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Credit: Alana Kelly

Wharton has made immense progress in working to address the needs of their minority student population. Whether it’s through the founding of the Wharton Equity, Diversity, and Inclusion Group, Wharton’s first undergraduate diversity, equity, and inclusion group, or in the increasing community forums designed for voicing authentic cultural issues, great strides have been made. However, more can be done. With the perpetual racism and gender-discrimination attributed to corporate spaces, the voices of Black and Indigenous students and other people of color need to be magnified at this moment in time. While steps have been taken to increase equity, we must move into authentic and intersectional inclusion. When unpacking our history, authenticity’s role in belonging, and my personal experiences, we can understand the need for intersectional and underrepresented voices to be amplified in business spaces.

Wharton, like many other predominantly white institutions, was created for white men. When Joseph Wharton founded the school in the 1800s, many women and people of color were not allowed to obtain an education. The historical precedent of the business world is one of an “old boy’s club,” a homogenous firm where everyone looks, dresses, and acts the same. For a long time, corporate spaces excelled at keeping underrepresented minorities out. If a person of color was an employee, it was assumed that they were the “help,” not a junior banker or an associate consultant. Women were expected to be the wives of powerful men, not powerful themselves. 

This historical context is important because it still impacts how we interact with the business or corporate spaces. Women of color still largely feel as if we exist on the “outside” of the business world. Factors such as “professionalism” and “leadership” are still based on a Eurocentric and masculine ideal. In an Ivy League business setting, this can lead to some women of color feeling as if they don’t belong or measure up. It becomes increasingly hard to nurture both of your identities, especially in an environment that wasn’t created for you or the people who share them.

Authenticity is paramount to belonging. Wharton’s students and faculty must collectively work towards more intersectional inclusion. I’m not just Black or a woman or a college student, I’m all of these things. My education should allow me to further integrate all parts of my identity. While we may think of diversity as a group of disparate social factors, true diversity comes in layers. Intersectionality, a term coined by scholar Kimberlé Crenshaw, represents how multiple layering identities impact one’s sociological experience. Considering deeper factors such as “misogynoir,” it becomes clear that my intersectionality has impacted my educational experience.

There are general issues that all women face, and then there are specific issues that women of color face. Balancing my Blackness with my emerging womanhood can be an uphill battle. If I’m too outspoken in class, I might be seen as angry. I’ve been warned that my passionate persona might be off-putting to peers. Discounting my natural tendencies, I am still expected to "shrink’’ myself to accommodate others. For some, I’m too bubbly. My ferocious laughter and joyful spirit are just too happy for a Black woman. Stereotype threat became my reality, as I’ve constantly walked the line between what’s acceptable for a leader versus a leader who is a Black woman.

These issues become increasingly magnified when I think of the many concrete experiences that engender them. I can recall being told my speech was “aggressive” in an interview and that I was “too loud” by a peer. I’ve been discouraged from standing out when working on teams, and repeatedly told to “step back.” I’ve become very accustomed to receiving slightly racialized and gendered feedback. Some people say their “art is their activism.” I always say that my life is my activism. Through my firm commitment to authenticity, in spaces where it isn’t welcomed, I hold space for those with similar struggles. However, Wharton can accomplish and do much more for their various students with intersectional identities, than I can. 

In light of my experience, Wharton can dig further into the rich narratives and perspectives of their students. Despite our economic-driven obsession with rationality, we are subjective human beings, driven by emotion and not objectivity. Nothing rivals the feeling of being accepted for all that you are. By increasing the intersectional programming within Wharton, such as specialized events intended to cultivate positive professional identities in women of color, and championing intersectional narratives in business, the tide can turn. My story doesn’t have to be a repeated occurrence. I have faith that things can and will get better.

However, they are dependent on Wharton’s willingness to lean into more lasting and deeper change. These changes can be as small as pioneering more targeted experiences for women of color in business, or as immense as actively hiring more minority women professors. They can include continually educating men or male-identifying students, letting them know that allyship is important. Communicating to stand with women of color, not mansplain away their contributions, or exacerbate broader societal feelings of invisibility or erasure.

In a business-educational world where an average person is a white man in a navy blue suit, authentic representation matters for the Black woman who would rather wear a pink one.

SURAYYA WALTERS is a Wharton junior concentrating in marketing from New Rochelle, N.Y. Her email address is surayyaw@wharton.upenn.edu.

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