When Black women keep getting punished for success, how can we grow?
When I graduated with my master of theological studies degree from Harvard University, I thought that the world would open up for me. Yet, despite my credentials, during my first job out of graduate school as a diversity program manager, I was tokenized and underestimated: My colleagues talked down to me, assuming I lacked basic professionalism and competency. While my LGBTQ+ trainings were well-received by the students I served, certain co-workers would describe my trainings as “hyper” and “unfocused.” At the same time, my company was eager to show me off. They were excited to have a Black Queer woman on the team, but failed to invest in my talent, support my work, or provide professional development opportunities. I persevered, working hard to grow, but the more I succeeded, the worse things got. I quickly moved from being the shiny new hire to being dismissed and isolated.
I didn’t know it at the time, but what I was experiencing was a phenomenon called “pet to threat.” First named by Kecia Thomas, Ph.D, dean of arts and sciences at the University of Alabama at Birmingham, “pet to threat” describes an evolution of professional discrimination for women of color. In the early “pet” stage, women are tokenized, coddled, and underestimated — often trotted out as “diversity and inclusion” show ponies, while at the same time dismissed and distrusted with important work that would let them grow. As people grow and become proficient — despite the disinvestment — then comes the “threat” stage, once they’re no longer shiny and new to the organization. In this stage, women become a threat to the status quo, and can experience career roadblocks, lack of advancement, and being denied recognition for their achievements. Both of these experiences are deeply harmful. The former makes you feel a deep sense of incompetence, like you can’t do anything right, and the latter makes you feel isolated and dispirited.
Thomas coined the term “pet to threat” in 2013, while attending a professional development program for Black women in academia. During the program she noticed an emerging theme: “Women in the sciences [who were early in their career], regardless of race, talked about how their colleagues sometimes treated them as though they were their daughter,” she tells Elite Daily. “One woman even mentioned that her male colleagues frequently patted her on the back [in a fatherly way].”
Meanwhile, women who are further along in their careers bring up problems of pay inequality or disappearing support systems as they climb the professional ladder. “As they ascend in their career,” Thomas says, “some women note that their mentors, female mentors specifically, become cold to them.”
The phenomenon is most applicable to women of color, and particularly Black women, but it’s experienced by people of color across the gender spectrum, and across industries: In 2021, Management Leadership for Tomorrow (MLT), an organization for BIPOC professionals, surveyed 8,000 working professionals, all of whom identified as African American, Latinx, or Native American, and found that “50% of respondents had a white mentor support them publicly but privately undermined them.” Meanwhile, 89% of those surveyed said they were or had been the only person of color on their team.
The “pet to threat” phenomenon traps Black women in a lose-lose scenario.
Sydney, 22, knows these feelings intimately. “I’ve been in jobs where, during my first few weeks, I am expected to give input on a range of diversity, equity, and inclusion issues,” she says. As a marketing and tech operations professional, her professional expertise is not on personnel issues or diversity initiatives, and she felt tokenized and dehumanized by the expectation to weigh in. “The assumption is that because I’m a Black woman, I can give input on how all oppressed communities feel.”
Sydney is one of the many Black women who shared their thoughts on “pet to threat” after a TikTok I made on the subject went viral on Aug. 3. In just 24 hours, the video garnered 50,000 views and over 10,000 likes. Many of the commenters — mostly Black women and Black LGBTQ+ people — discussed the betrayal of being taught that hard work leads to advancement, only to find out that you are isolated for being great.
“Seeing the [TikTok] video solidified the experiences that I’ve already been having. It was confirmation that I’m not crazy,” Sydney says. “I think it’s great that a lot of people are able to speak to their own experiences, but it’s also saddening to see that this is just happening on such a mass scale.”
“Learning about ‘pet to threat’ helped name an experience I have been having but couldn’t quite verbalize,” says Mary*, a 24-year-old policy researcher. She found a complicated sense of solace from my TikTok video and the realization she wasn’t alone in feeling demeaned by patronizing treatment. “Recently, I was praised for developing a simple project timeline,” she says. “I’m talented and have my master’s degree — why don’t they expect more from me?”
While reading the comments, I felt seen and validated. But I also felt deeply angry that so many Black people are left to venture through confusing and, at times, hostile workplace interactions. For the young Black women who are still learning to navigate their careers — young Black women like me — it’s an extra layer of complexity on top of the task of learning professional norms and tasks.
For Black women, growth doesn’t come with new opportunities — just a different form of discrimination.
The “pet to threat” phenomenon traps Black women in a lose-lose scenario: When you’re a “pet,” you’re precluded from living up to your full potential because corporations are afraid to give you the projects and responsibilities that you deserve. When you are a “threat,” you are highly skilled, but undervalued and isolated. For Black women, growth doesn’t come with new opportunities — just a different form of discrimination.
Jay*, 27, a customer experience worker with four years of professional experience, says she feels that her environment becomes hostile when she is too good at her work. In order to protect herself from professional isolation, Jay tells me she’s learned to be cautious of her own greatness. “I’ve mastered the art of excelling in the workplace, but I also don’t shine too bright,” she says. “I’ve learned how to placate others and make them feel good about themselves so they don’t think I am threatening.”
She calls the relationship between employers and their employees of color exploitative. “Organizations don’t want to invest in Black employees’ professional development; they want to use us for diversity,” she says. “They want to flaunt us as a way for [them] to access consumers of color.”
Thomas agrees, saying, “Many women [I spoke with] noted that people are excited about their recruitment. There is this celebration of changing the optics, but not necessarily any intention to benefit from the different perspectives that these employees bring.”
Mary laments that it’s often too precarious for Black people to safely and openly push back and assert their worth. “It can be dangerous to have real discussions about how Black people feel at work,” she says. “People perceive us as ungrateful. It’s like we are looking a gift horse in the mouth.”
But Thomas says that it’s important for those who are marginalized at work to not feel pressure to disprove the racism or sexism of others: “Women who are able to transcend all of this are very clear about their goals for their career and they are secure in their talent,” she says. Don’t internalize this treatment as a metric of your self-worth, but remember that you are talented and worthy, even if your corporate job doesn’t affirm you. “It’s important for women to hear that you don’t have to stay and fight these [corporate] battles to prove yourself. You are worthy and talented. It’s OK to move on.”
Sydney says that mentorship — genuine mentorship — has been a key to her ability to navigate the workplace as a Black woman. “Having mentors has completely changed the way I see myself and the value I bring,” she says, noting they’ve helped her advocate for herself. “Their encouragement has shown me that I can take up space and do so much more than I ever thought I could. They also remind me that I don’t have to bear the burden of always being and doing the best.”
If there’s one takeaway from this shared experience, Thomas says, it’s to remember your professional worth. “Black women have more than earned our place [in the workplace],” she says. “This is not the time for us to make ourselves second.”
*Names have been changed to protect subjects’ privacy.