Episode 12: Reflections

0:00 / 30:04
August 11, 2020

In The Gap host and producer, award-winning multimedia journalist Chandra Thomas Whitfield, is interviewed by In These Times magazine Executive Editor Jessica Stites, reflecting on what Whitfield has learned and what she hopes listeners will walk away with from her inaugural podcast, including the backstory, behind-the-scenes details, final thoughts, aha moments and what she hopes is to come for Black women and the fight for equal pay.

In The Gap was created with the support of the Leonard C. Goodman Institute for Investigative Reporting and In These Times magazine. Contact the show at podcast@inthesetimes.com.



CHANDRA THOMAS WHITFIELD, HOST: Welcome to In The Gap, a podcast about how and why Black women aren’t getting their green. I’m your host, journalist Chandra Thomas Whitfield.


WHITFIELD: There’s a popular saying that those who don’t know their history are doomed to repeat it. And that quote really comes to mind and fits perfectly with the theme as we close out the In The Gap podcast series. This is my episode that I’ve dubbed “Reflections.”

So I just wanted to thank you all personally for taking this journey with me. I also wanted to share what I have learned in the process of dedicating an entire year of my life, yes, to producing this: my very first podcast, covering the gender pay gap and pay discrimination, as it impacts the lives and livelihoods of Black women in the American workplace.

So, you know, as a Black woman myself, this issue is just very close to my heart. And I honestly can say that I also learned a lot and gained some new insights over the course of these months. And this is, of course, included working around an unprecedented pandemic, and an explosion of social justice demonstrations taking place all over the world. And this has definitely kept me on my toes, to say the least. So now we are joined by my editor, Jessica Stites. She is the executive editor at In These Times magazine, which, as you probably know by now, sponsored the podcast, along with the Leonard C. Goodman Institute for Investigative Reporting. So I get to take off my interview hat and get interviewed by her, which is a complete change of pace for me. And I think it sounds fun. So, welcome to In The Gap, Jessica.


JESSICA STITES: Thanks so much Chandra, and thanks for having me along on this journey with you. It’s been an honor and an inspiration to watch you learn and work. Speaking of learning, what do you think—What are the most interesting things that you’ve learned along the way? What kind of jumped out and surprised you?

WHITFIELD: Well, I would say, you know, when I started this process, I think it was more sort of like this research-based, “Oh, these statistics say this, this and this.” But of course, being a Black woman myself, I had a, you know, vested interest in learning about this. But I think that the statistics were just so daunting and sobering, that I first learned that I probably have been a victim of the gender pay gap and Black women, as a Black woman—just kind of going “Wow.” Like I was looking at this more like a journalistic, I’m-covering-this issue, but I think that some of my guests have even stated, after you look at the statistics, it’s clear that this is a systemic issue. It’s rampant. It’s widespread. And I think that even I was shocked at some of the numbers that came out of this, knowing that I might potentially not make anywhere between $400,000 to, you know, depending on who you ask, up to like almost $960,000 that I will not see, and really realizing that impact that it does have on your life and just kind of realizing that this issue is not anecdotal. It’s not just isolated incidents. But it’s really a systemic issue that needs to be addressed.


And I think that I—It’s just different when you include yourself in that thought and say, “Wow, I never thought about that.”

STITES: Yeah when I worked at Ms. Magazine, we talked a lot about the feminist click moment or the feminist a-ha moment when you realize that the personal is political—that something you experience in your own life is actually a part of a broader phenomenon—and that can evoke a lot of different emotions. It can be exciting to realize you’re part of a larger group and you’re not alone, or it can be angering, to realize that something’s not personal but actually because of discrimination, or can even be empowering or disempowering. So, I’m curious how that has felt for you and also what you’ve heard from your interviewees about how that’s felt for them.

