broken pieces and put them back together. Many viewers were shocked when Lemonade lost to 25. I, for one, was disappointed, but not surprised. Why? Because at the end of the day, for all of her fame and fortune, album sales, and accolades, Beyoncé is still a Black woman. And the unfortunate reality is that in the eyes of some people, she will simply never be as good as her white peers. This is not a new phenomenon. The “Black tax” is a concept most Black people understand from a young age; the idea constantly present in the back of our minds that because we are Black, we have to work twice as hard and do twice the amount of work, all to simply be considered equal to our colleagues. And recent research from The Centre for Talent Innovation, a nonprofit think tank that helps companies better integrate all genders, races, and cultures in their work environments, shows that weight on our shoulders is indeed holding us back. According to a study of more than 1,200 women, Black women are more likely than white women to feel stalled in their careers; 44 percent, compared to 30 percent of white women. Melinda Marshall, one of the survey’s co-authors and the executive vice president and director of publications for the CTI, confirms this has nothing to do with Black women having less of a drive than other groups — in fact, it’s the complete opposite. “Our study began as a look at women’s relationships to the workplace and power,” she says. “But once we saw the results, we realised there was a bigger story: Only 8% of the white women surveyed were interested in pursuing positions of power at work, while 22% of Black women reported wanting to take on a leadership role in their career.
If you do see a Black woman at the top at work, she’s viewed as somewhat of a Black unicorn.
“Based on our interviews, we saw Black women have an appetite to change the world, to uplift others and make contributions to their community, so they’re more likely to seek a powerful position — but those 44% report feeling like they just can’t get there. And they’re right. Just look around: If you do see a Black woman at the top at work, she’s viewed as somewhat of a Black unicorn.” I may not be Beyoncé, but I know this feeling well. At just 29, I've already made some incredible accomplishments. I'm a features writer at one of the most innovative media companies in the world, I've broadcasted live from an awards show red carpet to more than 1 million people, I've interviewed the queen of interviewing, Ms. Oprah Winfrey herself. And yet, no matter how many accolades I receive, or how proud my parents tell me they are, or how much encouraging feedback I get from colleagues, lying just beneath the surface of my ambition will always be the unshakeable feeling that thanks to the colour of my skin, I will never be seen as equally successful or capable as the white woman next to me. For as long as I’m working, no matter how high up I skyrocket or how quickly, I will always have to wonder if my white boss or co-worker or friend sees me slightly differently because I’m Black. (Not to mention that the higher I am in the hierarchy, the less people I’ll see who look like me.) But Beyoncé, arguably the most recognisable face on the planet, the woman who has the power to “stop the world” with one surprise album, the woman who just won her 22nd and 23rd Grammy Awards, she can’t possibly feel like her career is stalled just because of one little award show loss, right? Not necessarily, says Marshall. While one award can’t measure an entire career, for most people, validation of their work is important. “Think of feeling stalled in the context of getting credit for your ideas or creativity or innovation,” she says. “How can someone as credentialed and capable and productive as Beyoncé still be invisible to people at the top? She’s in the entertainment world, but we see that in the corporate sphere as well. Another study we did found that Black women are 20% less likely than straight white men to get their ideas endorsed in the workplace. It'll come out of their mouth, but until a white person echoes it, that’s when people pay attention.” Beyoncé’s own sister Solange shares a similar sentiment. In a since-deleted tweet posted the day after the Grammys, she pointed out that [sic] “there have only been two black winners in the last 20 years for album of the year there have been over 200 black artists who have performed.” Technically, she was wrong — there have actually been four Black winners over the last 20 years. But still, essentially, according to the Grammys, the work of Black artists is good enough to be entertainment — a tool to draw in viewership and controversy, which equals money in their pocket — but not good enough to be honoured. And looking at women in general at the Grammys isn’t much better — in the past two decades, only seven women have won Album of the Year (with Adele taking the trophy home twice, this year, and in 2012).
Marshall adds that a big part of the problem is, of course, the fact that the decision makers in both the arts and the corporate sectors are older white men. At Refinery29’s request, the Recording Academy confirmed that they do not have a demographic or ethnic breakdown of their 13,000 voting members, but we can probably guess what it looks like, especially considering the criteria to become a voting member: You must be a dues-paying Recording Academy member and a music industry professional with “creative or technical credits on at least six commercially released tracks,” according to Grammys.org. “The odds are their voting committee is not equally representative in terms of race, gender, and ethnicity,” she says. “It’s likely an echo chamber of older white men, which is exactly what the top tier of most companies looks like as well. And the truth is that people at the top can’t make decisions or vote without their bias affecting their decision making, whether that bias is implicit or explicit.” For me, awareness of potential bias at the top of the food chain has only intensified in the months since Donald Trump’s election. I feel very suspicious of the world around me, wondering more now than ever before how everyone really feels. After eight years of living under a feminist, pro-equality leader, the current cultural climate is tough. The fear and hatred stirred up by our new president has made me even more self-conscious about how I’m perceived by the white people around me — even at work. So seeing an obviously more highly qualified Black woman lose to a white woman during one of the most-watched television events of the year only enhanced that hyperawareness for me and many other Black women I know. I ask Marshall if she feels the results of her survey, which was conducted in 2014, will only become a higher percentage in the post-Trump era. “Absolutely — we’re currently revisiting a lot of our studies and re-releasing the results in June because we’ve already seen changes,” she says. “Politically and in the corporate world, we don’t ever really look at women in the intersections. We talk about black folks, we talk about women, but we don’t talk about Black women. In the work place, Black women are hidden in both the women's group and the Black employee group — which is why they often feel invisible.” Beyoncé's loss is not just a snub, or members of the Beyhive overreacting, or one of many entertainment moments that will keep the media going for a week until the next big stories come around. For Black women, it’s yet another disheartening reminder in a terrifying political climate that no matter how hard we work, or how innovative we are, or how much praise we get from family or fans, in the eyes of the most powerful people, we will never be quite be good enough. At the end of the day, everyone just wants affirmation — confirmation that they are appreciated, valued, seen. If the world’s biggest pop star can’t get that validation just because of the colour of her skin, how can the rest of us?