In attempting to devalue Mo’Nique, we show how little we value Black women — how little we value ourselves.
By Jodi M. Savage
Comedian Mo’Nique recently asked viewers to boycott Netflix because they only offered her $500,000 for a comedy special. The Oscar-winning actress pointed out that they had offered Chris Rock and Dave Chappelle $20 million and Amy Schumer $11 million. Mo’Nique claimed that Netflix had offered her such a low amount due to gender and color discrimination.
Instead of widespread support, she faced a lot of backlash on social media. People were engaged in the all too familiar sexist, racist, and self-hating tactics of making negative comments about her weight and skin color. Many hurled bombs at her that are frequently used to silence Black women and dismiss our humanity: loud, angry, no class, entitled. Others said she should be humble, prove herself, and just be grateful Netflix was willing to help revive her career. They also accused Mo’Nique of having a “bad attitude,” the classic trope for Black women who do not offer up cupcakes and smiles when criticizing how others treat them.
It was the responses from Black people that I found most troubling. Black women were among her harshest critics. Maybe it’s hard to feel sympathy for Mo’Nique because most people can’t relate to an entertainer who wants more than $500,000 — but many of these criticisms also contained an unsettling subtext about who gets to assert worth in the workplace and acceptable ways of asserting one’s worth.
To suggest that Mo’Nique should just be “grateful” and accept Netflix’s offer is to disregard her accomplishments, her sense of worth, and her right to demand that she be fairly compensated. It also ignores the very real pay disparities for Black women in and outside of Hollywood. In attempting to devalue Mo’Nique, we show how little we value Black women — how little we value ourselves. Most Black women will never be offered $20 million or $500,000 to do anything. But Black women should care about Mo’Nique’s pay discrimination claims because, in many ways, we are all Mo’Nique. Whether we are actresses, secretaries, corporate executives, nurses, or restaurant workers, we are more likely to earn less than our white or male counterparts. Black women earn 63 cents for every dollar a white man makes. Black women are also the least likely to ask for raises among all demographic groups except Asians. We know how pay disparities play out in the workplace for regular folks: being lowballed in salary negotiations; getting hired and then realizing that people with similar or less responsibilities, experience or job titles earn more; being given additional responsibilities, but no salary increase; and not negotiating for a higher salary or raise.
It doesn’t help that money is often a taboo subject in the Black community. My grandmother used to always tell me, “Don’t let ya left hand know what ya right hand is doing” and “keep ya business to ya self.” My Black women friends and I don’t discuss our salaries. We wonder whether we will be perceived as crass or presumptuous if we broach the topic of compensation with employers. And we watch in awe when men and white folks so freely discuss salary expectations and dissatisfaction with their pay. A white female colleague recently complained to me in passing that she hadn’t received her annual raise. I turned and looked at her so quickly that I almost gave myself whiplash. You get a raise every year? It must be nice, I thought. But I’m willing to bet that she isn’t afraid to regularly advocate for why she deserves more money.
Black folks are often haunted by gratitude — that double-edged sword embraced by folks who are afraid to ask for more, and thrown at “uppity” Black folks who ask for more than others think they deserve. Many of us have degrees and jobs our parents and grandparents could only dream of. When we complain about our careers or salaries, our elders may respond with the dismissive refrain, Chile, you should just be grateful to have a job. This sense of gratitude and discomfort with talking about money prevents many of us from asking for what we want. But one can be both grateful and fairly compensated.
While most people would never publicly discuss their pay discrimination claims, I wonder how Mo’Nique’s critics — everyday people — have addressed such matters in their own lives. Did they keep quiet, prove themselves, and hope someone would eventually do the right thing? The existence of the pay gap for Black women proves people don’t “do the right thing” often enough. Did they ask for more money? Closed mouths don’t get fed. File a complaint or sue? As my grandmother used to say, the law is for the lawless. Sometimes, you have to do more than “let go and let God.”
I remember when I wasn’t confident enough to know my value. I was in my mid-twenties and clerking for a family court judge in New Jersey. I knew I wanted to practice employment discrimination law, so I applied for a job as an Equal Employment Opportunity Officer at a hospital in New York City. I would be responsible for investigating discrimination complaints employees filed internally and defending the hospital in complaints filed with administrative agencies such as the U.S. Equal Employment Opportunity Commission. After my second interview, one of the interviewers, a Latina, asked what salary I was looking for. Unsure of how to answer, I quoted an amount that wasn’t much higher than my salary at the time. I asked for such a low amount because I questioned the value I brought to the job. I thought about all the reasons why I didn’t deserve a higher salary and should “just be grateful” for being offered the job: I was a new law school grad; my judicial clerkship was unrelated to employment discrimination law; the new job was in the public sector, rather than at a law firm. I thought my prospective employer might laugh if I requested a higher salary.
Despite my law degree, I was woefully unprepared to advocate for myself. The career advice I’d received in law school focused on finding a job that matched my interests, and how to look and sound the part. It was understood that salaries for first-year attorneys were standardized. None of my law school friends had similar jobs, and were just as clueless as me. I grew up on food stamps and government-issued cheese. The delicate dance of salary negotiations was never part of our dinner conversation. The people I knew outside of school didn’t have the kind of jobs for which you could negotiate a salary.
Luckily, my interviewer saved me from myself. “No. Let’s ask for something higher,” she said to me in a tone dripping with Bless her heart and She don’t know no better. My starting salary ended up being almost double the pitiful amount I’d initially offered. She single-handedly increased my earning potential, because salaries are often determined by one’s salary history. Someone less sympathetic would have been quite happy to pay me less money, arguing that saving the company money was their priority and that I should have done a better job of negotiating. Employers do it to Black women every day.
When we label Black women as ungrateful, entitled, and difficult for believing they deserve to earn more, we silence them and perpetuate unequal pay. And when Black women do not share information about compensation and are uncomfortable discussing money, we ensure that these pay disparities will continue. Being nice, humble, and long-suffering will not guarantee pay equity. What it will guarantee is more work and resentment. Besides, when have we ever demanded these qualities from men? When you know and ask for your worth, you are not asking for charity; nor are you asking to bankrupt your employer.
When Black women get paid less to do the same jobs, those lower salaries don’t come with lower job expectations. No matter our industry or level of education or tax bracket, all Black women deserve fair and equal pay. When Black women ask for their due, we should not respond with “Who does she think she is?” Instead, we should say, “Gurl, don’t let them Mo’Nique you! Get yo’ coins!”
Author Bio: Jodi M. Savage is an employment discrimination and disability rights attorney. Her nonfiction has appeared or is forthcoming in Catapult, The Establishment, and Women’s Studies Quarterly. She lives in Brooklyn, New York. Jodi can be found online at www.jodimsavage.com and on Twitter @macreflections.