WHITFIELD: I think one of the things that I figured out early, because Aja, who starts off the podcast, was the first interview. And I really appreciated her saying how she felt when she found out that this white guy, who was sitting right next to her with the exact same job was making $40,000 more than her. And her statement about, you know, “I’m trying to smile through all this pain.” And a lot of the women that I talked to, they spoke about how it makes them feel. It made them question themselves. It made them feel less-than. It made them wonder if they were really as talented as they thought they were. And that was very saddening to me, to be honest with you, because, you know, I’m talking to these women with credentials, I mean as they say, out the wazoo. And you’re—they’re still questioning your value, your credentials, your worth. And I really wanted to hone in on that. Because while I saw a lot of research out there about, you know, statistics say this, and the pay is this, I don’t really see a lot about what it makes you feel like.


And so, every interview I tried to have some aspect of like, “What did that feel like to know that?” or “What did it feel like for our guests to have someone be offered a job, a white guy with less experience who you’ve trained, to be offered a job in front of you? What does that feel like?” So I think that’s something that I hope that In The Gap added to this discussion, which is the emotional toll that this takes, and it really is. And I had a few friends listen to it just for feedback, and some of them said they had to listen to it in spurts. And some of them couldn’t get through all the episodes because it was too close to home for them—and they’re kind of feeling like they’re going through that. And, of course, we add in coronavirus, and all these different things going on with our society and economy, and it was a lot for them.

And so I really feel like that emotional side needs to be explored more because it really does not feel good—even though, you know, I tell people in the podcast, there’s that saying, “Oh, it’s not it’s not personal, it’s business.” But it’s hard to separate someone giving someone so much more money and not taking it personally to some degree. Although the premise was the gender pay gap, it really veered off into these things about how women feel and how they feel they’re treated. Because really, when we look at the “Roots” episode, We realize that this is historic. There’s a lack of value on Black life, particularly Black female life. And so you can’t separate that from this issue.


STITES: That was so interesting for me to hear as a, you know, white woman, feminist leftist working at In These Times, where our approach is always to just sort of lay out how awful the injustice is like we really want you to know that oppression is happening and here’s all the evidence. And it gave me pause to say wait, when we when we do that, how do we keep from demoralizing people and especially in the case of Black women, where you are fighting a lot of these stereotypes and messages your whole life and here’s sort of another, another call for you to have a moment when you’re being sort of pushed down and for you to, you know, let it all roll off your shoulders and stand up and fight back. That’s a lot to ask. Yeah, and I’m curious, I wonder how you navigate that in the podcast in terms of how to empower people without making them feel like you’re giving them another burden.


WHITFIELD: One of our guests, Lisa Alexis Jones, the Manhattan attorney, you know, she made a very poignant statement that stayed with me throughout the series, [which] was, you know, “Everyone doesn’t have to be Rosa Parks.” And that’s her quote. And I loved it because there is that feeling like you have to fight all the time. But I think it is different when it’s like work, and it’s just this outside thing. But I think that this moment that we have in our society with Black Lives Matter, this is real. This is like every day for a Black person in America. It’s not a story in an article or podcast, it’s like I have to deal with this every day in some form or the other. And it really is emotional.

I really appreciate it in our negotiation episode, Valorie Burton, our author talking about these internal issues, because it does affect you. As I said, I have women, you know, like Megan, who’s an amazing engineer and our pay transparency episode talking about, “Maybe my code isn’t good enough. Maybe they’re not paying me because my experience isn’t, you know, as in-depth as I thought.” And so, I really think that we need to understand that it’s a choice. If you want to fight, you want to fight. If you don’t want to fight, you don’t want to, and it is a personal choice. And I think that’s what we decided on, because we also have Susan DeCarava from the Guild, and are also in our pay transparency episode talking about organizing and unions. But again, it’s a choice. Because whether you’re in it as a, I would say, as a person of color, particularly a Black woman, you know, you don’t have to be in a union, you’re in a fight every day. So it’s sort of like, do I want to take this a step further and be in an organized fight with some other people? Or do I just want to go home and be like EbonyJanice Moore, who’s in our Dream Yourself Free episode saying, “I want to relax. I want to rest. I want to just write a book, and it’s not deep. It’s just fun and something that I want to do.” And so I think that—I hope that women got from this that we have choices, and we need to make them and not have someone impose, you know, “You have to fight the power every day,” because it is very exhausting. And I’m glad that the podcast is coinciding with all these talks about race, because what I’ve been seeing on my timelines is Black people saying “self care, self care.” There’s a pandemic, and then there’s this perpetual pandemic of racism and sexism and gender discrimination and pay discrimination. And it’s exhausting.


