Washington Post, We Have a New Title: Is "The Wing" Too White for Women of Color?

When I wrote about the safety of space for women of color, I didn’t think I’d have such perfect fodder to prove my point so quickly.

The Wing is a woman’s antidote to the often bro-y cultures cultivated in such shared spaces like WeWork. (Point: A friend had reserved a conference room in WeWork once, and a group of white men unabashedly took her spot.)The Wing’s founders, Lauren Kassan and Audrey Gelman, promise a millennial pink paradise designed with the working woman in mind -- lactation rooms, beauty rooms, and showers included. Their newest location, in Georgetown of all places, is yet another addition to their mission to celebrate “the golden age of women in power.”

Well, a certain type of woman, to be exact.

Photograph by C harles Etoroma

Photograph by Charles Etoroma

I suppose I should give some credence to these women: Kassan hails from the fitness start-up ClassPass, and Gelman’s background includes working on Hillary Clinton’s 2008 campaign, among others. Oh, and she’s apparently Lena Dunham’s best friend. (Red flags raised, ladies of color?) It’s certainly admirable what they’re trying to do and they definitely have the smarts and fundraising chops, but in the land of intersectionality and white feminism, I couldn’t not write about it.

There were a few things that stood out as problematic as I read the initial story from The Washington Post.

First being that a standard membership to The Wing is $2,350 annually for women to have access to a single location. There’s an interesting (but not surprising) juxtaposition between their mission of professional, civic, social, and economic advancement and the reality that women of color in the workforce face. Namely, that on the whole, women of color just couldn’t afford access into this so-called space of “economic advancement.”

Optically, women of color are more likely to occupy low paying or working poor jobs, making them pretty much exempt from The Wing’s space of fostering new opportunities that will lead to great mobility, apparently. Have you ever heard of a shift worker being able to “work from home?” Yeah, didn’t think so.

Furthermore, while women of color do represent a larger share of the labor force, it’s not as if their outlooks are getter substantially better. In 2015, the Department of Labor reported that white women were more likely to occupy higher paying careers than Latinx and Black women. In 2014, DOL reported that the median annual earnings for white women far surpassed the median annual earnings of Latinx and Black women, $30,293 and $33,533 respectively. And still, families led by single Latinx or Black mothers report the highest poverty rates, which makes paying for things like rent and food extremely difficult, nevermind purchasing an exclusive pass to work in an exclusive neighborhood. (Hello, Metro isn’t cheap!)

Yes, I know that women in DC are of a certain pedigree, highly educated and highly ambitious, but this doesn’t omit that fact that Latinx and Black women are still paid less than their white counterparts. And when women of color don’t have the same financial capital as their white “sisters” (in quotes, because that’s The Wing’s language), they are less likely to be able to advocate for themselves and invest in opportunities that would actually help them advance in their lives. Because when the choice is between putting food on the table and saving towards retirement or paying the heating bill or buying membership into an exclusive women’s club, I think the choice is pretty clear. And yet, The Wing is being lauded as a radical injection into women’s organizations?

Interesting.

The second problematic thing I found was their use of history to brand The Wing’s feel-good inclusivity, which feels highly suspect. They make constant references to the Progressive Era and how it wasn’t just for wealthy or middle-class women, but forget to mention how first-wave feminists willfully ignored the voices and struggles of Black women. While Black women and men faced disenfranchisement, lack of quality healthcare and education, and were subject to extraordinary violence, white first-wave feminists marched blissfully along.

This erasure continues today and is encapsulated perfectly in the tone-deafness of The Wing. Admittedly, I may be at fault for assuming intersectionality even matters at The Wing, but this delicate cherry-picking of history is tell-tale sign of white feminism and privilege. I’ll fast forward past a history on white feminism, but if there’s anything you should know it’s this: white feminism doesn’t look inwards, doesn’t aim to look beyond its own bubble, and is only concerned with preserving its own social, cultural, and financial capital. Any space that champions gender equality, without reckoning with race and other elements of identity, is highly questionable.

This erasure continues today and is encapsulated perfectly in the tone-deafness of The Wing.

Finally, through its exclusive memberships and its misguided use of history, The Wing does a pretty solid job of reestablishing ingroups and outgroups. The symbolism of placing The Wing in Georgetown is not lost on me.

Before the 1930s, Georgetown was 30 percent black -- but the shade of the city began changing as new, white federal workers started migrating into the District following growth under the New Deal. The once run-down rowhouses of Georgetown looked mighty attractive to these white families, which ultimately led to a massive, purposeful push to force Black families from their neighborhood. Following the slew of dispossessions, racial home restrictions, and increased housing prices, you’ll probably recognize the Georgetown we all know today: pristine, dignified, white.

By placing The Wing in Georgetown, they are sending a very clear rhetorical message about just who is welcome in this space. And I would know, I work near Georgetown. Every morning on my drive into work, I pass a line of BMWs and Mercedes Benzes. I pass Dean and Deluca and their pricey pastas. I pass white university students wearing those $900 Canada Goose coats that, according to Chicagoans, don’t even keep you warm. The only people of color I see are the dayschool workers, leading a line of happy children holding a rope as they cross the street. The split between haves and havenots is clear.

Duke University’s Diversity Lab does some really eye-opening work on race and identity, but there’s one nugget I’d like to pull from. And that is the policing of ingroups and outgroups. When a group identity is strongly held (think back to high school cliques), the more that group will police who is welcome in order to hold tight to its core identity. Ingroups are marked by the similarity the members have to each other -- whether it be values held, appearance, income bracket, or a combination of all and more. They view each other positively, while being suspicious of those in the outgroups.

When we think about outgroups in the context of organizations of shared workspaces, we can see how The Wing’s mission becomes inherently problematic. Those on the outside, or outgroups, with lack of resources to even afford a membership or lack of cultural capital to know how to operate in white, ingroup spaces, will ultimately feel unwelcome, have fewer opportunities for networking and interracial collaboration, and have less support from The Wing’s “sisters.”

I write all this not to crap on The Wing, but to complicate notions of white women creating seemingly inclusive spaces without a single nod to the experiences of women of color. Women of color face extraordinary barriers, not just in the workplace, but in their health and wellbeing, finances, relationships, education, and more. A friend of mine shared this anecdote: that for every accomplishment a white coworker does, she needs to try two times harder and do two times better just to get the same recognition or less.

The playing field is just inherently different, so it blows my mind that The Wing brands itself for the “sisters” and for economic advancement. Why even incorporate cheap shots at inclusivity, if women of color aren’t optically or logistically welcome? In this era that at least recognizes what intersectionality is, I think white women who aim to create these spaces need to look inwards and analyze how competing goals of making money and being inclusive and utilizing problematic histories just don’t fit in to the larger puzzle of lifting women of color up and helping them thrive.

The Melanin Collective