STITES: Yeah, and then even if you sort of do decide “I’m gonna fight,” what we ran up against is that there’s no one magic bullet way to fight and to get your due. We went through a couple different solutions, you know, negotiation, lawsuits, unionizing, and they all have their pros and cons because they’re still all happening in a climate where Black women can be punished or pushed down for speaking out and for sticking their necks out. And do you wanna talk a little about that because that was a real kind of tension we kept having to navigate, is we couldn’t just say, “Here’s the solution,” we had to give caveats about, “but it might not work.”

WHITFIELD: Yeah, I could say that again I just feel like I think we presented a lot of different options, and there is no one solution because, you know, we talked about a legal episode where we talk about should you sue, but it’s not an easy battle and you may not win. And it doesn’t mean you weren’t discriminated against. It just means that you couldn’t quote unquote “prove it,” which you know, which is really interesting because, you know, when we think about what’s going on in the country now with the whole George Floyd situation, the difference is, “Oh, you have proof.” And the reality is the gender pay gap and pay discrimination and a lot of the discrimination can not be proven. It’s very subtle. It’s in the culture of these organizations and institutions. And that’s why I kind of lean toward the, you know, EbonyJanice is like, “Just do what you want to do” because you may never get the acknowledgement, but at the same time, you do want to feel like you spoke up. But again, I just think ultimately I wanted women and those listening to get the message that there is no magic bullet, and what you choose to do is really your choice.


STITES: I think that’s really crucial. And another thing we talked about a lot is kinda the tension between what you can do for yourself and individually and what you can do collectively. And so, you know, on the individual side, the negotiation is always the first thing you think of, with pay discrimination, we’ll all negotiate better. And I, you know, kept kind of raising the In These Times perspective that, well, you’re sort of at your employer’s mercy, ultimately, in a negotiation, and you need to do something to level that playing field. So what about unionizing, or what about going to your union? And Chandra, I think you sort of expressed some kind of reservations around that when we first talked about it, and then you also talked to a couple union experts. So can you talk a little about how sort of the arc of your thinking around unions as a solution?


WHITFIELD: Yeah, I do, but I want to start with the individual and back into that because I think that the negotiation episode was important because like I said, I’ve said this before, like, you know, some of this is research and studies, but you know, my circle are the people in this podcast, you know, my circle is women, Black women in the workplace. And I was very driven initially by the fact that they admitted several times I did not negotiate. So while that might not be the answer, at least do that, like, at least counter back, at least negotiate. So I felt like that was actually addressing an issue that was actually given to me from the conversations that I had leading up to this podcast. So I felt very strongly about that because I just know that there’s a lot of things in life that don’t happen because we didn’t ask for it. You know, maybe we just assumed it wasn’t going to happen or assumed, “Oh, they don’t have any money,” or “They’re not going to give me this.”

And I felt like Valorie Burton addressed that very well when we as Black women have these internal issues because we’re getting these messages daily, that we’re not valuable, we’re not beautiful, we’re not smart, we’re not all these different things, so you do have to battle that yourself first. But then I say in our intro to the series that if anything I personally got out of the podcast that I didn’t really think about before was the unionizing aspect of it, the union side of organizing. In all honesty, I’ve been in dozens of, you know, newsrooms and situations, and unions were not part of it. So I would say I learned a lot about what unions do and the fact that pretty much almost any workplace can unionize and organize. And I think that was really impactful because I wanted women, Black women to know, you know, you don’t have to take this on alone. I think Susan DeCarava’s interview, she, I mean, I see why she’s voted the president of the Guild because she had me ready to march, you know? And she basically said, “No, this is not something you need to take on by yourself. You need to look at this collectively because collectively you have more, the company is more indebted to you and they have to pay attention more.” So I think that that was something eye-opening for me.


STITES: Yeah. And I think that was, hearing your take on it initially was an important message for me because it said, you can’t just say to Black women, “Oh, you’re being discriminated against in pay. Start a union.” Like, that’s an enormous ask. And it is sort of like, “Go be Rosa Parks. Go stick your neck out.” And it was actually pretty telling when we were looking for examples of unions that were organized around pay discrimination as an issue. That’s definitely happening in particularly the journalistic world. They’re saying, “Look at these pay disparities.” But that doesn’t mean that a Black woman has to be the one absolutely at the front sticking her neck out, the first one to go to the bosses. And, you know, in fact, one Black woman involved in her union told me candidly, we put a white man forward to do that because we know he’s gonna, you know, get less blow back. And so maybe that’s a message from this podcast for an audience that are not Black women is, “Hey, if you care about this, if you want to do something, you’re going to have to stick your neck out and help with the collective action.”

And also I appreciated your point about negotiating. I think it seems like that’s the first step, because otherwise you just blame yourself. You just go, “Oh, I didn’t stick up for myself.” And you know, once you know you’ve done everything you can and you’ve owned your value, then it’s OK. Well, what do I do now?


WHITFIELD: And I would say, you know, for me, I mean, I’m just naturally a go-getter type. But you know, I see people all the time, and this is not just Black women or race-based, but people who just talk themselves out of opportunity all the time. I mean, every opportunity that I’ve had has been me just saying, “Hey, all they can say is no, we should’ve spilled the tea, as they say.” This was actually going to be a traditional journalism project, like more articles, and Jessica and our team graciously indulged me in trying out podcasting after I attended a workshop and got all fired up about podcasting.

But I think that I, you know, I was nervous because I had pitched the project in a certain way and it had been accepted in a certain way. And I said, well, you know, this is a good idea. It was presented to me that maybe my project could be a podcast, and so I did. And you eventually said yes, so to me, it always starts with yourself, and sometimes you can’t even see the problem until you actually ask for the money and don’t get it and maybe in turn see someone else getting it or getting certain opportunities. So maybe that’s what sparks your activism, is being denied, to some degree, kind of politicized their lives. Like, it’s a choice if you want to be that person, and some people just don’t want to do it. And you know, I tend to be a very activist-oriented person, but I have to respect the fact that some people don’t want to do that.

And again, that’s why Lisa Alexis Jones really struck me. And I said, you know, that’s right. Everybody does not have to be an activist all the time. And to some degree, just getting up, going to work and dealing with it every day is activism. And you know, it’s funny. I wanted to say this, but when you mentioned that a lot of the union people kind of present a white guy or whatever, with this discussion with Black Lives Matter going on, a lot of people have said that is the duty. And this is a sentiment out there that you, as a white person, whether you should use your privilege to help others and not expect the disenfranchised to always, like you said, put their neck out there. They already have everyone looking at them and people looking at reasons to single them out. And then you’re saying, “Go, go, go speak up. Go, go, go start the protest.” It’s like, “Uh, I also need a job, so maybe you should go and take what you bring to the table.” And sometimes maybe that makes people see things differently because of who’s presenting the information. So just a little thought.


STITES: Right? And when we’re talking about solutions to the Black women’s pay gap, maybe the solution is not to put the imperative on Black women to fix the problem. [Laughs]

And you know, we’ve talked about employers needing to step up on this. I think one solution we didn’t dig into in the podcast, but which I really enjoy, is Kamala Harris has a proposal. Kamala Harris has a proposal that would put the burden on employers to prove that they are not discriminating against their employees in race or gender in their pay. And if they can’t prove that, then what they have to do is they get fined one percent of their profits for every one percent of pay gap. So you know, it’s not on Black women at the company to prove that they’re getting underpaid, which is a really hard thing to prove. It’s on the company to prove that they’re not underpaying Black women. And I think that’s how we need to be thinking, is the burden is on employers and on us collectively to make sure this doesn’t happen.


WHITFIELD: We did not, Black women did not create this, but it’s so funny that we’re expected to fix it. And so I’ve said that to several people because I’m very grateful for a lot of people, you know, particularly white people that I’m friends with reaching out to me and wanting to have these discussions. And I just tell them straight up, we didn’t cause this. I mean, it doesn’t even make sense that we would cause this. Why would you create something against herself? So, you go fix this. We’re done. We’re like, you know, most of my friends are like, we’re tired. This is a burden that we’re, that is getting passed down and then we have to fix it. It’s just crazy. And when you think about it, it’s completely illogical. The companies need to fix it. They should be held accountable. There should be measures.

It’s no different than the police department. When you look at the fact that they conveniently, many of them don’t keep race data of who they pull over, who they stop and frisk and all these different things, but it’s only because it would be so obvious what’s going on, so they just say, “Oh, we don’t collect that data.” And then nobody is held accountable. But why not make that accountable? Because you should look at “What is your track record for diversity?” And so the good thing about this podcast is it started before the pandemic, then we had this pandemic, which caused a lot of issues with production, and you probably would’ve heard this, those listening, throughout the podcast, but it also has brought us back full circle, in that it is time for those perpetrators to lead the change. It’s time to make people and institutions accountable because this is perpetuated by their rules and their policies, and we all know this, but it is time to make solutions and make it in your best interest to do the right thing.


STITES: That’s a great place to leave this. And I’m so glad that this is giving listeners an opportunity, even more, to get to know the Chandra I know, who is one of the most energetic and inspiring people I’ve met and does make you feel like you can go out and do anything. I think Angela Davis has a really good quote about, even in all of the—I’m paraphrasing—but even in all of the sort of injustices we collectively and individually face, optimism is an absolute necessity, even if it’s only optimism of the will. And I think in Chandra—Chandra, in you I really see that optimism of the will, like you are going to make it, you’re going to move, you know, the Earth to make things happen. You just have that will, and I think we all need a little of that as we’re fighting these systemic and deeply entrenched issues. So thank you.


WHITFIELD: Well, thank you. And like I said, one thing I loved about our guests is I would leave most of them and say, “Can you leave us with some inspiration? Because this is pretty daunting and depressing.” And they would always say something, you know, whether it was Dr. Malveaux talking about Maggie Lena, the entrepreneur, Dr. Frye from the Center for American Progress. I mean, she literally had given me chills with her closing statements about “Black women can do anything,” you know. It was just definitely, you know, “Black woman, hear me roar” kind of moment. [Laughs] But no, but I think that, I hope that people walk away with this idea that, you know, there are solutions, we can make change, your experiences are valid. That was very important, is we didn’t make someone try to prove it. We’re like, your experience is valid. And I think sometimes that’s just what you need, you know, that’s all you need.

So it’s just been an honor. Just, thank you for the opportunity, In These Times, the Leonard C. Goodman Institute for Investigative Journalism and Reporting. And just, I hope we all can move forward in 2020 and really look forward to some major changes. So I want to also thank our editors at House of Pod, Tim Jones, Kristen Aldridge, of course, the whole team at In These Times for making this happen. And also just for you, taking you as a listener to taking time out to just listen and learn. And that’s what this is all about. So thank you, Jessica, and I appreciate you as well.


So, today’s show was reported and produced by me, journalist Chandra Thomas Whitfield, and edited by House of Pod. This amazing music you’re listening to is “Convoy Lines” by Blue Dot sessions. They have represented throughout the podcast—I love that, I love that track. And In The Gap, as you know, was created with the support of the Leonard C. Goodman Institute for Investigative Reporting and In These Times magazine, which has been covering issues of equity and social justice since 1976. To learn more about In The Gap and the pay gap for Black women, go to www.inthesetimes.com/inthegap. Thanks for joining us.